LEXINGTON, Ky. — Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead says teams cannot accept in victory what they do not accept in defeat. In the general sense, it’s a quote about standards and living up to the ones you set for yourself.
In the practical sense — in the context Moorhead was using it — he was talking about penalties. He wanted to stop an annoying problem before it became a lethal one.
Saturday showed why he wanted to get ahead of it.
Sixteen penalties for 139 yards were the beginning, middle and end of No. 14 MSU’s unraveling in its first loss of the season, 28-7 to Kentucky (4-0). On a day when a team climbing up the polls had its weaknesses revealed, the penalties were the most obvious offender.
“Very disappointed in our performance tonight and the first thumb comes at me: ultimately I’m responsible for the product we put on the field,” Moorhead said. “We talked all week about the things that are going to be necessary for us to win the game, and that’s toughness and the second word was composure, third was effort and fourth was precision.
“I thought we played hard and I thought we played physical; obviously by the penalties, 16, a number of them pre-possession and post-possession, those are things you can’t do and win a football game.”
Moorhead referenced the four unsportsmanlike conduct calls — three of them on the defense, thus affording Kentucky first downs — and a roughing the passer call.
All told, MSU was fortunate: only one of those defensive penalties was part of a Kentucky scoring drive. On the other side of the ball, the penalties were more directly tied to taking scoring chances away.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty negated momentum on MSU’s first drive and a false start erased a nine-yard gain on first down of the second possession; after scoring its only touchdown on the third possession despite two penalties, a false start doomed its fifth possession for a punt.
In the end, all but two of MSU’s 11 penalties were false starts, delay of games or illegal formations.
“It felt like we were constantly behind the sticks, fighting an uphill battle on offense,” quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said.
The penalties and Kentucky’s potent pass rush — after allowing two sacks in three games, MSU’s Fitzgerald was sacked three times by the Wildcats — kept an otherwise potent rushing attack from ever seeing the light of day. MSU ran 28 times (compared to 32 pass attempts) for 56 yards, exactly two yards per carry.
Moorhead would have preferred to have established a run game and avoided 32 throws in a consistent rain, but down-and-distance situations brought about by penalties and Kentucky’s defensive excellence kept him from it.
“I think we saw a lot of situations where we ended up behind the sticks and needing to throw the ball a little bit. Some of them were reads where it was either handoff or throw and they were playing very aggressive in the box. There were run calls that ended up getting thrown because of the look.”
Ultimately, Kentucky did better what MSU had done exceptionally well to start 3-0. It ran efficiently, it forced the opposing run game the opposite way and collapsed every pocket presented to it. As Kentucky coach Mark Stoops put it, “it’s very gratifying to have the team be able to play physical like that.”
After three weeks of saying something similar himself, Moorhead was on the wrong side of such bravado. His players know this not a sustainable model; beginning Sunday, they plan on fixing it.
Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons said, “We feel like them guys wanted it more.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson