Kentucky coach Mark Stoops remembers being inches away from a potential win in Starkville.
In 2013, Stoops made his first trip to Davis Wade Stadium as the Wildcats’ head coach. His Kentucky squad cut a 21-10 Mississippi State lead to 21-19, and Stoops dialed up an onside kick.
It worked. But a Kentucky player away from the play was just barely offside. The play was called back, Stoops chose to kick the football deep, and Mississippi State scored a touchdown on the drive. The Bulldogs weathered a final Kentucky drive en route to a 28-22 win.
“I will never forget that,” Stoops said Monday. “On the onside kick, he was an inch offsides, but he was on the back side. He could’ve stood there and scratched his head.”
It was Stoops’ best chance to win at Davis Wade, which he rightly called “a place where we haven’t played our best football.” His Kentucky teams lost there in 2015, 2017 and 2019 despite beating Mississippi State in Lexington in 2016, 2018 and 2020.
On Saturday, Stoops and the 12th-ranked Wildcats (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) will get another shot at beating the Bulldogs in Starkville, the milestone that has escaped the ninth-year Kentucky coach for a number of reasons.
“There were other games that weren’t that good and they were a better football team than us,” Stoops said. “Then there’s other times when you name it. You have to coach better, play better, be better prepared, no excuses. We just have to go down there and play better.”
A Wildcats team that won its first six games before a perfectly respectable loss at No. 1 Georgia seems to be set up well to do that, particularly against an inconsistent Bulldogs team that beat then-No. 15 Texas A&M on the road but lost to Memphis and LSU before that.
But then again, ESPN’s Football Power Index indicates a minuscule gap between the two teams. Only Arkansas — the team next up on the Bulldogs’ schedule on Nov. 6 — sits between No. 32 Kentucky and No. 34 Mississippi State.
Stoops called the Bulldogs a “complete football team,” praising the offensive improvements made under second-year coach Mike Leach — a former Kentucky assistant long before Stoops took over in 2012 — and MSU’s defensive strengths.
“They have done some very good things this year in all phases,” Stoops said. “You continue to see a very, very strong defense as well that presents a lot of problems, and the same with special teams.”
Stoops’ Wildcats handled the Bulldogs 24-2 last fall in Lexington, with Mississippi State committing six turnovers and its only points coming on a safety. But the Kentucky coach knows sophomore quarterback Will Rogers and an MSU offense that averages 57.7 pass attempts per game — comfortably leading the nation — will be a lot better this time around.
“Any time you face a team that throws the ball upwards of 60 times a game, it has your attention,” Stoops said. “Will (Rogers) is doing a really good job of running the offense. You can see his comfort level going higher and higher and getting rid of the football and not putting them in such negative situations as you would in the first year in a program with a young quarterback. You see him playing at a very high level and getting to where they want to be.”
The Bulldogs are coming off a 45-6 win over Vanderbilt, but their scoring totals haven’t always been where they’ve wanted. They scored more than 30 points just once in their first six games, a 35-34 win over Louisiana Tech in the Sept. 4 season opener.
But an MSU defense checking in at No. 28 in the country in yards allowed per game has permitted the Bulldogs to be over .500 and even in league play more than halfway through the season. Stoops praised defensive coordinator Zach Arnett’s variable schemes.
“They have big, strong guys that twist, and they can do multiple things defensively,” Stoops said. “They can be true 3-4; they can look like four down; they can do 3-3. They move their jack (linebacker/end) around a little bit, and they have some big guys. They have length. They cover well. They really do a lot of good things.”
But Kentucky finally will come into Starkville with stability at quarterback, something that eluded them in previous matchups at Davis Wade. Terry Wilson was hurt in 2019 and Sawyer Smith struggled in a 28-13 loss; Stephen Johnson was 13 of 28 with two interceptions in 2017 as the Wildcats were routed 45-7.
This time, Penn State transfer Will Levis has started every game and has found success. Levis is 119 for 177 passing (67.2 percent) on the season for 1,326 yards, 13 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He has also run for 175 yards and three scores.
“Definitely, the continuity will help, and being at full strength at that position always helps,” Stoops said. “There’s no question. We just have to continue to work on ourselves no matter who we play or where we play.”
Even when “where we play” is a place that’s given Kentucky nightmares. But if the Wildcats can change that, they’ll sleep easy Saturday night.
“We will have to have a great week of preparation as we get ready to go down there to Mississippi State,” Stoops said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.