Rapid Reaction: Last-second FG lifts Kentucky to critical win
LEXINGTON, Ky. — It was a puncher’s battle in Lexington on Saturday night, until Austin MacGinnis delivered the knockout blow, kicking a 51-yard field goal on the final play as Kentucky rallied for a 40-38 victory over Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs had gone ahead on the previous drive when Nick Fitzgerald hit Fred Ross for touchdown with 1:09 left for a 38-37 lead.
Kentucky picked up its third SEC win for the first time since 2009, and took another big step toward bowl eligibility by moving to 4-3 on the season. Unlike the past two seasons, when Mark Stoops’ Wildcats started hot out of the gate and stumbled down the season’s stretch, the 2016 squad looks like a group rounding into form late.
What it means
For Kentucky, the victory keeps their bowl hopes alive — and that’s the most critical development.
MSU was uneven as they have been all season. Malik Dear broke a big run and QB Nick Fitzgerald terrorized the Cats on the ground, but the Bulldogs couldn’t make enough plays to avoid falling to 2-5, and being essentially eliminated from bowl contention.
What I liked
QB Stephen Johnson struggled early for Kentucky, but offensive coordinator Eddie Gran stuck with his guns and put Johnson in a position to be successful in the second half. Kentucky’s stable of running backs took control from there, although the UK pass defense, which hassled Nick Fitzgerald all night, was also pivotal to the outcome.
Johnson finished with 292 yards passing, and one of his biggest completions set up MacGinnis’ winning kick.
For Mississippi State, the ground game averaged nearly eight yards per carry for most of the night, and the defense looked good in the first half. They did enough to allow Fitzgerald to mount the go-ahead drive.
What I didn’t like
Kentucky’s passing game is still very uneven. QB Johnson hit some big passes down the stretch, but he and his receivers failed to convert some easy plays early in the game. They did enough, however, on the final drive to set up a chance to make the winning field goal.
Mississippi State did a poor job of establishing an offensive identity. The Bulldogs hit numerous big plays, but failed to establish enough continuity to keep the mediocre UK defense on the field, and instead, saw their own defense wear down.
Key play: There were several. First, Fitzgerald drove the Bulldogs 77 yards for the winning score. On 3rd-and-6, he went to favorite target Fred Ross for the touchdown. The Wildcats responded, however. And MacGinnis won it by nailing a 51-yard field goal on the final play.
Who’s the man: He might get tired of being the man but as long as freshman stud Benny Snell answers the ball in critical situations, he’ll be the man in Lexington. Snell had 17 carries for 120 yards and a score. QB Stephen Johnson stepped up his game with 252 yards passing, but his costly fumble nearly let the Bulldogs back in the game.
What’s next: Kentucky (4-3) will play at Missouri next week, which looked like a sieve in surrendering 51 points to Middle Tennessee State in a home loss. UK will need to beat Mizzou or Georgia the following week to feel good about its bowl hopes.
Mississippi State gets a break by hosting FCS foe Samford, which is good because Alabama and Texas A&M still loom on the Bulldogs’ schedule.