Considering all the opportunities the Bulldogs had to put the game away earlier in the evening, there was more relief at Davis Wade Stadium than jubilation Saturday night after the Bulldogs' 24-17 win. But for coach Dan Mullen - it was another sign of a consistent trait that's served his team well during the current six-game winning streak.
"There are a lot of plays that we could have made in that game and didn't," Mullen said. "But when we really needed a play, we stepped up and made it."
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Vick Ballard rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown, as Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) again relied on their running game and defense to beat Kentucky and extend its longest winning streak since 1999.
The Bulldogs' offense certainly won't win any style points, but it continues to produce results. Chris Relf completed just 7 of 16 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown, but he also ran for 79 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter as MSU gained 214 yards on the ground.
"They know we're a running team and they did a good job of loading the box," Mullen said. "But that's where we wanted to be -- 214 rushing yards. We just have to clean up the passing game."
Kentucky (4-5, 1-5) hasn't beaten a ranked team on the road since 1998. Randall Cobb caught 12 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown.
The Bulldogs jumped out to an early 10-0 lead after Ballard's 54-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The 5-foot-10, 215-pound running back missed last week's game against Alabama-Birmingham because of an ankle injury, but looked healthy as he continually gashed Kentucky's defense.
"If everybody blocks, I've got the easy part," Ballard said.
But the Wildcats fought their way back, tying the game at 17 late in the third quarter on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Hartline to Moncell Allen. Kentucky came into Saturday's game averaging 34.8 points per game -- good for second in the SEC -- but struggled to gain traction against Mississippi State's stingy defense.
The Wildcats' only consistent success came when Hartline threw the ball to Cobb, who again showed why he's considered one of the conference's most dynamic playmakers. He set career highs in both receptions and receiving yards, finding the holes in Mississippi State's defense all evening.
"He probably had every one of their yards," MSU cornerback Corey Broomfield said. "He's always in a different spot, so you've got to find him before you can defend him."
On the final drive, Hartline and Cobb looked as though they might win the game by themselves, connecting for two completions on third-and-6 to keep their hopes alive. But Hartline's final throw on fourth-and-10 at the Bulldogs 20 was well off the mark, and Banks leapt high into the air to snag the easy interception.
Hartline completed 23 of 41 passes for 258 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips was most upset over his team's four turnovers.
"The little things are keeping us from showing what kind of team we really have," Phillips said.
Kentucky lost despite having a big advantage in time of possession, running 85 plays to Mississippi State's 58, and outgaining the Bulldogs 347-325.
Despite forcing four turnovers, Mississippi State's offense couldn't convert any of them into points. Linebacker Chris White led the team with 15 tackles, helping the Bulldogs hold off Kentucky in the fourth quarter.
"That's a situation we're very comfortable in," MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "Our mindset in that situation is nothing matters until they cross our goal line. We're going to mix it up every play and our attitude is, sooner or later, we're going to get you."