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October 25, 2013STARKVILLE, Miss. -- No moral victory. No positive spin.
Mark Stoops wasn't having it.
His Kentucky football team lost 28-22 at Mississippi State on Thursday night, dropped a winnable game in front of a largely invisible crowd, and though the Wildcats fought like their namesakes and battled back from a two-touchdown deficit, when it was over Stoops scowled.
"We're going to look it dead in the face," Stoops said. "It is what it is. It's not OK. We're all going to coach better. They're going to play better. We're going to address these issues, and we're going to get better and keep on fighting. That's it, end of story."
Kentucky (1-6, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) is getting better.
But if you are what your record says you are, the Wildcats are a bad team, mired in a five-game losing streak and struggling with slow starts.
Mississippi State (4-3, 1-2) stayed true to form as a sprinter out of the gate. The Bulldogs led 21-7 late in the second quarter and 21-10 at halftime, and though the Cats won the second half, they couldn't make the plays they had to make to spring an upset.
"We needed to come out strong and execute in the first half on both sides of the ball," Stoops said. "Didn't do that. They did. Got too far behind. We got settled in in the second half, made some adjustments and gave ourselves an opportunity to win the game and did not."
Opportunity knocked in the third quarter.
Trailing 21-10, Kentucky started a rally with a safety when Mississippi State punter Baker Swedenburg dropped a snap out of the end zone. On the ensuing drive, UK inserted Jalen Whitlow at quarterback for the first time, and he led a five-play, 52-yard drive capped by Jojo Kemp's 14-yard touchdown run.
The extra point pulled UK within two points at 21-19.
And then the Cats caught a bad break.
On its ensuing kickoff, Kentucky ran an onside kick, a lob by Joe Mansour that the Wildcats had executed this week in practice. Mansour's kick sailed into Javess Blue's arms on the right sideline and Kentucky celebrated.
But an official ruled that Daron Blaylock -- lined up to Mansour's left and with "absolutely nothing to do with the play," Stoops said -- stepped offsides during the kick.
"Coach said all week 'You can't be offsides on this,'" quarterback Maxwell Smith said. "Unfortunately it happened. But that was a very crucial swing in the game. We had a lot of momentum going, but it's unfortunate it didn't happen. But that's not the only reason why we lost."
Just as important was UK's inability to slow Mississippi State on its ensuing drive -- the Bulldogs marched 74 yards in seven plays, scoring on running back Jameon Lewis' pass to quarterback Dak Prescott -- and the Cats' failure to score on a late drive after Bud Dupree and Eric Dixon's fourth-down sack gave Kentucky the ball at the Bulldogs' 49-yard line with 2:08 to play.
Smith, who started at quarterback for the injured Whitlow, threw the final incompletion on that last drive, passing too high for Alex Montgomery on a fourth and seven at the State 29.
But both Smith and Whitlow played on that drive. Whitlow didn't start and wasn't 100 percent healthy on a sprained ankle he suffered two weeks ago against Alabama. At halftime, Stoops told the sophomore his team needed him.
"This sport you're going to play hurt some times, so you got to do it," Whitlow said.
Whitlow completed his only pass of the game for five yards. He ran four times for 12 yards. Smith was 18-of-34 passing for 160 yards and a touchdown.
"A game of missed opportunities," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I will say this: I thought our guys battled. They competed till the end. We just didn't make some plays. We had some that were open on that last drive, and we didn't connect."
The fight Kentucky showed was a sign of encouragement to some.
"I don't know if you guys can tell -- this program is changing around, and I'm glad to be a part of it," Kemp said. "I don't have no regrets. I'm glad about the choice I have made to come here. We're just gonna keep fighting, and this program's gonna be changed eventually."
Stoops, though, took less comfort in coming close.
"We need to execute better," Stoops said. "That's the bottom line. We had our opportunities. Our team is going to work. Our team needs to improve. We all need to do a better job, starting with me. And that's the way it is and we'll do that. We're not going to hesitate. We’re going to go back to work. We've got to execute when the game is on the line, and we're going to do that."
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