No. 1 Mississippi State passed a different sort of test Saturday afternoon, following up three straight top-10 victories with a hard-fought 45-31 road win over an improved Kentucky team. Dak Prescott didn't quite put together a Heisman-level game, but running back Josh Robinson stole the show with over 200 yards of total offense and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats had played well defensively in the first half, but save a big play from Demarco Robinson (a 67-yard touchdown reception that saw him break a few tackles and tightrope down the sideline), their offense had struggled against a very tough Bulldogs unit. That changed in the third quarter, when they were able to put together two scoring drives thanks to explosive plays.
On Kentucky's first play from scrimmage in the second half, quarterback Patrick Towles ran 48 yards down the left side. After three first down passes for Towles, he ran up the middle and flipped over a defender, bringing Kentucky with a score with his 10-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal.
It looked like Mississippi State's next scoring drive was its backbreaker -- three plays, 81 yards and a two-score lead again. But Kentucky responded one more time, with Towles finding Javess Blue for a 58-yard score to keep it within reach.
No, the Bulldogs' backbreaker would finally come in the fourth quarter, on the legs of (who else?) Robinson. On third-and-one, the junior burst up the middle for a 73-yard touchdown, making the score 38-24.
The Bulldogs were finally able to hold Kentucky after this score, securing the victory.
Three things we learned
1. Mississippi State is built to survive adversity. Kentucky gave Mississippi State a challenge Saturday on the road, breaking off big plays in key moments and putting pressure on the Bulldogs' offense. For all of the Wildcats' highlight moments, the Bulldogs were able to respond with consistency through the air and on the ground, winning the battle in the trenches and eventually the game.
Perhaps most importantly, Mississippi State was able to win without a big performance from Prescott. The Heisman contender was thought to be the center of the team -- the glue that kept everything together for the upstart top team in the country -- but between the Bulldogs' defense and Robinson, Mississippi State was able to hold on to their undefeated record. Speaking of their running back...
2. We need to talk about Josh Robinson. Prescott gets a lot of attention (and rightly so), but Robinson is a special runner whose ability to break tackles may be unparalleled. He was in top form Saturday, rushing 23 times for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Of his first 185 rushing yards, 138 came after contact and he even broke eight tackles in one ridiculous play. Robinson just runs hard, and if you don't set up your tackle perfectly you're getting run over (and even if you do you still might).
3. Kentucky is almost there. The Wildcats have a strong defense and a number of playmakers on offense, but they lacked the consistency and bodies in the trenches (especially on the offensive line) to pull off the upset. Mark Stoops is building something in Lexington and has been recruiting quite well, and in a few years we could see this team as a player in the conference. Building lines take time, and that appears to be their biggest issue -- sort that out, and you may have an SEC competitor.
Big plays were a theme for the Wildcats, helping them stay nearly score-for-score with the Bulldogs. Two of their three touchdowns were plays of at least 50 yards, with the other coming after Towles's 48-yard run. Kentucky recorded eight plays of at least 20 yards in the game, in large part due to the efforts of Towles: the quarterback finished 24/43 for 390 yards and two touchdowns with 16 non-sack rushes for 121 yards and two scores.