STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — In just seven games under first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, Mississippi State’s defense has gone from being ranked 110th in the nation to being one of the country’s most intimidating.
The unit combined for two turnovers, three sacks and seven tackles-for-loss on Saturday and the Bulldogs beat Kentucky 45-7.
Mississippi State (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) dominated the game from the opening quarter and never trailed. The Bulldogs finished with 441 total yards of offense and averaged 5.9 per play.
“We still got it,” wide receiver Donald Grey said. “We’ve still got some growing to do, but we haven’t fallen all the way off.”
Nick Fitzgerald had 270 total yards and three touchdowns. Fitzgerald, a junior, led all rushers with 115 yards and became just the sixth SEC quarterback to rush for over 2,000 career yards. He was also 18 of 26 passing for 155 yards and a touchdown to Jordan Thomas.
Kentucky (5-2, 2-2 SEC) managed just 260 total yards of offense and 14 first downs against one of the nation’s toughest defensive units.
“They disguised their coverages really well,” quarterback Stephen Johnson said. “They were also very physical, more physical than we were the entire game.”
UK trailed 17-7 at the half and crossed midfield on only three drives the entire game.
“We were able to take them out of what they wanted to do early,” head coach Dan Mullen said. “I challenged our defense to really get after the quarterback in the second half, and they really stepped up.”
Johnson was 13 of 28 for 117 yards but threw two interceptions, including an 84-yard pick-six by Gerri Green.
“Right now we’re getting back to where we were before UGA,” Green said. “We know what we’re capable up, we just have to keep paying attention to the little details and putting the emphasis on stopping the big plays.”
Kentucky’s defense was even less successful. The nation’s No. 10 rushing defense allowed a season high 282 yards on the ground.
“We knew with their rush defense they were going to want to stop the run,” Mullen said. “So we tried to come out balanced so they couldn’t load up the line. Then we could wear them down.”
Mississippi State dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 34:49.
“Even on the first series you could see, we’re moving these guys,” Fitzgerald said. “If we’re going to keep getting 3 or 4 yards a pop, we’re going to be fine.”
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs again proved their mettle as an elite team on both sides of the ball at home. MSU has outscored its four home opponents this year 166-24 and won all four games by 25 points or more.
Kentucky: Despite one of the better starts to a season in school history, Mark Stoops’ team still has a ways to go toward maturity.
“Not acceptable, not okay,” Stoops said. “They whooped us, and that’s the way it is.”
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs will attempt to win their first conference road game of the season against Texas A&M in College Station.
Kentucky: The Wildcats return home to host SEC Eastern Division rival Tennessee.