Cats, Bulldogs Prepare for Matchup Saturday at Commonwealth

By: Santosh Venkataraman, Associated Press
By: Santosh Venkataraman, Associated Press

Kentucky was a struggling football team last year before a narrow victory over Mississippi State helped turn its season around.

The 14th-ranked Wildcats hope this year's rematch will serve as a similar springboard when they conclude a three-game homestand Saturday against the Bulldogs.

Kentucky (6-2, 2-2 SEC) entered its trip to Starkville last Oct. 28 with a 3-4 record, including a three-game losing streak in conference play. The Wildcats never trailed, but never pulled away as Andre Woodson threw three touchdown passes in a 34-31 victory.

"It was very significant," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "Our defense did some very good things against the run in that game, and we got some pretty big plays on offense. They kept coming back on us."

The victory began a streak of five wins in six games for Kentucky, which reached its first bowl game in seven years.

"It's what I would consider a typical SEC game, where it's typically going to come down to the fourth quarter," Brooks said. "I think our team got used to being in those close games and making good plays instead of bad plays in those situations."

Brooks said before this homestand that he wanted at least two wins during it, and the Wildcats can accomplish that if they beat the Bulldogs (4-4,1-3) for the fifth time in six meetings on Saturday.

The Wildcats opened the stretch by upsetting then-No. 1 LSU 43-37 on Oct. 13. Kentucky, however, was unable to end a 20-game losing streak against then-No. 8 Florida last Saturday with a 45-37 loss.

The result helped jumble the SEC East, with five of the six teams now having two losses in the conference.

Woodson had another huge game, completing 35 of 50 passes for 415 yards and five touchdowns - the most he has ever had in a SEC game. He has thrown for at least 200 yards in 14 straight games.

Kentucky's offense, however, didn't come out of the loss healthy. Wide receiver Keenan Burton, tied for the team lead with six touchdown receptions, strained his knee while tailback Tony Dixon sprained an ankle and is questionable.

The Wildcats already are without leading rusher Rafael Little, who has missed the last two games with a thigh bruise. Freshman Derrick Locke has filled in well by averaging 70 yards over the last two games.

Mississippi State is trying to avoid a third straight loss after a lackluster performance in a 38-13 defeat at then-No. 9 West Virginia last Saturday. The Bulldogs were never in the game after surrendering 28 first-quarter points.

"We played one horrible quarter of football and three pretty good quarters of football," coach Sylvester Croom said. "In this case that one horrible quarter of football was more than enough for us to lose the ball game, and that's exactly what happened."

The Bulldogs lost two of their three fumbles in the first quarter and freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll was sacked three times overall. Carroll, who hasn't been intercepted in his career, went 18-of-35 for 169 yards and no touchdowns.

Mississippi State is halfway through a stretch in which it plays four straight ranked opponents - it hosts No. 22 Alabama next weekend.

"It's another great challenge and another great opportunity," said Croom about the trip to Kentucky. "That's what we've been talking to our players about. If you're really serious about putting ourselves in a position where we can have a chance to go into a bowl game, we've got to go up and play and do everything we possibly can to win this ball game."

The Wildcats claim they are not overlooking the Bulldogs, pointing to last year's meeting as well as Mississippi State's 19-14 upset at Auburn on Sept. 15.

"They are much improved from last year," Kentucky tight end Jacob Tamme said. "They are a better football team, and they have proven that."

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