LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)Challenged by Mark Stoops to do better, No. 22 Kentucky rebounded from a sluggish outing with a performance the coach knew it was capable of.
Chris Rodriguez Jr. rushed for 196 yards and two fourth-quarter scores, Will Levis returned from a one-game absence to throw a go-ahead touchdown pass and the Wildcats topped No. 16 Mississippi State 27-17 on Saturday night to halt a two-game slide.
Rodriguez had a career high with 30 carries and a season high in yardage in his third game back from a suspension. He rushed for touchdowns of 16 and 7 yards and became the fourth Kentucky player to break 3,000 career. The Wildcats (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) sorely needed his second score for insurance, coming right after Emmanuel Forbes returned an interception 59 yards for a touchdown to get the Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2) within 20-17.
”It means a lot getting 3,000,” Rodriguez said. ”I was not thinking about it. I was wondering why everyone was congratulating me, the game is not over. And then I saw it on the Jumbotron.”
”That running back pounded us,” Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said about Rodriguez. ”We didn’t tackle very well. The offensive line took turns getting penalties. All of this is my fault because I call the offense.”
Levis started after missing last week’s 24-14 loss to South Carolina with a left foot injury and began promisingly, even though Kentucky had only a field goal to show for it in a 3-3 first half marred by 16 combined penalties for 124 yards. His 33-yard completion to Barion Brown led to a go-ahead field goal in the third quarter, but he landed hard on his left (non-throwing) shoulder after being hit while throwing and went to the locker room for examination.
The Wildcats QB was cheered when he returned to the sideline, which occurred as the Bulldogs kicked the point after.
”It was cool seeing the fans react the way they did,” said Levis, whose left arm was in a sling afterward. ”Didn’t realize it was the extra point.”
Levis was back in for the next possession and eventually threaded a 3-yard touchdown pass to Rahsaan Lewis on fourth down to put Kentucky up 13-10 with 4:10 remaining in the third. Rodriguez bulled ahead to make it 20-10 with 11:43 left, and Kentucky had a chance to extend its lead before Levis threw the interception that got the Bulldogs close.
Forbes had it read right away and jumped the route for an easy pickoff. It was his second pick-six in three games and the fifth of his career, tying an SEC record.
Levis quickly regrouped to hit Dekel Crowdus with a 50-yard strike, and Rodriguez dragged several defenders with him on the next play for the clinching TD run that was upheld on review.
The All-SEC first team selection has steadily built toward this performance upon returning and seemed unstoppable once he got up to speed.
”I felt like I was one missed tackle from breaking one,” said Rodriguez, whose total included a 47-yard run. ”On the last touchdown, I thought the offensive line that was pushing me until I saw it was defensive players trying to tackle me.”
Levis finished 17 of 23 passing for 230 yards to outdo record-breaking MSU counterpart Will Rogers, who was 25 of 37 for 203 and a 1-yard TD to Austin Williams.
This game was notable for the number and yardage lost to penalties by both teams. MSU was flagged 13 times for 109 yards, with blame shared on both sides of the line. Kentucky was whistled 11 times for 81 yards.
Mississippi State should remain ranked, albeit a couple spots lower after its winning streak ended. Kentucky will remain ranked after redeeming itself.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs entered the game clicking in all phases and averaging over 40 points during their three-game winning streak. Everything came to a screeching halt as they reached the end zone just once, and that was midway through the third period. The ground game managed just 22 yards.
Kentucky: The Wildcats looked more whole with Levis back and Rodriguez adding another solid performance. Their defense bounced back big time from a flat second half last week, pressuring Rogers and limiting his receivers’ space after the catch. Matt Ruffolo missed a 51-yard field goal, but converted from 28 and 37 yards for points his team needed. Amazingly, their 478 yards from scrimmage were evenly split passing and running.
”I didn’t know the outcome going into this game, but I knew we would play like that, like we play,” Stoops said. ”Tough, resilient, together and play hard like we do. And that we’d respond.”
Mississippi State: At No. 3 Alabama on Saturday.
Kentucky: At No. 6 Tennessee on Oct. 29.
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