"It's great as far as our goals," said senior defensive end Titus Brown. "It shows the world we can compete with the best. It was a total team effort and when we play as a team it's hard to beat us."
"We're 5-4, in perfect position to be in a bowl game and that was our goal from day-one," said halfback Christian Ducre, the game's unexpected hero with a career-high 119 rushing yards and the back-breaking touchdown run at 8:15 of the final quarter.
The Wildcats (6-3, 2-3 SEC) are already eligible for the post-season but with a second-straight home defeat lost the fast-track in a tightly-bunched Eastern Division race. They also had a two-year win streak over State snapped.
The Bulldogs went to Lexington with a mindset that victory was a real goal in this matchup. More practically, they had a gameplan which was the only way to counter Kentucky's league-leading offense. Which was simply to score and take a lot of time doing so, and not get into a shootout with a Kentucky club that had plenty of weapons and ammunition alike.
"Just keeping their defense on the field and our defense off the field was big," quarterback Wesley Carroll said. "We wanted to run our stuff and keep the tempo at our pace. We didn't want to play on their level."
In fact the Bulldogs out-played Kentucky's vaunted offense on most levels. Behind Ducre and starting halfback Anthony Dixon (75 yards) State ground out 200 rushing yards with a pair of touchdowns, to 89 running yards for UK. If not for a few second-half Dixon fumbles the figures would have been even more imbalanced because the Dogs ended up with a nine-minute bulge in possession time, even with the unforced turnovers.
And while home-team Heisman candidate Andre Woodson did throw for 230 yards with a pair of touchdowns, he had to toss the ball 42 times (24 complete) to get them. Woodson was also sacked three times and had three throws end up in Bulldog paws, including his last pass. By contrast Carroll's 152 yards on 17-of-28 passing with two scores, and no interceptions were much, much more efficient.
"We executed real well, we didn't have many miscues or missed assignments," said Carroll, who has now thrown a school-record 137 passes without a pick to begin his college career. He also was never sacked. "The offensive line did great, they didn't let a lot of people through," he said. Ducre wasn't just the game's top runner, he was State's leading receiver with five catches as Carroll spread the ball to eight targets.
"I'm pleased with the way Wes got in and out of plays, because we a lot of alerts early on," coordinator Woody McCorvey said. "Run-to-run, run-to-pass, pass-to-run, he did an excellent job of that and when we threw he did a good job on his progressions."
Yet as simple as it seemed the key was getting first turn with the ball. State won the toss and "Normally I would have deferred to the second half," Croom said. "From an offensive standpoint that first drive was absolutely critical." And darn near perfectly executed by Carroll & Co. as they went the 80 yards in 14 plays and ground 5:52 off the clock. McCorvey said that there were 15 scripted plays for the first drive "and we hit on most of them."
"The biggest thing we worked on all week was tempo," Carroll said. "Getting up to the line of scrimmage, getting the play called, if audibling get out there and fire quick."
The first key play was a 3rd-and-7 throw that tight end Eric Butler dove to snare for 15 yards at mid-field. "That was a tremendous catch to keep it going," Carroll said. Dixon broke off 15 more yards, and on second down at the 11-yard line Carroll threaded the needle to Jason Husband for the touchdown pass at 9:08. "It was just a crossing route," said the tight end, "the defensive end was spread wide so I went down the field and moved outside and Wes put the ball in a spot I could catch it."
"I was a little concerned might get out of rhythm," Croom said of tactics that meant milking the play clock even on punts. "But had to take as much time off as we could. I was afraid of their offense. We all were. We had to deny them as many opportunities as possible."
Just how vital it was to put up the first points was proven as Kentucky took less than four minutes to respond, though even that was more time than the usual Wildcat scoring drive this season. Woodson threw to Dicky Lyons for 38 yards, then Steve Johnson for the last 18 yards at 5:17. Yet being tied meant the Dogs were not playing from behind, but still setting the sort of pace Croom had obsessed over during game-week.
Any questions about the gameplan were answered by another 80-yard surge lasting 17 plays and almost seven minutes. This time Carroll did most of the damage throwing to backs and wideouts, five different Dogs in all, including a seven-yard flip to fullback Eric Hoskins for first-and-goal at the UK two-yard line. On the first dive Dixon had his helmet torn entirely off. The facemask call, and free first down, came in handy after swapping ends of the field. Because it took three more snaps to score, one of them a fumbled exchange Carroll fortunately recovered.
On 3rd-and-goal at the two Carroll rolled and tossed to an utterly-open Dixon for the 14-7 lead at 13:36. "We put a lot of work in on running the ball early, in our spread formations to get some guys out of the box," McCorvey said. "Plus our play-action passes early kept them off-balance."
The Dog defense kept the score tilted in MSU's favor the rest of the half with ends Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal harassing and sometimes sacking Woodson. "We faced a great quarterback," Brown said. "The key was getting him out of rhythm, making him try to hit his check-downs and not see downfield." And, as coach and player agreed, making Woodson move around in the pocket or leave it entirely.
The other im-balancer of the first have was superb punting by Blake McAdams. A 55-yarder in the second period likely made a difference as the Wildcats still drove inside the Bulldog red zone, aided by a bonus—and bogus—late hit call against S Derek Pegues as he hammered Woodson still clearly in fair territory. But cornerback Marcus Washington broke up a throw for DeMoreo Ford on third down and Lones Seiber missed the 34-yard attempt to keep it 14-7at intermission.
Ducre said there was a halftime pep-talk about finishing what was started. What couldn't have been scripted were two devastating special-teams breakdowns by Kentucky to open the last half, beginning with State's Jarvis Kyles jarring the kickoff free from Alfonso Smith so Fitzhugh could recover at the 32-yard line. The Bulldogs had first-and-goal at the six, only to have Dixon fumble the pitch when a touchdown was in front of him. Adam Carlson chipped through the 31-yard field goal for a two-score lead.
Then after stout coverage set up Hannibal's third-down sack of Woodson, UK punter Tim Masthay simply dropped the ball and K.J. Wright fell on it at the Wildcat 26-yard line. Husband again lost coverage on 3rd-and-11 for a 22-yard gainer, and two Dixon dives made it 24-7 at 8:16.
"We knew if we could create turnovers our offense was going to be able to produce points on the board," said Fitzhugh, who's day was far from done. So were the Wildcats who went to the air with a vengeance. Woodson showed all-star steel as on 4th-and-8 at State's 37-yard line, with an open man at the needed yardage, he went deep. The throw barely cleared Washington and Steve Johnson made the falling-backwards catch at the goal line for a 24-14 scoreboard.
Other than that one long strike, though, the Dog defense was doing the job. "In order to stop Woodson you have to stop the run," Brown said. "Our goal was get them in 2nd-and-long, 3rd-and-long and get after the quarterback. It was a lot of 1-on-1 pressure. Our key was beat the man in front of you."
"Our goal was to get in his face and get him out of his comfort zone," added Hanibal. Presure contributed to Woodson's first interception as he went deep down the right sideline for Johnson. State's Johnson tipped the throw and Fitzhugh caught the carom. Two chain-moves later Dixon fumbled, meaning Ducre would make every carry afterwards. Kentucky also had ball-handling issues though, most critically on a 4th-and-2 at State's 40-yard line in the fourth quarter. Woodson spun for the handoff but collided with Moncel Allen for a drive-ending fumble at 11:22.
All home-field hopes ended on another UK turnover, this when tight end Jacob Tamme caught the throw but lost the ball while in linebacker Gabe O'Neal's grasp. The turnover withstood review and after punching out six yards Ducre was given the second-down handoff, too. "My ‘read' went across my face and every time he did I usually had the cut-back. So it hit it full-speed and it was right there." Through right guard for a 34-yard touchdown that settled the issue.
Kentucky had three more turns with the ball, and Woodson threw interceptions to safety De'Mon Glanton and cornerback Washington. He did complete a fourth-down throw at State's five-yard line but Fitzhugh rassled big tight end Tamme out of bounds for no gain. "We just all came together as a team," the safety said.
"We tell our offense go do your job and we're going to come out and support you," Brown said. "It was a total team effort, everybody was clicking and we got the job done today." Especially in that first half when the defense only had to handle three Kentucky series, over 13 total minutes. "Another key point was field position," Brown noted. "Blake did a great job punting the ball. And we did a good job getting turnovers, putting the offense in situations they could score."
Which the offense did, besides adding up 352 net yards and holding the ball over 34 clock-minutes. Yet their longest play of the day was Ducre's touchdown dash in the fourth quarter. Partly that was because by then the Wildcat defense had been worn-down by the pounding of Dixon and Ducre. The rest was smart play-selection, executing, and just plain tempo.
"Scoring the first two drives of the game was the biggest point starting momentum," Carroll said. "We dominated the first five minutes and when out and scored again, just to show what our team is capable of doing."
Of course it was already on the schedule, but now the only open date of 2007 is even more welcome. Croom insists on a strict '24 Hour Rule' for celebration or mourning alike, but there will likely be more flexibility with that after a long two month haul and a big road SEC win. Still, the Bulldogs had a remarkably poised outlook on the rest of their regular schedule. "We're not going to forget the chance we have," said Brown. "We've got some goals set for ourselves."
"We've got to understand this is what it's all about," said Husband. "You want to go to a bowl game, win and have a winning season. To have a win and a bye week is big. We're still going to take the 24 hours, then kind of rest."
And, added the senior, "We're just going to take care of business." Which is a matter they'd rather not leave to the vagaries of, say, a coin flip.