LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This was the game perfectly positioned to ignite legitimate high-octane optimism around the University of Kentucky football program.

Beat Mississippi State on the road and the Wildcats would have the all-clear to flex their imaginations for the remainder of the 2017 college football season.

You could see Kentucky beating sagging Tennessee and Ole Miss, positioning itself for at least eight victories.

A spot in the Top 25? Coming up for the first time in a decade on Sunday. The first 6-1 start in a decade. That, too.

A second-place finish in the East Division of the Southeastern Conference. Why not?

Didn’t happen. Didn’t come close to happening.

Mississippi State 45, Kentucky 7.

Drop the Wildcats to 5-2 overall and 2-2 in the SEC as they endured their largest defeat since a 45-7 loss at Florida on Sept. 10, 2016.

Too much Nick Fitzgerald. He is the Mississippi State quarterback, perhaps the finest quarterback in the SEC. Fitzgerald punished Kentucky by running for 115 yards and two touchdowns and passing for another 155 and a score.

Too much Todd Grantham, he is the former University of Louisville defensive coordinator who left for Starkville last winter and has quickly built a Top 10 defense for Mississippi State.

State's defense shut down Kentucky’s running game and dogged UK quarterback Stephen Johnson into a pair of interceptions, including one for an 84-yard touchdown.

The Wildcats were outgained, 441-260. Johnson completed only 13 of 28 passes for 117 yards without a touchdown. The Wildcats’ running game generated only115 yards and five first downs. Grantham could not stop Johnson and UK in his final home game last season. He stopped them Saturday. State was dominant across its defensive front as well as its offensive front.

UK coach Mark Stoops benched Johnson for Drew Barker with about 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter after the Wildcats trailed, 38-7. All that did was inspire questions about which player will be Kentucky’s quarterback next week. Barker was only 1 for 2 for 28 yards. 

Offense was a struggle for Kentucky. The Wildcats’ first three possessions resulted in 55 yards and three punts. They were fortunate to score when Blake Bone scooped a Stephen Johnson fumble in the end zone, tying the game at 7. Johnson dropped the ball while reaching for the pylon at the 3-yard line. He bounced directly to Bone.

Then came three straight punts and a crushing interception when Johnson tried to loft a screen pass into the middle of three Mississippi State defenders in the third quarter. Didn’t work.

But that was not the play that seemed to drain the energy out of Stoops’ team. It was a failed defensive play late in the second quarter -- a fourth-and-one at the UK 40-yard line late with the Bulldogs’ leading ,10-7.

After forcing an incomplete pass on third-and-one, Kentucky was positioned to make Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen pay for going for it on fourth-and-one.

Fitzgerald, an unrelenting dual threat, turned a bad play into an unforgettable play.

Keeping the ball as he looked for open space on the right side, Fitzgerald was forced back to the left side by Kentucky’s defense. But what looked like formidable defense dissolved into recklessly aggressive defense.

Fitzgerald wiggled away from one tackler on the left side. That was the opening he needed. He tucked the ball and took off, outracing the Kentucky secondary down the left sideline into the end zone. Needed one yard. Got 40.

Make it MSU 17, Kentucky 7 – with the Bulldogs assured of getting the ball at the start of the second half.

“We couldn’t get Nick stopped,” Stoops told the SEC Network at halftime. “He made a great play and beat us on the backside. I thought we had him stopped at the point of attack on the front side. Back side we lost our gap responsibilities and he made us pay.”

Fitzgerald was not finished. He delivered again on State’s first possession of the second half. He marched the Bulldogs 75 yards on 13 plays while burning the first seven minutes and 53 seconds of the third quarter. That put Kentucky behind 24-7 – and Grantham’s defense took it from there.

Tennessee visits Kroger Field in Lexington next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The Vols were thrashed at Alabama Saturday. That score was also, 45-7. It was Tennessee's third consecutive loss, dropping the Vols to 3-4 overall and stirring more questions about whether their coach, Butch Jones, will survive the rest of the season.

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