Kentucky is going on the road as ten-point underdogs to face one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. The Cats’ backs are against the wall, but they still have one advantage over Mississippi State: experience in close games.
Last week Mississippi State beat BYU by 25 points and it was the closest game they’ve played all year. They’ve won games by 49, but also lost by 39 and 28 points. Each Miss. State game has been decided by an average of 34.5 points.
On the other hand, Kentucky’s games have all been close. An average of only 6.5 points have separated UK from each opponent. The widest margin of victory was only 11 over EKU. If Saturday’s game is close, Kentucky can say something State can’t, “play like you’ve been there before.”
What decides those close games? Offensive lineman Nick Haynes says it all comes down to details.
“The details of certain things in close games are all that matters,” Haynes said. “It can literally be a step, it can be an extra step on a route, it can be anything that causes you to lose a game. One play. We don’t know which play it is, so every play you gotta be detailed and focused and know what you’re doing, especially in close games because not many yards separate us, not many points separate us.”
Against Florida, it came down to one point and one slip of the hand that resulted in a holding call on Haynes that pushed Kentucky out of field goal range (a hold Haynes still insists is BS). Even though it looked like the game was over, Stephen Johnson did not panic. He completed one more pass to give Austin MacGinnis a shot to win the game. When the pressure is on, Johnson always remains clam.
“He calms himself down first and then does have that confidence around him that we feel like we’ll be alright,” Haynes said. “It doesn’t really matter what just happened. We do it a lot. We overcome adversity all the time.”
Being in those situations frequently has grayed the hair of many Kentucky fans, but it’s beneficial for the players and play-callers. Familiarity in high-pressured situations takes the pressure off, according to offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.
“At the end of the day, it’s about what we do out here every single Wednesday [in practice]. It’s live,” he said. “We’re trying to put them in those pressure situations so when you do get to that moment, it’s not so much pressure. Now you let your fundamentals take over, your technique and you can do your job.”
The pressure increases in hostile road environments, but that’s not necessarily the case with this Kentucky team. They’ve won five of their last six on the road since they traveled to Tuscaloosa last year. For a lack of a better term, the team brings an “F U” mentality on the road that starts at the top.
“That stems from the head coach,” Gran said. “It’s really all you’ve got. You go, you get on that bus, you get on that plane, it’s going down there, it’s a hostile environment and that’s why you play in this league. That’s why you play football, for the opportunities to go on the road and come out with a victory.”
If the Cats keep it close in Starkville, they can seize another opportunity and stake their claim as one of the best teams in the SEC.