While there were numerous crucial moments that proved to be detrimental in Kentucky’s 28-13 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday night, it’s tough to argue that any single mishap was more costly than quarterback Sawyer Smith’s opening-drive interception returned for a touchdown.
While Kentucky turned things around in the second half and put itself in position to win late in the fourth quarter, it was evident that starting from behind killed any and all momentum the team had going into the game. A 7-0 start quickly snowballed into a 21-3 deficit with just over five minutes to go in the second quarter.
After the game, Smith took full responsibility for his early mistake and was quick to admit that it proved to make things difficult for his team moving forward.
“I threw the ball a little behind Justin Rigg,” the junior quarterback said. “You cannot start a football game off like that. And that kind of swung the momentum of the whole game. I have to work on that, take better care of the ball, and take the blame for what happened there.”
And while some felt the slow start was nothing more than a hangover from Kentucky’s disappointing loss to Florida last week, Smith said he didn’t believe that to be the case in the slightest. Take out his interception, and the 6-foot-3 quarterback believes the outcome of the game is different.
“No, I don’t think [there was a Florida hangover],” he said. “I think we had short memory with that. I think if I didn’t throw the pick-six at the start of the game, it’s a different game.”
But it wasn’t just the early interception that made life difficult for the Troy graduate transfer.
After tweaking his wrist a bit last week, Smith, who finished the day with 232 yards and an interception on 15-41 passing, also came up favoring his right shoulder after taking a hit near the end of the second quarter. After halftime came to a close and the Kentucky defense took the field, Smith returned to the locker room to have x-rays done, leaving third-string quarterback Walker Wood as the likely option to take over the offense.
Once the Kentucky offense returned to the field, though, so did Smith, with the junior quarterback sprinting out of the locker room and into the UK huddle to resume his duties under center.
After the game, Smith said his injury didn’t affect his performance in the second half and that he was ready to roll against South Carolina next week.
“No, I went back in, didn’t miss a snap,” he said. “I was good. I was good. I thought we passed the ball pretty well in the second half. I’m 100% [for next week].”
In terms of any other factors that could have potentially played into his his underwhelming performance against the Bulldogs, Smith was quick to dismiss them all.
Miscommunication with the wide receivers or offensive line struggles? Nope.
“They were bringing some good blitzes today and they just got to me a few times,” he said. “We made some plays, they made some plays. That’s nothing on the o-line, that’s probably just me needing to get rid of the ball. We were good communication wise, there were no missed assignments or anything.”
The hostile environment in Kentucky’s first true road game of the season? The obnoxious cowbells? Not that, either.
“No, I played at Clemson in Death Valley when I was a freshman,” he said. “They had a good environment here, but Clemson was a little more loud.”
At the end of the day, it simply came down to a few throws he’d like to get back.
“I mean, I think we left some points out there, especially late in the game,” Smith said. “You’ve got to convert there. I had about two or three throws that I wish I could have back right now. I just wish I had better throws.”
While Smith was hard on himself, Kentucky running back AJ Rose added that in the first half, no one on the team played with the fire necessary to win in a tough road environment like the one they saw in Starkville.
“I mean the pick on the opening drive, that was a killer,” he said. “But we just played flat the whole first half. We’ve got to change that and get better, go watch some film.”
While it was difficult to play from behind right out of the gates, Rose said no one on the team converted on the opportunities handed to them late in the second half.
“It’s definitely frustrating. We can’t play catch-up in this league,” the junior running back said. “We had all the chances in the world to come back at the end of the game, but unfortunately we didn’t.”
Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran also came to Sawyer’s defense, saying there were inconsistencies all over the field, including on the sideline with him as a coach. While he said the pick-six was a major gut punch, the offensive play-caller feels he deserves the most criticism out of everyone.
“I obviously didn’t get them ready to play today, and that’s totally on me,” Gran said. “I’ll go back and look. I really felt that a week ago we went into that game and gave them a chance to win. I’ll go back and watch this film, but with the first pass [thrown by Smith that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown], there was inconsistency with a lot of things. Not just catching balls, not just throwing on time. With picking up protections, we weren’t as good there. We came out and I just didn’t have them ready to play, that’s on me, and that just can’t happen.”
While he wasn’t happy with the total offensive product, Gran was impressed with how the Wildcats responded in the second half and feels they will be ready to compete on the road at South Carolina next week.
“I did think that after being challenged, they came out and competed in the second half,” he said. “On the road, that’s a tough climb, and we still had chances. Convert on a couple of those redzone plays, and that’s a different football game, in my opinion. But woulda, shoulda, coulda, those don’t get it done. That’s on me, and we’ll go back as an offensive staff and they’ve got to be ready on the road in a hostile environment again.”
At the end of the day, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops still has confidence in his starting quarterback to find success moving forward.
“He’s just got to play. We all still have a lot of confidence in him,” Stoops said. “The kid is banged up already. He’s got a wrist and a shoulder [injury]. He’s banged up, but he’s going to lay it on the line and everyone can relate to that, respect that. He’s going to make mistakes. It was his second start and he’s going to learn from it.”