Kentucky can be an odd place. It’s beautiful as a state. Unique in its points of pride and experiences. But playing a football game in Lexington, at the University of Kentucky, can be a challenging endeavor.
Something about the whole place sort of lulls you into a state of lethargy you can’t quite shake. Those who had been to Commonwealth Stadium before talked about it in the weeks leading up to Mississippi State’s game there.
“No one plays well at Kentucky,” one person told me last week, speaking from their own experience.
In a quirk of scheduling, MSU’s seniors this year have played at Kentucky three out of their four years. They know all about it.
Senior running back Nick Griffin’s tweets were a good window into the state of mind it brings.
“First thing you see when you get to Kentucky is a horse,” he tweeted after MSU’s charter jet flew over the Keeneland race tracks on their way in. But he added the addendum, “A beautiful horse at that.”
On the drive through North Carolina, Tennessee and the southern part of Kentucky to get to Lexington, I had some of the same thoughts. It’s beautiful. And it’s almost as hard to get in as it is to get out.
Barreling through mountains, hugging the curves of winding roads through the valleys between massive hills, blurs of red, orange and yellow foliage flashing past in the trees along the way, it’s easy to be mesmerized and fear for your life at the same time.
Looking to your left, a small creek winds it away underneath you, leading your eyes to the right, where a semi-truck flies past you as it steamrolls down a hill, the massive weight of its contents carrying it faster than the cruise control can stop on such a steep incline. Fear and tranquility right next to each other, one trickling by with nowhere to be nor a time to be there, the other a hare with its tail on fire streaking toward a flat-landed finish line.
When the game started Saturday night, MSU was more creek than hare, trapped somewhere in the middle of a lazy afternoon and a heavyweight boxing match.
“Something was different about us,” junior quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We didn’t have the same vibe, same attitude.”
That much appeared to be true. Prescott didn’t play poorly by general standards, but with the lofty expectations he’s created for himself, he was disappointed with his performance. He was 18-of-33 passing for 216 yards. He had one touchdown and one interception. He also had another 88 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Again, good numbers, but down from his usual hare-like performances.
MSU’s defense, a strong suit in its wins over three-straight top-10 teams in its last three games, was almost completely lethargic, giving up 504 yards, including 401 through the air.
Senior defensive lineman Kaleb Eulls, in his third trip to Lexington, was one of the lone bright spots of the group, racking up five tackles and two sacks. After the game, he shared the same thoughts so many others had previously: it’s a hard place to play, for some indescribable reason.
The crowd was huge, but maybe it’s because they didn’t show up until almost right at kickoff. It’s an incredibly enjoyable gameday experience, but unlike so many of its SEC colleagues, Lexington is a city, not a college town.
Of course, for MSU, there was the matter of playing its first since game Earth’s inception as the No. 1 team on the piece of land called America. Didn’t help that they had two weeks to think about it, either.
“I think they played a little tight, at times,” Mullen said. “Hopefully, we can get all this ranking stuff behind us … I think our kids are going to be over it now.”
Asked if pressure would increase from another win, Mullen quickly shot down the notion, saying they got those jitters out. His team made it through the mountain interstate, survived the scare of the semi truck bearing down behind them, and emerged unscathed, if not particularly relieved to have made it.
“We’re 7-0,” Prescott said. “4-0 in the SEC, and that’s all I’m really worried about.”
Only junior running back Josh Robinson seemed to never be fazed, the relentlessly upbeat and energetic “bowling ball” of MSU’s backfield. And he looked like one as he bounced around the field, paving a path through and between Wildcat defenders curvier and more difficult to navigate than Interstate 75 on the way into town. Only he could have pulled off some of those moves, rumbling 23 times for 198 yards and two scores. He seemed like State’s only hope, at times.
But don’t be mistaken, Mullen says. MSU may have been a touch off, but much of that had to do with Kentucky being on. Their recent history can make teams feel as carefree as their bourbon and scenery do, but beneath the colored trees is hard stone, earth pushed together by millennia of tectonic movement and thrust into the air as silent guardians of state lines.
“I tell you something, I think that was two very good football teams,” Mullen said. “They’re a very dangerous team. I think you’re going to see that team and Mark [Stoops] continue to grow with the program. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them have a fantastic rest of the year.”
The game was beautiful and ugly at the same time, MSU pulling off the 45-31 win and getting out of town to go back home and get some sleep.
One player ran to the locker room beneath the stadium singing the chorus of a song from a Mississippi entertainer: “Please take me back home – to Mississippi.”
Not that Kentucky isn’t great, but it sure was tough.
“An ugly win will always and forever be better than a pretty loss,” Griffin tweeted after the game.