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Mississippi State, Kentucky regrouping ahead of SEC opener

STARKVILLE (AP) — Kentucky hopes a change of scenery can reverse its fortunes after losing a close game last week.

That won’t be easy at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are looking to rebound from their own late collapse.

Mississippi State (2-1) is riding a four-game home winning streak against Kentucky heading into Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener against the Wildcats (2-1, 0-1 SEC). MSU has dominated Kentucky, winning eight of their last 10 meetings.

There has been no shortage of clanging cowbells in one of college football’s most hostile environments.

“I know our kids are energized and galvanized and excited for a great home field advantage that (our fans) are going to provide,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said. “We understand that this one game isn’t going to define the season, but we’re excited to get back on the field.”

The Bulldogs outgained Kansas State 352-269 and led 24-17 early in the fourth quarter before yielding a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and the game-winning TD with 5:37 remaining. Having shown it can start strong, the priority this week is finishing Kentucky if given the chance.

The Wildcats come in with the same approach.

They appeared headed to a 3-0 start and two-game winning streak against No. 9 Florida with a 21-10 lead late in the third quarter. The Gators rallied with three touchdowns in the fourth to hand Kentucky a 29-21 loss in its SEC opener.

Kentucky has quickly tried to move past that disappointing loss and looks to start over in Starkville — a quest that starts with blocking out the noise.

“There’s going to be great road challenges throughout the year and this is our first opportunity, and we have to embrace that,” said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, whose team is mastering silent counts to counter the cowbells.

“There’s something that’s fun in the challenge of going on the road, being united and playing in Starkville. We’ll be excited about that opportunity.”

Wildcats quarterback Sawyer Smith completed his first nine passes and seemed headed toward a huge day by accounting for all three touchdowns and 267 yards passing against Florida. He also ran down a Florida defender to make a touchdown-saving tackle after an interception, one of three picks in the contest with two leading to 10 points including the go-ahead TD. Kentucky coaches are stressing better poise by Smith but have hinted at giving him more responsibility.

“It’s an ongoing process, and we have to make sure we keep it tight,” quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said of the packages. “But we also understand that we can expand and do more things with him.”

Mississippi State, meanwhile, has a lot more uncertainty with its quarterbacks.

The depth chart lists graduate transfer Tommy Stevens as the starting QB, with either freshman Garrett Schrader or junior Keytaon Thompson as his backup.

Stevens was injured two weeks ago against Southern Miss. He started against Kansas State, but was lifted in the second half with shoulder stiffness and has been evaluated daily.

Stevens went 7-of-15 for 100 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown pass against Kansas State. He completed 9 of 10 passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Miss before he was injured late in the first half.

Schrader, who led a 79-yard TD drive in relief of Stevens, is ready just in case and appears to be the choice over Thompson, who’s recovering from an upper body injury sustained in camp.

Shrader went 4-of-12 for 51 yards against Kansas State while also running 10 times for 82 yards and a touchdown. He has completed 47.5 percent of his passes for 122 yards this season, and run for 98 yards and a touchdown.

“We want to get all those guys ready to play in the game,” Moorhead said. “After the game, I mentioned that K.T. (Thompson) is still rehabbing from an upper-body injury that occurred during the course of training camp. We want to be fair to him and make sure he is fully healthy before we get him more reps.”

Moorhead said he hopes Stevens is healthy enough to play the entire game against Kentucky.

Stevens is completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 441 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions this season.

“It would be awesome, just from a consistency standpoint,” Moorhead said. “We fell off from a completion percentage standpoint (against Kansas State). There were times where protection broke down on some third-down stuff, too.”

KENTUCKY AT MISSISSIPPI STATE

• Saturday, 3 p.m.

• TV: SEC Network