Maxwell Smith didn't have any more in him.
Kentucky's true freshman quarterback fell short in a comeback bid on Saturday night. The Wildcats fell behind 21-6 by halftime and Smith's late-game rally wasn't enough. Kentucky (3-5, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) had a chance to pull within one possession late in the fourth quarter, but Smith was hit as he threw to La'Rod King on fourth-and-seven with 4:46 to go in the game, and the pass sailed high.
The incompletion ended an 18-play drive along with any chance UK had to complete the comeback. Smith didn't turn the ball over and led the offense to 10 points in the second half, but still failed to pull within one possession. Mississippi State (4-4, 1-4 SEC) kneeled the clock out on the next drive to cap a 28-16 win.
Smith finished 26-33 for 174 yards, and played well enough that Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said he would open the starting quarterback job for competition between Smith and Newton this week. It may be a moot point. Newton could miss next week's game with an injured shoulder and a high ankle sprain.
"I knew I was going to have to come in at some point (this season)," Smith said. "That's just how backup quarterbacks prepare."
It was the best game of his career, and a far cry from his turnover-marred performances at South Carolina and Louisiana State earlier this year. Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said they were proud of the way he played.
Mississippi State jumped out to an early lead thanks to three long drives. The Bulldogs alternated between sophomore Tyler Russell and senior Chris Relf at quarterback all night, keeping the Wildcats' defense off balance. Mississippi State scored touchdowns with ease on drives of 80, 65 and 80 yards in the first half. None of those drives took longer than 2:34.
"You could say we lost it in the first half," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "We didn't ever have enough points to catch back up."
Relf, who had been benched in favor of Russell earlier this season, finished 6-9 passing for 92 yards and a touchdown. He also had six carries for 19 yards and two touchdowns. Russell, who started the game, propelled the offense with his arm, finishing 9-12 for 172 yards and a touchdown.
They opened the game alternating drives, but by the end of the game were swapping in and out during series'.
"There would be time the defense would think Chris was in the game, which opened up the pass for me," Russell said.
Kentucky took an early 3-0 lead when they recovered a fumble on the Mississippi State 21 yard line and kicked a field goal four plays later, but it wouldn't last for long. Mississippi State scored on their next two possessions.
"The thing that happened to us is every time we scored (field goals), they would come back down and score touchdowns," Phillips said.
The Wildcats lost the game despite forcing three turnovers while having none of their own. They gained the momentum early after converting a fourth-and-seven when Ryan Tydlacka ran for 12 yards on a fake punt. But they couldn't capitalize on that play and settled for another field goal when they recovered another Bulldog fumble on the Mississippi State 23 yard line.
By the time Smith settled in, Kentucky was already in a 28-9 hole. The freshman may have worked his way into the starting lineup with his performance, but it wasn't enough this week. With four games left to earn three wins to extend the school-record streak of six consecutive bowl games, his time to finish the season is slipping away as well.
"Yes, we did improve," Phillips said. "But there needs to be even more improvement for us to line up and win SEC games."
-Kentucky still leads the all-time series against Mississippi State 21-18, but the Bulldogs have won the last three meetings. Vanderbilt is the only other SEC opponent Kentucky has a winning record against.
-Saturday was the first time Kentucky lost a game under Phillips when winning the turnover battle. The Wildcats recovered two fumbles and Danny Trevathan made his third career interception. The offense didn't turn the ball over once, but struggled to move the ball efficiently. UK is now 6-1 under Phillips when winning the turnover battle. Saturday was also the first time this season Kentucky did not turn the ball over in a game.
-Senior receiver Matt Roark, who was benched earlier in the year for dropping passes, caught a career-high 13 balls for 116 receiving yards. The 13 receptions tie him with Randall Cobb for the second-most in a single game in UK history. Craig Yeast made 16 receptions in a game against Vanderbilt in 1998.
-Trevathan tied a career-high with 17 tackles. He had 10 tackles in the first half and finished with a tackle for loss, an interception and a forced fumble. He is now 17th on the all-time tackle list and UK and two tackles away from tying UK great Art Still for 16th place on the list.
-Craig McIntosh made a career-high three field goals. He has made nine of 10 field goals this season.
-Saturday's announced crowd of 57,891 was the 11th smallest at Commonwealth Stadium since it expanded in 1999. Last week's crowd of 54,098 was the fifth smallest. Both figures were derived from the total number of tickets sold and distributed, not a count at the gates.
Newton injured his right shoulder and right ankle. It is believed to be a high ankle sprain, though he'll undergo further evaluation on Sunday. Newton said after the game his ankle was a more pressing issue than his shoulder. The coaches considered playing him after halftime but decided against it. His status for next week is unclear.
Smith was hit in the right elbow during Kentucky's final drive in the fourth quarter. He said he called timeout after his arm went numb. He was able to finish the game.
Senior corner Anthony Mosely was punched in the diaphragm in a scuffle early in the game and did not return.
Sophomore defensive tackle Donte Rumph injured his left knee. He lay on the field for several minutes before being helped off. He'll be evaluated going forward.