October 25, 2013 11:16:33 AM
STARKVILLE -- The first words Dan Mullen spoke were of relief to the Liberty Bowl committee representatives after a nail-biting victory against Kentucky.
"I can't accept that invite, but we're getting closer," Mississippi State's football coach said seconds before he got to the postgame podium Thursday night.
Mullen improved to 9-0 against the Wildcats dating back to his time as an assistant coach on Urban Meyer's staff at Florida from 2005-08.
With the 28-22 victory, MSU improved to 4-3 and 1-2 in the Southeastern Conference. It also earned the fifth-straight win in the series for the first time by either school. The victory was MSU's second against a Bowl Championship Series opponent in the past 375 days.
The loss dropped Kentucky to 1-6 and 0-4, and extended the Wildcats' conference losing streak to 12 games. Kentucky has been outscored by an average of 24.42 points in those losses.
MSU is 28-2 in Mullen's career in Starkville when the Bulldogs have a lead entering the fourth quarter. Kentucky is one of three SEC Eastern Division teams without a win against Mullen since he took over at MSU in 2009.
The victory wasn't without drama, as Kentucky drove to MSU's 29-yard line with 21 seconds left, but quarterback Maxwell Smith's fourth-down pass was incomplete. The miss helped MSU move two victories away from becoming bowl eligible and potentially earning a trip to a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season.
"Whew, we keep everybody tuned in right till the last minute, don't we?" Mullen said. "We seem to find a way to do that. We did a lot of sloppy things tonight and (for the) second game in a row we made a defensive stand to win the game."
MSU dominated the first two possessions to the tune of 11.33 yards per play. Sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott, who received his fifth start of the season, broke away from two tackles in the backfield on a third-down play to find junior wide receiver Malcolm Johnson for a 60-yard touchdown strike. After Prescott appeared to be bottled up, the defensive backs stopped running, which gave Johnson a chance to get behind them.
In five home games this season, MSU has outscored opponents 147-58 in the first half.
For the rest of the night, MSU's offense became the Jameon Lewis showcase. After Kentucky answered to tie the game, Lewis took an option pitch on the sixth play of the drive and scored on a 19-yard run.
Prescott then found Lewis on a 17-yard crossing route for the junior wide receiver's fourth touchdown reception. Lewis has four of MSU's nine receiving scores.
After Kentucky tried to make MSU fans sweat by scoring a 17-yard rushing touchdown, the Wildcats made it 21-19 after Devon Bell fumbled a punt in the end zone and had it roll out of bounds.
Mullen and MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning went to a familiar bag of tricks on the ensuing drive, as Lewis hit Prescott for a 17-yard throwback pass that went for a score. It was the same play MSU used for a touchdown in a 62-7 victory against Troy.
"When you give Jameon Lewis the ball, he's just trouble in so many ways in containing him so he has to be a guy we have to get the ball to," Prescott said.
The victory marked the second time this season Lewis left Davis Wade Stadium with a touchdown rushing, throwing, and receiving.
Even though MSU officials announced the attendance as 55,102 and recorded the game as the program's 28th consecutive sellout, Davis Wade Stadium didn't look full for MSU's first SEC victory since the 2001 Egg Bowl rivalry game against Ole Miss.
MSU, which came in averaging 214.3 rushing yards per game, was forced to turn to the passing attack early and often for 278 yards against a stacked defensive front. Prescott hit 11 receivers and recorded a career-high 23 completions for 301 yards.
"What I saw from Dak tonight is something I see every day in practice because everything he does is all out effort," Lewis said. "When we say, 'That's Dak being Dak', it's all about us seeing him improve."
Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot tried to contain Prescott's running ability and senior running back LaDarius Perkins, but he left his secondary in constant one-on-one situations. MSU capitalized by going 10-for-18 on third down.
"We have to find ways to convert on third downs no matter who is in the football game," Prescott said. "We're doing a better job of that each, and every week and we'll continue to work on it in practice."
Perkins left the field in the first half after he appeared to re-aggravate an ankle injury, but he returned and finished with 89 yards rushing.
Kentucky's explosive 'Air Raid' offense lost luster when senior tailback Raymond Sanders left the game with what was reported to be severe cramping. Without a consistent play-action option in the run game, Smith struggled to find open receivers. In the first quarter, he was 7 of 13 thanks to a barrage of screens and short passes. However, Smith, who was filling in for Jalen Whitlow, completed just one pass of more than 12 yards. Whitlow played briefly and had four carries for 12 yards and was 1 of 1 for 5 yards.
"I've never seen us give up, and we won't ever give up," Smith said. "We are fully capable of winning football games, and I'm confident that it will happen soon."
MSU will now enjoy a 10-day preparation period before it travels to Columbia, S.C. to play No. 20 South Carolina at 11:21 a.m. Nov. 2. It hasn't won at South Carolina since a 38-0 victory in 1998.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.