Kentucky vs. Mississippi State: Breaking Down the Bulldogs

With Kentucky sitting at 4-3 (1-3 in the SEC) and dates with Eastern Kentucky and Vanderbilt to follow, tonight's 7:00 p.m. EST game at Commonwealth Stadium versus the Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-5, 1-3) carries with it tremendous ramifications.  A UK win will put the 'Cats clearly in the drivers seat to gain at least seven victories, which should translate into an upgraded bowl game (hopefully one not played in the state of Tennessee).  Lose, and UK will be faced with having to beat Georgia on the road or Tennessee at home, in order to attain the magical seventh victory.

New Mississippi State head coach (and former Florida offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach) Dan Mullen has breathed much-needed oxygen back into the lungs of the Bulldog football program with an exciting brand of offense (he employs a spread-option look), and a defense that can most aptly be described as a work in progress.  And after averaging only 15.2 points per game and 274.9 yards of offense in Sylvester Croom's swan song at State last season, Mullen has rewritten the playbook in 2009 to the tune of 100 more yards of offense per contest, and just over 11 more points per game.

For a closer look at what promises to be a nip-and tuck affair, and an examination of how the two contestants stand within the SEC, as well as a complete breakdown of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, join me after the jump:

Statistical Comparison -- UK vs. MSU (SEC rank in parenthesis)

                                     UK                MSU

Points Per Game --         26.1 (9)          26.4 (8)

Scoring Defense --          23.0 (8)          24.6 (9)

Total Offense --               337.3 (9)        371.1 (7)

Total Defense --              352.3 (8)        357.4 (9)

Rush Offense --              186.3 (5)         203.1 (5)

Rush Defense --             174.1 (12)       142.2 (7)

Pass Offense --              151.0 (11)       168.0 (10)

Pass Defense --             178.1 (8)          215.1 (10)

Kick Return Avg. --         23.0 (7)            24.7 (4)

Punt Return Avg. --         13.4 (3)            10.5 (5)

Interceptions --               8 (7)                 11 (2) Four returned for a touchdown

Punt Avg. --                   35.3 (6)             34.0 (9)

Kickoff Coverage --         40.8 (7)             41.5 (6) Net Averages

Sacks By --                   12 (10)              13 (9)

Sacks Against --             7 (2)                 12 (7)

3rd Down Conversion --    8.2% (9)            33.9 (10)

Opp. 3rd Down Conv. --   43.1 (12)            33.6 (7)

Turnover Margin --           --1 (t7)               -- 5 (10)

Red Zone Score% --       86.4 (7)             78.6 (10) 

Red Zone TD% --            72.7 (2)             46.4 (9)

Red Zone Def/Scores --   73.1% (4)          82.1% (8)

UK/MSU Players in SEC Top 10

Rush Yards Per Game -- MSU RB Anthony Dixon is 3rd -- 107.7; UK RB Derrick Locke is 5th -- 70.7.

All-Purpose Yards Per Game -- UK's Locke is 3rd -- 144.0; MSU WR Leon Berry is 8th -- 121.8; MSU's Dixon is 9th --112.1.

Touchdowns Scored -- UK ATH. Randall Cobb is 2nd --  9; MSU's Dixon is 3rd -- 7.

Points Per Game -- UK's Cobb is 5th -- 7.7.

Reception Yards Per Game -- UK's Cobb is t6th -- 4.0.

Passing Yards Per Game -- MSU QB Tyson Lee is 10th -- 140.8.

Kick-Off Return Avg. -- MSU's Berry is 5th -- 26.3.

Punt Return Avg. -- UK's Cobb is 2nd -- 13.6.

Tackles Per Game -- UK LB Micah Johnson is t8th -- 7.9; MSU LB Jamar Chaney is 10th -- 7.2.

Tackles For Loss -- UK DL Corey Peters is t5th -- 7.5; MSU DL  Pernell McPhee is t5th -- 7.5.

Sacks -- UK's Peters is t7th -- 4.0.

Interceptions -- MSU DB Jonathan Banks is 1st -- 4; MSU DB Corey Bloomfield is t4th  -- 3; UK DB Calvin Harrison and LB Sam Maxwell are t8th -- 2.

Passes Defended -- UK's Maxwell is 2nd -- 9 (7 breakups and two interceptions); UK DB Randall Burden is 5th -- 8 (seven pass breakups and one interception).

Meet the Offensive Dogs

Tyson Lee -- 5'10", 200 lb senior quarterback: The diminutive signal-caller has thrown for 1,126 yards on 102-172 passing (59.3%).  Lee has thrown only three touchdown passes, and has nine interceptions.  He's also carried the ball 54 times for 163 yards, and two touchdowns -- Last season versus UK, Lee threw for 261 yards and two touchdowns (one interception) on 26 of 42 passing.

Lee threw three picks in Mississippi State's 29-19 loss to Florida last weekend.  For his career, in 16 starts, Lee has thrown 14 interceptions and 10 touchdowns. He performed very well against a good Georgia Tech team, though, going 20-30 for 278 yards, a touchdown and an interception.  Against Houston, Lee ran for 68 yards on 12 carries (5.7 yards per carry).  Lee is highly mobile and is willing to take risks, whether it be with his arm or his legs.

Chris Relf -- 6'3", 235 lb sophomore quarterback: On the year Relf has completed 15 of 26 passes (57.7) for 213 yards.  He's tossed three touchdown passes and two interceptions.  He has also rushed 41 times for 232 yards (5.7 ypc), and one touchdown.

Relf, coming off an injury, has missed MSU's last two games.  He will probably see some playing time tonight, though, if only as a change-of-pace for the Bulldog offense.  As with Lee, Relf is adept at scampering away from pressure, and/or running the option game with aplomb.

Anthony Dixon -- 6'1", 235 lb senior running back: Dixon has rushed for 749 yards on 149 carries (5.0 ypc), and seven touchdowns.  He's also caught seven passes for 36 yards (5.1 yards per reception). 

Dixon, the No. 1 rusher in Mississippi State history, has run for 3,352 yards in his career, and 37 touchdowns.  He also ranks 15th in SEC history in rushing yards.  He's run for over 100 yards five times this season, with a season-high 135 yards (and two touchdowns) against Middle Tennessee State.  Dixon nearly matched that output versus Houston, with 134 yards and another two touchdowns -- Last year against UK, Dixon rushed 15 times for 48 yards (3.2 ypc): In '07 versus Kentucky, he ran for 75 yards on 25 carries (3.0 ypc).

Dixon is a powerful, yet very quick running back.  He can run through the middle, or, he'll beat you to the edges with his 4.5 - 40 speed.  With UK giving up 174 ground yards per game, Dixon poses the biggest threat to  'Cat fans having a hauntingly good Halloween.  If UK's middle linebacker Micah Johnson can't go this evening, backup Ronnie Sneed will have his hands full ... hopefully full of Dixon's jersey.

Christian Ducre' -- 6'0", 200 lb senior running back: This season Ducre' has rushed 42 times for 254 yards (6.0 ypc), and one touchdown.  He's also caught eight passes for 124 yards (15.5 ypr), and one touchdown -- Versus UK in 2007, Ducre' had a huge day, running for 119 yards on only 19 carries (6.3 ypc).

Arnil Stallworth -- 5'9", 205 lb senior running back: Stallworth has rushed 23 times for 92 yards (4.0 ypc), and caught eight passes for 112 yards (14.0 ypr) -- Versus Kentucky last year, Stallworth caught eight passes of 71 yards (8.9 ypr).

For his career, Stallworth has rushed the ball 81 times and caught 55 passes.  A poor man's Rafael Little, he has amassed 550 receiving yards to 300 rushing yards.  Obviously he's versatile, and UK's defense, especially LB's Sam Maxwell and Danny Trevathan, must know where Stallworth is on every play.

Robert Elliott -- 6'0", 210 lb sophomore running back: Elliott has run for 110 yards on 31 carries (3.5 ypc), and one touchdown.

Coming out of high school, Elliott was the No. 8 rated running back in the country by Scout.

Chad Bumphis -- 5'10", 195 lb freshman wide receiver: Bumphis, MSU's leading receiver as a true freshman, has caught 24 passes for 270 yards (11.2 ypr), and three touchdowns.  He has also returned five kick-offs for a 25.4 yard per return average. 

Bumphis was rated the No. 16 wide receiver prospect in the nation last year by Rivals, and the No. 109 ranked prospect overall.  He was heavily recruited (including by UK) by such powers as Alabama, LSU, Florida, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.  For his career at Tupelo High School in Mississippi, he had 2,034 receiving yards, 1,348 rushing yards, and 568 passing yards.

Since a six catch, 123 yard (one touchdown) performance against Georgia Tech earlier in the year (three game ago), Bumphis has made only eight catches for 78 yards.

Leon Berry -- 6'0", 195 lb junior wide receiver: The JUCO transfer has played quite well in his first year with the Dogs, making 14 catches for 170 yards (12.1 ypr).  He also serves as MSU's primary punt and kick returner: Eight punts returned for 67 yards (8.4 ypr), and 28 kick-offs returned for a 26.3 yard average (one touchdown).

Berry, a Second Team JUCO All-America, caught 59 passes for 1,003 yards and nine touchdowns for East Mississippi Community College last season.

Brandon McCrae -- 6'4", 205 lb senior wide receiver: The Morehead State transfer has snagged 11 passes for 97 yards (8.8 ypr).

As a freshman at Morehead, McCrae led the team in receiving with 28 receptions for 361 yards (12.9 ypr) and one touchdown.

O'Neal Wilder -- 6'5", 215 lb redshirt freshman wide receiver: Wilder has caught 10 passes for 140 yards (14.0 ypr).

Coming out of high school, Wilder ran a 4.5 - 40, and ran a state (MS) best 48.3 in the 400 meters.

Marcus Green -- 6'1", 235 lb sophomore tight end: Green has made 21 catches or 258 yards (12.3 ypr) and two touchdowns.

Meet the Defensive Dogs

Jamar Chaney -- 6'1", 240 lb senior linebacker: Chaney is MSU's leading tackler with 58 (24 solo), to go along with 3.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception, two pass breakups, and two quarterback hurries -- Against UK in '07, Chaney, playing on a bum ankle, recorded three tackles; Versus Kentucky in '06, he made six tackles.

Released from his scholarship by Georgia prior to his freshman season, Chaney has made the most out of the change:  For his career he's made 256 tackles, with 14.0 tackles for loss.  He missed all but one game of the 2008 season because of a broken leg. 

K. J. Wright -- 6'4", 215 lb junior linebacker: Wright has executed 55 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, and 2.0 sacks -- Last season versus UK, Wright recorded seven tackles.

Pernell McPhee -- 6'4", 275 lb junior defensive lineman: McPhee leads the Bulldogs with 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, and five quarterback hurries.  The JUCO transfer from Itawamba (MS) CC, has recorded 33 tackles (21 solo).

Another major junior college talent, McPhee was heavily recruited by Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan and West Virginia.  In his two-year JUCO career, he sacked the quarterback 33 times.

Chris White -- 6'3", 245 lb junior linebacker: Yet another JUCO transfer, White leads the team with 29 solo tackles (48 overall).  He also has 3.5 tackles for loss, and one pass breakup.

White was First Team JUCO All-America last season out of Mississippi Gulf Coast CC.  In his two years on the JC circuit, he recorded 204 tackles, four interceptions and four fumble recoveries (two returned for TD's).

Jonathan Banks -- 6'2", 170 lb freshman defensive back: Another true freshman contributor, Banks leads the SEC with four interceptions, with two "pick-sixes."  He's made 16 tackles (11 solo).

Banks was considered the No. 63 "athlete" prospect out of high school by Rivals, and the No. 69 safety by Scout.  He runs a 4.6 - 40. 

Corey Bloomfield -- 5'10", 170 lb redshirt freshman defensive back: Bloomfield has made 13 tackles (9 solo), and picked-off three passes.  He also has one pass breakup.

Bloomfield has some hops -- 34.1 inch vertical -- and some speed -- 4.5 - 40.  He was rated the No. 56 cornerback prospect out of high school by ESPN.com.

Dog Biscuits

Florida ran for 249 yards against MSU last week ... Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was 12-22 with two interceptions ... Auburn's Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb rushed 36 times for 271 yards (7.5 ypc) against the Dogs in Auburn's 49-24 win versus State ... MSU held Auburn quarterback Chris Todd to only 10-23 for 186 yards ... Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer (2008 ACC Player of the Year) ran 16 times for 83 yards (5.2 ypc) in a 42-31 Jacket win versus MSU ... Yellow Jacket quarterback Josh Nesbitt threw for 266 yards and one touchdown, on 11-14 passing against the Bulldogs ... Houston Cougar running back Bryce Beall ran 15 times for 94 yards (6.3 ypc) and one touchdown in a 31-24 Cougar victory over State ... Cougar quarterback Casey Keenum threw for 434 yards and four touchdowns on 39-52 passing ... MSU lost to then-No. 7 LSU, then-No. 25 Georgia Tech, No. 1 Florida, and Houston, by an average of 8.0 points per game ... UK is 9-10 against MSU since 1990, but the 'Cats have won three of the last four contests ... MSU head coach Dan Mullen has coached No. 1 NFL pick Alex Smith (Utah), 6th round draft choice Josh Harris (Bowling Green University), former Florida quarterback Chris Leak, and current Gator QB Tim Tebow.

CliffsNotes Analysis

Tonights match-up promises to be a tight one --  Both team run the ball exceptionally well, yet neither defense stops the run with consistency.  Both teams struggle with the passing game ... both offensively, and defensively.  Both teams have an indispensable running back (Locke and Dixon), and both teams have indispensable hybrid athletes (Cobb, and a combination of Berry, Stallworth, and Bumphis). 

Because of the "even-Steven" nature of the two combatants, turnovers and special teams could be the deciding factor in this most important of contests.  UK Punter Ryan Tydlacka must (consistently) be on his game tonight, the 'Cat ball carriers must hold the pigskin smartly, and the coverage unit must fill their gaps, or risk costing the 'Cats the victory.

I'm sure coach Mullen has seen the tape of UK's victory over Auburn, and took note of the emasculation of the Tiger offense at the hands of the UK defense.  So 'Cat fans, expect some Mullen creativity in an effort to foil the Wildcats' bid to shut down the State offensive attack.  UK, as they did so well against Auburn, must "stay home" and fill the lanes, or it could be a long, cold, night of fear in Lexington. 

Fearless Prediction

Kentucky  27     Mississippi State  24

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats! 

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