The Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-4, 0-4) bring their cow bell caravan to Commonwealth Stadium tonight to take on the Kentucky Wildcats (3-4, 0-3) in a 7:00 EST kickoff, televised by Fox Sports South. Both teams can best be described as struggling, with the 'Cats breaking a four-game losing streak last Saturday by besting FCS opponent Jacksonville State 38-14. MSU, meanwhile, has zero SEC wins, and has struggled to both throw and run the ball against league competition, averaging 15.5 points in conference play. In other words, these two squads are near mirror images of one another.
If the 'Cats harbor any hopes of continuing their current five-year bowl game streak, winning tonight in Commonwealth is simply non-negotiable (that's what losing to Louisville does to ya). For what the Bulldogs bring to the field, as well as a look at some 'Cat stats of interest, follow me after the jump.
Bulldog head coach Dan Mullen benched starting senior quarterback Chris Relf (83-141, 860 yards, five interceptions, four touchdowns) during MSU's win over UAB, bringing in sophomore Tyler Russell, who led the 'Dogs to three second half touchdowns in MSU's 21-3 victory. Not the ground threat Relf is, Russell, in four games, has completed 52.5% of his passes for 514 yards, five touchdowns and three picks. In his first start last week against South Carolina (a 14-12 Gamecock win), Russell was relatively ineffective, passing for 165 yards, going 11-29 through the air with one touchdown and two interceptions. Both players are listed No. 1 on State's depth chart for the Kentucky game.
Mississippi State's primary offensive threat is running back Vick Ballard. A compact 5'11" and 245-pounds, Ballard is a bullish, straight-ahead runner in the mold of LSU's Spencer Ware. For his career, the JUCO transfer has run for over 1,500 yards, with 104 of those yards coming against the 'Cats in Starkville last season. This season, Ballard has rushed for 598 yards on 105 carries (5.7 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. A pass catching threat, Ballard has 12 receptions for 129 yards (10.8 yards per reception) to his credit. Competently backing-up Ballard is 5'10" 185-pound LaDarius Perkins. Perkins, a sophomore, has accounted for 240 ground yards on 52 carries (4.6 ypc) and one touchdown. He has also caught nine passes for 95 yards (10.6 ypr).
State's receiving corps is led by speedy junior Arceto Clark (5'10"), who has recorded 18 catches for 251 yards (13.9 ypr) and one touchdown. Last year versus UK, Clark caught one touchdown pass. One of the other starting receivers for MSU is 6'2" junior Chris Smith who has also caught 18 passes, good for 160 yards (8.9 ypr) and one touchdown.
Perhaps the most talented receiver in Mullens' fold is 5'10" junior wide out Chad Bumphis. On the year, Bumphis has 15 catches for 206 yards (13.7 ypr) and two touchdowns. Rounding out MSU's primary receivers is 6'0" sophomore Ricco Suave' ... just kidding ... Ricco Sanders. Sanders has nine catches for 95 yards (10.6 ypr) on the season.
Undersized tight end Marcus Green (6'1," 240-pound senior) has seven catches for 100 yards (14.3 ypr) and one touchdown.
Defensively, the 'Dogs lean on terrific defensive back Jonathan Banks, who has five interceptions (one a pick-six), 2.0 tackle for loss, 1.0 sack, and an impressive eight pass breakups. Mickoe Whitley is the other MSU DB who poses real problems for UK's passing game. On the year Whitley has four picks, combining with Banks to form the most dangerous secondary combo in the SEC (nine combined INTs).
Cameron Lawrence, a 6'2," 230-pound junior linebacker leads the Bulldogs in tackles with 61, and has recorded 3.5 tackles for loss. Fellow LB Deonte Skinner has 38 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss to his credit, while the third starting linebacker, 6'1" 240-pound senior Brandon Wilson, has 58 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss on the year.
Leading the Bulldogs with 5.5 tackles for loss is d-lineman Fletcher Cox (6'4" 295-pound junior), who also has 2.0 sacks.
Run, Forrest, Run
In all three of MSU's victories, the 'Dogs have run the ball quite effectively -- In a 59-14 win over Memphis: 309 yards on 38 carries (8.1 ypc); in a 26-20 OT win over Louisiana Tech: 176 yards on 44 carries (4.0 ypc); in a 21-3 win over UAB: 204 yards on 43 carries (4.7 ypc) -- In the Bulldog losses, the polar opposite has been true -- In a 19-6 loss to #3 LSU: 52 yards on 34 carries (1.5 ypc); in a 24-10 loss to Georgia: 56 yards on 34 carries (1.6 ypc); in a 14-12 loss to # 13 South Carolina: 131 yards on 37 carries (3.5 ypc).
In a bit of an aberration, MSU lost to #23 Auburn even though the Bulldogs ran for 333 yards on, get this, 63 carries (5.3 ypc). The 'Dogs yardage was partially offset by Auburn's 235 rushing yards on 36 carries (6.5 ypc). Take away the Auburn game, and MSU is averaging only 79.7 rushing yards per game against SEC competition, averaging an anemic 2.3 yards per carry. In MSU's four SEC losses, the 'Dogs are giving up an average of 162 yards on the ground, but only Auburn averaged more than 4.0 ypc.
After Kentucky piled-up 340 rushing yards against Jacksonville State last Saturday behind CoShik Williams' career day (148 yards on 22 carries), coupled with the struggles of UK's passing attack all year (an average of 117 passing yards per game), the Wildcats on this day would be wise to take to heart one of the Cardinal tenets of football -- Those who run the ball, while stopping (or at least slowing down) the run, win. Bolstering that argument is a healthy and improving UK offensive line.
The (Healthy) 'Cats Through Seven Games
Morgan Newton -- 79-167 passing (47.3%), for 769 yards, seven interceptions and eight touchdowns. Newton has rushed for 262 yards on 75 attempts (3.5 ypc) and two touchdowns -- There is no doubt that Newton has been a disappointment so far this year, especially when taking into consideration all the talk about Newton's improvement in the spring and summer. Although Newton has been plagued with dropped passes and poor protection, his short game has been inconsistent, and at times he seems to straddle the fence when it comes to deciding to run, pass, or take a sack. Have a young QB? Many times this is what happens; we've seen it before, most recently in the play of Mike Hartline and Andre' Woodson, two quarterbacks who improved drastically over the duration of their careers. Newton certainly has a chance to make figurative lemonade out of the first half of the season, and that process starts today against a tough MSU defense.
CoShik Williams -- 39 rush attempts for 210 yards (5.4 ypc) -- One word: burst. Williams, once he gets past the front four, hits the backers and secondary with an explosive burst, a talent that can't be taught. If Williams gets blocking from his fullbacks (DJ Warren and Cody Jones have been good this year), and some help from the o-line, I like his chances of being a consistent ground gainer for the 'Cats.
Jonathan George -- 28 rush attempts for 120 yards (4.3 ypc) and one touchdown.
Brandon Gainer -- 11 rush attempts for 39 yards (3.5 ypc).
La'Rod King -- 27 catches for 399 yards (14.8 ypr) and six touchdowns -- Life without Randall Cobb has been tough on King, but he's showing signs of life, and holding onto the ball better. He does have six touchdowns, which is a minor miracle when considering how poor UK's pass offense has been, but he should have more end zone visits. Gaining separation has always been King's issue, and until he figures it out, he'll not fulfill his limitless potential.
Matt Roark -- 12 catches for 56 yards (4.7 ypr) and one touchdown.
E. J. Fields -- 10 catches for 89 yards (8.9 ypr) and one touchdown -- Fields started strong, then caught the dropsies, and has yet to recover. He has tons of talent, but zero experience.
Nick Melillo -- Four catches for 69 yards (17.2 ypr).
Winston Guy -- 79 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, 1.0 sack -- He's thrived as a hybrid safet ... c'mon, let's be honest. Guy isn't a "hybrid" anything. He's a linebacker. A fiercely fast linebacker with a non-stop motor who must scare the bejeezus out of d-coordinators.
Danny Trevathan -- 77 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles -- He's been as good as advertised.
Martavious Neloms -- 49 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, one interception -- Neloms struggled early at the safety spot, but he's (semi) rapidly improving. He possesses all the measurables, he just has to continue to learn the position.
Ridge Wilson -- 39 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks -- On. The. Verge.
Collins Ukwu -- In only four games: 3.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack (Ukwu will suit up today for the first time in three games).
Mikie Benton -- Five pass breakups -- Benton has been the most pleasant defensive surprise so far this season. I can't help it though, every time I hear his name I think of Life cereal.
Team Stats Through Seven Games
Kentucky -- 32 tackles for loss; Opponents -- 53 tackles for loss.
Kentucky -- 11 sacks; Opponents -- 21 sacks.
Kentucky -- Nine interceptions; Opponents -- 10 interceptions.
Points Per Game: UK 16.6, Opponent 27.3
Avg. Rush Yds: UK 142.9, Opponent 205.7
Avg. Per Rush: UK 3.9, Opponent 5.0
Pass Yds Per Game: UK 117.0, Opponents 183.0
Total Offense: UK 259.9, Opponents 388.7
Avg. Gain Per Play: UK 4.1 yds, Opponents 5.6 yds
Fumbles Lost: UK nine, Opponents four
3rd Down Conv: UK 28%, Opponents 37.5%
Red Zone Scores: UK 13-18 (72.2%), Opponents 14-16 (87.5%)
Red Zone TDs: UK 9-18 (50.0%), Opponents 9-16 (56.3%)
1st Quarter Scoring: UK 19 pts, Opponents 55 pts
Prediction: UK 17 MSU 16
Finally, congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals for winning the World Series. Coming from a Reds fan, the Cardinals pulled off one of the most improbable championship runs ever, spanning all major sports. From being left for dead in August, to Worlds Series glory. If one is looking for a reason to never give up on a team, see St. Louis.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!