Two of the SEC's struggling football programs square off today as the Kentucky Wildcats (3-5, 0-4) take on the Ole Miss Rebels (2-6, 0-5) at Commonwealth Stadium in a 3:30 kickoff, televised by ESPNU. Pride and quickly fading bowl hopes are what these two youthful teams will be battling for this afternoon, with the winner able to claim its first SEC victory of the year. To both head coaches, UK's Joker Phillips and UM's Houston Nutt, a victory today would serve as a cold rain shower beating back the flames which are heating-up the seat of their pants. To both fan bases, a victory today is non-negotiable.
Last season in Oxford, and in their only SEC win of the year, Ole Miss bested the 'Cats 42-35 after UK gave up 21 first half points to the Rebels, on only 62 yards of offense, after committing two fumbles and an interception -- Two of those UK turnovers were inside their own 10-yard line. It was, without a doubt, one of the two games during the year UK lost due to multiple turnovers inside the opponent's red zone.
Will today bring Big Blue redemption? If it does, it will have to come at the hands of newly minted starting Wildcat quarterback, true freshman Maxwell Smith. Smith, who began his UK playing career seven of 19 through the air with two interceptions, responded nicely last week as he took over for an injured Morgan Newton in UK's loss to Mississippi State. Against the sixth ranked pass defense in the SEC, Smith completed 26 of 33 passes for 174 yards, and most importantly, no interceptions. Although UK came up short in the game, Smith was a bright spot, as the coaches kept it simple, limiting the length of Smith's tosses down the field. Another bright spot for Kentucky in their MSU loss was receiver Matt Roark, who caught 13 passes for 116 yards. This, after Roark lost the "battle-to-catch-the-ball" fairly consistently in his first three-and-a-half years on campus.
In his fifth straight game as the starting quarterback, Randall Mackey, a 5'11" 195-pound junior, has completed 57 of 108 passes (52.8%) for 809 yards and five touchdowns, to go along with four interceptions. The dual-threat QB has rushed 60 times for 134 yards (2.2 yards per carry) and another touchdown. Mackey is a threat to tuck and run at any time, and has breathed life into a struggling Ole Miss offense (prior to Mackey starting, Ole Miss scored 13 points vs. BYU and seven against Vanderbilt). In his first start, Mackey led the Rebels to a 38-28 road win over Fresno State, and using a quick start, he almost led the Rebs to a home win over Arkansas, a game UM eventually lost 29-24. Last week versus Auburn, Mackey completed 15 of 27 passes for 157 yards, tossing one touchdown and one interception, while being sacked four times in the Rebels' 41-23 loss.
When Mackey hands the ball to a running back, most often it will be 5'11" 215-pound senior Brandon Bolden. Bolden, who missed two games earlier in the year with an injury, has rushed the ball 50 times for 287 yards (5.7 ypc) and four touchdowns, while also catching six passes for 59 yards (9.8 yards per reception). Helping out in the Rebel running game is 5'7" 175-pound sophomore running back Jeff Scott. Simply put, Scott is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the football (he runs a 4.3 40-yard dash). A fact bolstered by his eye-popping 19.7 punt return average, tops, by a very long distance, in the SEC. On the season, Scott has rushed for 472 yards on 102 carries (4.6 ypc) and six touchdowns. He is also a pass-catching threat, snagging 14 passes for 89 yards (6.4 ypr).
Last week versus Auburn, both Rebel running backs enjoyed some success, with Bolden carrying the ball 13 times for 114 yards (8.8 ypc) and two touchdowns, and Scott rushing 14 times for 78 yards (5.6 ypc).
Last year versus UK, Bolden ran for 108 yards on 23 carries (4.7 ypc) and one touchdown, while Scott scampered his way to 27 yards on eight carries (3.2 ypc).
The Rebel receiver crew can be described with one word: Very, very, very young. OK, that's four words, but you get the point. Led by 6'2" freshman Donte Moncrief who has 19 catches for 338 yards (an impressive 17.8 ypr) and four touchdowns, the Ole Miss wide outs are a talented lot in need of some SEC seasoning.
Nickolas Brassel, a 6'0" freshman receiver, has likewise caught 19 passes, good for 277 yards (14.6 ypr) and one touchdown. The old man of the group, 6'2" Ja-Mes Logan has also pulled in 19 passes for 265 yards (13.9 ypr).
All of the relevant Rebel receivers are gifted with speed and athleticism, and will be a challenge for UK's secondary, a secondary apt to give up the big play against tall and talented competition.
The Ole Miss defensive charge is led by another youthful performer in 6'2" 248-pound linebacker Mike Marry, who has 63 tackles on the year to go along with 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. Twin tower defensive ends Wayne Dorsey (a towering 6'6" 270-pound senior) and Gerald Rivers (6'5" 250-pound junior) have combined for 9.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks.
Roaming the Rebel secondary will be 6'2" 215-pound senior safety Damien Jackson, who has 59 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, and one interception on the year. Charles Sawyer, who was moved from safety to corner back this year, has four picks on the season, one returned 96 yards for a touchdown in the season-opener against BYU. On the season, Sawyer has 49 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss and four pass breakups.
It is certainly worth noting: Placekicker Bryson Rose, a 5'11" junior, has made 15 straight field goal tries, five of those coming this year. And Ole Miss punter, Tyler Campbell, a 6'2" junior, last year led the NCAA in punting with a 46.4 average. This year Campbell is still booting the ball with the best of them, averaging 43.6 yards per punt.
Ole Miss vs. UK Miscellaneous
UK and Ole Miss are the two lowest scoring teams in the SEC, with the 'Cats checking-in at 16.5 points per game, and the Rebels at 20.9 ppg ... Conversely, both teams are giving up points by the bushel, UK allowing 27.4 ppg, and Ole Miss 30.6, last in the SEC ... UK and UM's opponents have sacked the two teams' quarterbacks a combined 47 times (25 for UK, 22 for Ole Miss), while the 'Cats and Rebs have combined to sack the opposition's QB only 23 times (12 for UK, 11 for UK) ... Ole Miss has been outscored in the third quarter by a count of 91-21 ... UK leads the SEC with only 30.0 penalty yards per contest, while Ole Miss averages 58.2 yards in penalties, 11th in the league (UK's opponents average 56.0 yards in penalties, fifth in the SEC) ... A study in stark contrast -- Ole Miss is averaging 27.8 yards per punt return (on eight returns) and has had two punts returned for six, UK averages a PATHETIC 1.7 yards per return on 15 punts ... In red zone scores, both teams rank near the bottom of the SEC, with UK making good on 17 of 23 visits inside the 20-yard line (73.9%), and Ole Miss scoring on 15 of 18 trips (83.3%) ... Ole Miss' red zone defense has limited the opposition to 26 scores on 34 RZ visits (76.5%), third in the SEC ... The ugly flip-side -- the 34 RZ trips made by UM opponents ties Auburn for last in the SEC ... Combined, UK and UM average 549.4 yards of offense per game, and give up a combined 828.5 yards ... Kentucky fans looking for hope? Look no further -- Ole Miss ranks last in the conference in stopping the run, giving up 226.8 yards per game and an average of 5.5 yards per carry ... Two brothers from different mothers? Houston Nutt began his coaching stint at Ole Miss 18-8 in his first two years (and with two Cotton Bowl victories), in the last season-and-a-half Nutt's Rebels have won six and lost 14; in the shorter term, UK's Joker Phillips began his head coaching career 6-5, but has gone only 4-7 since ... Both coaches are now feeling the sting of criticism and the heat created by fan discontent ... Which "brother" gets the life preserver ...
Prediction: UK 24 Ole Miss 23
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!