University of Kentucky football fans know pain. They've lived through it, off and on, for as long as they've been Wildcat football fans. In my case, I learned the meaning of football frustration beginning in the late 1970's, just after Derek Ramsey and Art Still, in 1976 and 1977, lifted the Kentucky football program to heights it had not experienced since Bear Bryant left town in 1951. Kentucky's combined '76 and '77 record: 19-4. And that, my friends, is as good as it's gotten in the last 60 years.
Since then, UK football fans have suffered through a win-less season (1982), a one-win season (1994), and three two-win seasons (2000-2001, 2004), to go along with countless late-game meltdowns which served to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, sending thousands of UK's football faithful sinking back into the comfort of their couches with a shake of the head and the toss of a hat.
It's what we do. Us UK football fans. We think about what if, and why not. It's almost become second nature. Decades of defeat and disappointment will do that to a person.
And then came 2012. A season most thought would be a struggle, what with such a young offense and all. The learned among us said about the 'Cats; they are too young, and too inexperienced to compete at a high level ... too many question marks on offense, and not enough thoroughbreds.
But UK's offense, bolstered by the solid play of sophomore quarterback Max Smith, has shown signs of being able to consistently move the ball and score points (when not turning the ball over). But victories have not been forthcoming because UK's defense struggled like few others, as Rick Minter's youth brigade could not stop opponents on third down, resulting in drives of 70, 80, even 90 yards, chewing up clock and forcing an already sketchy defense to stay on the field for several game minutes at a time.
Then, when the defense finally begins to show improvement with a decent second half against Florida, and a week later, playing competently for a half versus South Carolina, the 'Cats were hit with the loss of Max Smith for the rest of the season, and most recently, the loss of part-time starting running back CoShik Williams (4.7 yards per carry), also for the remainder of the year.
Smith, of course, was the impetus behind UK's offensive improvement over last season, running UK's new, no-huddle, hurry-up offense with growing aplomb. Although he cost the 'Cats with interceptions against WKU, Smith's overall play through Kentucky's first three games was pleasantly surprising, as the sophomore threw for 975 yards, completed 68.7 percent of his passes, and tossed eight touchdowns against four interceptions.
And it's the recent losses of Smith and Williams, mercilessly piled on top of losing stud running back Josh Clemons prior to the start of the season, which have UK football fans (and coaching staff) crying "uncle," wondering what calamity awaits around the corner.
All this, unfortunately, with the 'Cats entering into the "soft" portion of their SEC schedule. "Soft," because future Wildcat foes Vanderbilt, Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas, have proved to be anything but typically tough Southeastern Conference squads. Each team struggling with its own demons, not unlike Kentucky.
So with UK's injuries, instead of a Wildcat squad gaining in confidence and experience playing these very "winnable" remaining games, it's a Kentucky team that will rely on two freshman quarterbacks to keep the ship from taking on any more water. And plugging the perilous holes begins today, against a Mississippi State team on the rise, undefeated at 4-0, and with a recent track record of taking it to the 'Cats (after splitting the first eight games of the 2000s, the 'Cats have lost four of five and three straight to the Bulldogs).
Mississippi State defense
It's the MSU defense which should most concern UK fans, because it's a defense that makes a mistake-prone offense pay a high price, and with UK's two newbie quarterbacks, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles at the helm, mistakes figure to be part of the learning process.
The secondary UK's two quarterbacks will face today is led by 6-foot-1 senior defensive back Darius Slay, who has four interceptions (in four games) and one pass break-up on his rather impressive resume.' Jonathan Banks, a 6-foot-2 senior defensive back, has recorded three interceptions, as the Bulldogs have posted a scary nine picks on the year.
Couple Mississippi State's nine interceptions with its six fumble recoveries, and the Bulldogs boast the nation's best defense at forcing turnovers with 3.25 per game. On a happier note, this is the same defense which gave up 572 yards of offense in a 30-24 win over Troy (349 passing, 223 rushing), a Sun Belt team. Additionally, last year as a freshman, Max Smith threw for 174 yards on 26-of-33 passing against MSU. No picks, but no touchdowns, either.
Up front, the Bulldogs boast a mixture of youth and experience, led by 6-foot-3, 255 pound senior d-lineman Cameron Lawrence, who leads the Dogs in tackles with 28. Denico Autrey, a 6-foot-5, 255 pound lineman has recorded 3.0 tackles for loss, while sophomore lineman Preston Smith (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) leads MSU with 2.0 sacks (the team has recorded only five sacks on the season).
Redshirt freshman linebacker Benardrick McKinney (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) is tied for second on the team with 24 tackles, and possesses both size, quickness, and burgeoning instincts.
Mississippi State offense
Perkins, who has ably replaced the graduated Vick Ballard as the Bulldogs' top ball carrier, has rushed for 389 yards and five touchdowns on only 57 carries, good for an outstanding 6.8 yards per carry. Derrick Milton, a 6-foot-0, 205 freshman, has pitched in 133 ground yards on 21 carries (6.3 ypc), and gives the Dogs a nice change-of-pace back to counter Perkins -- In Milton's senior high school season, played at Hargrave, Va., Military Academy, he rushed for 740 yards on only 43 carries and 10 touchdowns. That's 17.2 yards per carry, and a touchdown every 4.3 times he touched the ball (pretty impressive, regardless the competition).
Because he has such an effective rushing attack, head coach Dan Mullen likes to keep the ball on the ground, which he does 56.5 percent of the time, but Russell is certainly talented enough to get yards and points for MSU through the air.
Having completed 59-of-106 passes on the season, with only one interception and eight touchdowns, Russell is an undeniably dangerous quarterback. Lest we forget, last year Russell torched the 'Cats on 9-of-12 passing for 172 yards and one touchdown in MSU's 28-16 win over the 'Cats in Commonwealth (in a quirk of the schedule brought on by the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, MSU is visiting Lexington two years in a row).
Chad Bumphis (5-foot-11, 200 pound senior), a play-making wide out for the Dogs since his rookie year, is Russell's favorite target. On the season, Bumphis is averaging 22.2 yards per reception, as he leads MSU in receiving yards with 271, to go along with five touchdowns. For his impressive career, Bumphis has recorded 1,622 receiving yards on 113 catches (14.4 ypr) and 17 touchdowns. He is the man UK's beleaguered secondary must not lose sight of.
Also proving to be solid down-field targets for Russell are 6-foot-2 senior receiver Chris Smith, who has caught 13 passes for 177 yards (13.6 ypr), and tight end Marcus Green (6-foot-1, 240 pound senior), Russell's favorite red zone target -- Green has only six catches (for 85 yards), but three of his snags went for six.
That's what the 'Cats face this afternoon, as the team looks to build confidence, both in the squad as a whole, and specifically in their two fresh-faced signal-callers. Although UK's schedule loosens up a bit going forward, many of UK's remaining "winnable" games are on the road, and going into those contests coming off a win today at home, against a ranked MSU team, can only serve to bolster the esteem of the team, possibly giving the 'Cats a chance to end strong, turning those cries of "uncle" into cheers.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!