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Kentucky Wildcats Football Know Your Enemy: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Last year, the Kentucky Wildcats snapped a seven-game losing streak to Dan Mullen and the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Now they have to travel to Starkville as a double-digit underdog.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Mark Stoops and his Wildcats snapped a seven-game losing streak to Dan Mullen and the Mississippi State Bulldogs 40-38 at Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky was in control most of the game but collapsed in the fourth quarter, only to be saved by Austin MacGinnis, who booted a 51-yard field goal as time expired.

That win improved Kentucky to 4-3 and started the momentum towards the Wildcats first bowl bid in six seasons. This year, the Wildcats face the pressure and expectation to win to appease the portion of the fanbase that is not happy with a 5-1 record. Kentucky has not won at Starkville since 2008, and they will face the potent Mississippi State offense, but the Bulldogs are still looking to find their identity.

The Bulldogs got off to a good start outscoring Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech 106-21. Then came the eye-opening 37-7 win over then #12 LSU and the Bulldogs had the look of a real contender. That illusion was quickly shattered in back to back losses to then #11 Georgia 31-3 and #13 Auburn 49-10. The Bulldogs stopped the bleeding with a 35-10 win over a terrible BYU team.

The oddsmakers are giving Kentucky no respect at all even though they are three yards on MacGinnis field goal from being 6-0. The Bulldogs are a 10 point favorite to send Kentucky back home with a loss.

Let's meet the Bulldogs.

THE OFFENSE

Nick Fitzgerald has struggled with inconsistency all season, and he does not seem to have progressed as a passer after a solid 2016 season. He has 1024 yards passing with 10 TDs and seven interceptions. He is not a very accurate passer, completing just 54.9% of his passes. In the first three wins of the season, Fitzgerald looked spectacular, tossing seven touchdowns and just one pick. In the past three games, he has 3 TDs against six interceptions.

The one way that Fitzgerald will hurt you, however, is with his feet. Fitzgerald has rushed for 446 yards and has seven TDs on the ground and averages 6.5 yards a carry. Fitzgerald has been sacked just four times this year. While he is not a reincarnation of Dak Prescott, Fitzgerald can still hurt you running or passing.

Aeris Williams leads the team in rushing with 523 yards and two touchdowns. He is an effective runner that averages 5.4 yards a carry. He also has 11 catches for 77 yards. Freshman Kylin Hill has been a pleasant surprise with 234 yards rushing and a 5.4 yard per carry average. The most impressive thing about the Bulldog ground attack is they have only lost 39 yards on negative rushing attempts. This is an attack that averages 261.7 yards a game for a 5.7 average per rush. In addition, this offensive line has allowed just three sacks on the year.

This is clearly a run-first offense as the passing game accounts for just 188 yards a game. Sophomore Keith Mixon leads the team with16 catches for 138 yards and a touchdown. He is not really the #1 receiver type, however. That role was supposed to go to Donald Gray. Gray caught passes for 709 yards and a 17.3 yard average per catch. Halfway through this season, he has struggled with just 17 catches for 155 yards and a 9.1-yard average.

Sophomore Deddrick Thomas had just five catches last year but has 10 this year for 137 yards and two touchdowns. Fitzgerald has a couple of good TE targets in Farrod Green and Justin Johnson, but they have a combined seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown. A total of seven players have TD receptions, so the Fitzgerald does spread the ball around.

THE DEFENSE

This is a pretty impressive Bulldog defense as they have allowed just 19.8 points per game. They have been stingy with yardage, allowing just 284.8 yards per game. Those numbers are inflated a bit by the game where they allowed Charleston Southern to just 33 yards, but keep in mind they held LSU to just 270 yards. They are led by former Louisville defensive coordinator/Batman villain Todd Grantham, so expect a fast, physical and aggressive defense.

This is a defense that can get into the backfield and they have 32 TFLs on the season. The front seven is led by former five star Jeffrey Simmons, who has 31 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Freshman Kobe Jones has stepped up with 15 tackles and 3.5 TFLs and Trey Brown has 14 tackles and 2.5 of them for a loss.

It is tough to run on this team as they allow just 129.8 yards a game and just 3.6 yards per catch. LB Dez Harris leads the team with 38 tackles and 2 TFLs. JUCO transfer Montez Sweat adds 3.5 TFLs and two sacks and can get into the backfield consistently. Leo Lewis has 21 tackles, and Gerri Green has two sacks and four TFLs.

There were some questions in the defensive backfield entering the season, but this unit has played well and allows just 155 yards a game. I think they can be exploited, but that theory has not really been a reality yet. JT Gray is a converted linebacker and has 37 tackles and is great at breaking up and defending passes. Former Georgia Bulldog Jonathan Abram has 25 tackles while Safety Brandon Bryant has 24 tackles and an interception. DB Mark McLaurin has 31 tackles and an interception and is also good at breaking up passes. Tolando Cleveland, perhaps the team’s best cornerback, is still recovering from an injury that caused him to miss the 2016 season and has just eight tackles this year.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN

First, I will say that I do not buy into the Vegas line that Mississippi State is 10 points better than Kentucky. A lot of this is based on the fact that Mississippi State's offense is a steamroller and Kentucky's defense has been porous at times.

Kentucky is solid against the run, which is the Bulldog's strength. Plus, Jordan Jones will return, and the Wildcats seem to be fully healthy. Kentucky allows just 97.2 yards per game on the ground and 3.4 yards a carry. This will be a great test for the Kentucky defense, but I like the fact that everyone is healthy for seemingly the first time this year.

The big holes in the Kentucky defense are the defensive backfield which allows a gaudy 288.7 yards a game. A lot of that has been linked to injuries, but Kentucky can take advantage of the fact that Fitzgerald is not a terribly accurate passer.

I think the bye week came at the perfect time for the Wildcats and I will look for a much more aggressive offense. I think the shootout against Missouri was a good chance to open up the offense and I would hope that the bye week consisted of finding my plays for Lynn Bowden.

I think that this game is a coin toss game and it is still a winnable game for Kentucky, despite the Las Vegas oddsmakers. I still wanted to pick the Bulldogs to win but in the spirit of believing in the power of the bye week will go with the Cats 34-31 on another Austin MacGinnis game-winner.