Kentucky travels to Mississippi State on Saturday, looking for their first win in Starkville since 2008 and their first return to the AP Top 25 in 10 years. A win would also give them four true road wins in a row for the first time in nearly a decade.
While spirits are high following a 5-1 start, the tougher part of the schedule is ahead. It starts with a game against the Bulldogs, who opened as 10-point favorites and are now favored by nearly two touchdowns at the sports books in Las Vegas. Dan Mullen has his team sitting at 4-2, unbeaten at home, and possessing one of the most powerful rushing attacks in all of college football.
Kentucky, on the other hand, comes in off of a bye week, seeing all of their players on defense return to health. This includes the engine of the unit, Jordan Jones, who has missed most of the season but showed he hasn’t missed a beat during practices this week. His energy and leadership will be key on Saturday, as he led Kentucky last year with 11 tackles against the hosts.
While it will be a difficult environment (I hate those stupid cowbells) and a tough match-up for the Wildcats, there is a chance for Kentucky to pull off the upset and start the second half of the season on a positive note. Here are the three main things that Kentucky needs to accomplish to walk out of Starkville with the victory.
1: Stop Mississippi State’s Rushing Attack
At nearly 262 rushing yards per game, the Bulldogs have the 14th-ranked ground game in college football. They are led by running back Aeris Williams, who is fourth in the SEC with 87.2 yards per game, and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who has been adding 74.3 yards per contest. The option-run attack has allowed them to dominate lesser opponents, and was key in a blowout win against LSU earlier this season.
However, in their two losses to Auburn and Georgia, both Williams and Fitzgerald were held under 60 yards each, and the team ran for fewer than 5 yards per carry. Williams, especially, saw a huge dip in his numbers, as he averaged less than three yards per attempt against those two defenses, compared to over 6 yards per tote in their four wins.
When Williams has been shut down, it has put added pressure on Fitzgerald, and he has been unable to deliver—either on the ground or through the air. The quarterback threw one touchdown and four interceptions in their two defeats, compared to a 9:3 ratio in their wins, and was held well below his 6.5 yards per carry average for the season.
The Kentucky linebackers, spurred on by the return of Jones, will need to step up huge in this game to contain the Bulldog rushing attack and force Fitzgerald to beat them through the air. The defensive line will be key to this, as they will need to perform better at the point of attack than they did against Florida and Missouri. Mississippi State’s offensive line has allowed only twenty-one tackles for loss this season—the fourth best mark in the country—and do a great job at limiting negative plays, so the front four must step up and at least get a draw in their match-up. Keeping the linebackers clean so that they can make plays will be pivotal in a hostile environment, and will help take some of the pressure off of the rest of the defense and place it solely on the home team’s offense to find other ways to produce.
2: Develop A Pass Rush
Yep, the defensive line is going to need to step up again for this one. Kentucky’s secondary was torn apart by Missouri before the bye week. While injuries played a key role in this, so too did the fact that the defense rarely put pressure on Drew Lock, allowing him to do whatever he wanted. The Wildcats cannot afford that same luxury to Fitzgerald.
That will be much easier said than done, however. That same offensive line that has kept people from getting stops behind the line in the run game, has done the exact same in the passing game. Only three times this year have they allowed their quarterback to go down when he has dropped back to pass.
While they do not necessarily have to sack him often to win the game, they do need to make him feel pressure and make him think when he is scanning the field. Denzil Ware, Josh Allen, and Joshua Paschal will be called upon to create chaos up front, get in Fitzgerald’s face, and help out their brethren on defense to give Kentucky the best chance to win.
3: Kentucky Must Sustain Their Drives
Kentucky has had problems this season keeping their opposition’s defense on the field, and that must change for them to pull off the upset over Mississippi State. While the Wildcats’ defense is fresh now coming off the bye, it will be important to keep it that way, and to put the pressure squarely on the hosts.
This will require Eddie Gran to open up the playbook a bit, and utilize all of his weapons, to give the Kentucky offense their best chance to keep the ball and move it down the field. The Bulldogs rank in the top 10 in total defense, passing defense, and first down defense, meaning that a vanilla “hand it off up the middle” gameplan will get destroyed quickly.
It will be important for the offensive line to open up holes for Benny Snell to run through, in order for the play-action pass game to be truly exploited. Maybe more importantly, Gran must find a way to get C.J. Conrad and Lynn Bowden involved in the attack. Most likely, he will be able to get Conrad matched up on a linebacker or safety, a match-up he should easily win, and command attention that should hopefully free up other receivers and take a defender out of the box. In addition, Bowden must get the ball in space, where he can use his athleticism to create problems for the Mississippi State defense, and make them locate him whenever he’s on the field.
It will not be an easy game for Kentucky on the road against Mississippi State, but these three ingredients give them a strong recipe for an upset, a 6-1 start, their first AP Top 25 ranking in a decade, and a legitimate chance to finish in the top two of the SEC East this year.