Kentucky takes on No. 14 Mississippi State tonight in a matchup that has had a lot of build up.
It is shaping up to be a raucous atmosphere at Kroger Field with a large crowd hoping to see the Wildcats pull off an upset against a team some have thought may be the second-best team in the SEC West.
Kentucky has some obvious players that must play well for the Cats to pick up a win (Benny Snell, Terry Wilson, etc.) but here are five other guys to keep an eye on that will play a significant role in the game.
S Darius West
West is off to a nice start in his senior year and seems to finally be finding a comfort level at the safety spot opposite of Mike Edwards.
Through the first three games, West is first on the team in solo tackles (12) and tied for second in total tackles (19). West has shown the ability to play a major role in helping with the run defense, and he will likely be called upon several times to line up in the box to slow down the Bulldogs’ high-powered rushing attack.
One of the downfalls in Kentucky’s matchup against MSU last year was an inability to complete tackles, which allowed the Bulldogs to break long runs that crippled Kentucky’s defense. West has been one of the better tacklers for the Wildcats defense, and if Kentucky wants to slow down the trio of Nick Fitzgerald, Kylin Hill, and Aeris Williams, West will play a big role in that.
To try to give their runners more room, Mississippi State could try to spread the Wildcats defense out, in which case West will likely have to leave the box to cover a wide receiver or tight end. West will be asked to do a lot in this game, and if he plays well like he did against Florida (8 tackles, one interception), it will be a major boost for the Wildcats.
Darius West with the HUGE 4th quarter interception. pic.twitter.com/mvT8vAld3B— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 9, 2018
RT George Asafo-Adjei
Asafo-Adjei will likely be matched up with Mississippi State Defensive End Montez Sweat most of the game on Saturday, and that is going to be a tall task for the senior offensive tackle.
Sweat is coming off of a season where he finished with 11 sacks, tied atop the SEC, and already has three sacks on the year through three games, which is tied for the lead in the conference. Most draft projections are slotting Sweat in the first round or the second round.
Needless to say, Kentucky has to find a way to contain him on Saturday.
For Kentucky to win, they’ll need a few explosive plays, probably through the passing game. In order to have a chance at those, Terry Wilson will need time in the pocket without a defender bearing down on him. Asafo-Adjei will need to have an excellent game in not allowing Sweat to wreak havoc in the Kentucky backfield all night.
He won’t have to do this alone. Kentucky will probably use CJ Conrad frequently to help in pass protection but ideally, the Wildcats would like to deploy Conrad in the passing attack as another dangerous weapon. How Asafo-Adjei can handle Sweat could play a role in how much of a role Conrad plays in the passing game for Kentucky.
NG Quinton Bohanna
The Mississippi State rushing attack has already been mentioned, but it can’t be understated how powerful their rushing offense is with two talented running backs and a quarterback on the verge of breaking Tim Tebow’s record for rushing yards by a quarterback. The Wildcats simply can’t be slashed on the ground and win this game.
Another major piece in slowing down the Bulldogs on the ground will be Bohanna. We haven’t really seen a lot of Bohanna thus far this season, but he will need to be healthy and have a strong performance for the Wildcats to have a chance in this game. Bohanna left early in the Florida game due to an ankle injury, and sat out against Murray State to let the ankle continue to heal.
At 6’4” and 340 pounds, Bohanna draws attention in the middle of the Wildcats defensive line and he will have a major matchup on his hands against an experienced and talented Bulldogs offensive line, led by senior center Elgton Jenkins, who last week won SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week and was named on the preseason watchlist for the Remington Trophy, which recognizes the top center in the nation.
It will be key for Bohanna (and the rest of the defensive line) to hold steady at the line of scrimmage and not allow Jenkins and the Bulldogs offensive line to get into the second level. Bohanna is the anchor of the Wildcats defensive line and will be a player to watch to see who controls the line of scrimmage.
RB A.J. Rose
I think Rose is going to be a critical player in this game for a few reasons. Benny Snell will get the bulk of carries in this game, but this will be a physical game and Snell can’t take every handoff. Rose will need to provide between 7-11 carries through the game to keep Snell from wearing down late in what I think will be a close game in the fourth quarter.
However, I expect the Bulldogs to stack the box on defense and force the Wildcats to throw the ball. The Bulldogs have done a solid job of pressuring the quarterback this year and Rose has the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Rose could find himself being a target out of the backfield for some easy drop-off passes that he can turn into large gains from yards after catch.
Additionally, Rose has to be ready to help in blitz pickup, which has been a weakness of his. Rose will have to be ready when he is on the field to assist in picking up pass rushers to allow Wilson time to make a throw.
I don’t know how many reps Rose will see, but I think for Kentucky to win this game, he will need to see a decent share so Snell maintains some stamina in the fourth quarter and Rose has to be efficient in his reps early.
LB Jordan Jones
Kentucky will need Jordan Jones to have a strong outing against Mississippi State if the Wildcats hope to contain Nick Fitzgerald and Co.
Two years ago, when Kentucky upset Mississippi State in Lexington, Jones led all Wildcats tacklers with 11 total tackles including six solo tackles and a quarterback hurry.
Jones will likely be used frequently to spy Nick Fitzgerald, and in situations where Fitzgerald runs the ball, which will likely come early and often (34 rush attempts in two games this season), Jones will play a major role in limiting Fitzgerald and not allowing him to break long gains like he was able to do last year like the 40-yard TD run on 4th and 1 right before halftime.
I think Kentucky has a really good chance to win this game if Fitzgerald stays under 100 yards rushing, which is a tall order for the Wildcats, as he has reached the century mark in 16 games over the course of the last three seasons. Limiting Fitzgerald’s impact on the ground and forcing him into third and long situations where he has to use his arm to throw into tight windows will be critical for Kentucky’s defense and Jones will be a big part of making that happen.