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Sideline to Sideline: Mississippi State vs. Kentucky

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The Cats look to avoid their first 0-3 start since 1967.

Sideline to Sideline: MSU vs. UK
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Happiness can be defined as the positive differential between expectation and reality. When expectations are exceeded, we generally are left with far more satisfaction than when they don’t come to fruition.

The Kentucky Wildcats are a team that has certainly been a bit of a let down in the fledgling 2020 slate. People in the Bluegrass are not happy after an 0-2 start.

One of the offseason darlings thanks to loads of continuity, a workable schedule, and returning production, Kentucky had the SEC’s worst rate-of-return on their Over 5 Win Total. Translation: the money was heavily in UK’s corner to win more than 5 games. For a program used to being middling, the bar was set high.

UK was a trendy Week 1 pick to upend War Eagle on the Plains. Plenty of talking heads were all in on Big Blue. But as Forest Gump once said, “Sh#t happens.”. The Cats played the way they do but had to turn to the pass once a few crucial errors forced their hand. Ball game.

The drunken haze of optimism that had mused the Big Blue Nation has long worn off, and the sour hangover has taken reign. After UK failed to protect their home turf against Joey Freshwater thanks to a couple of missed kicks, many BBN followers’ heads are pounding with plenty of others feeling queasy. The Air Raid returning to Lexington to take on a leaky UK secondary, however, is a fairly sobering reality. Once a dark horse SEC East contender, they are now on the verge of their first 0-3 start since 1967. (To be fair UK started 0-2-1 in 1982).

Kentucky certainly stumbled out of the gates and is a good amount of lengths behind the leaders nearing the quarter pole of 2020. So with help of some special stats, let’s see how Stoops’ Troops matchup with Mike Leach’s Bulldogs.

Pass Game

Terry Wilson sure as hell looked like he hadn’t played live football in over a year vs. Auburn. He was hesitant, ineffective, and had a couple of critical blunders. But to his credit, he rebounded and put up some of his best numbers against a bad Ole Miss defense. His 93.3% Adjusted Completion%, 61.1% Success Rate, and 70% Depth Adjusted Accuracy% were career highs. Not to mention, he was one of Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded QBs last weekend.

But while most will focus on his passing, I was much more pleased to see Scary Terry run with a chip on his shoulder and attack holes. The week prior, he was — let’s say — a little soft when he was a designed runner. That changed versus the Rebels. You could say he played with an edge, had swagger to him, or played with confidence. Whatever you want to call it.

Wilson is best suited to be a supporting element. Even if his downfield accuracy from last week continues, Kentucky may not have the pass catchers to make those plays count. Let’s not forget 3 drops occurred on deep passes against Ole Miss. But it’s not just the butterfingers, the scheme right now is asking Wilson to distribute short. He had as many throws behind the line of scrimmage as attempts that traveled 10 or more yards downfield against the Rebels.

Wilson’s 14.6% Screen Rate is the 2nd-highest and his 6.75 Average Depth of Target is 4th-lowest. This is why he currently sports a top5 Accuracy% heading into Week3. Loads of short targets have allowed him easier chances to deliver the ball on the money. Yet, no SEC passer has seen a higher percentage of their passing yards come after the catch than Wilson.

To that, Wilson reflects as an average SEC passer from an output standpoint. With scheme overly game-planning to throw underneath routes to space, the majority of his production literally is out of his hands. His 43.6% Passing Success Rate, 10.9% Explosive Pass Rate, and 36.4% First Down Touchdown Rate rank 8th, 8th, and 7th within the conference.

Terry Wilson’s Pass Chart entering Week 3
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But again, Wilson offers the running element. If they can, UK will gladly lean on the Big Blue Wall. As far as Wilson goes, he sports a top15 Success Rate, top8 Explosive Run Rate, and top5 Yards/Carry on designed runs (no sacks or scrambles). His balance will be needed to get Mississippi State out of sorts in order for big plays to manifest.

Josh Ali is the clear go-to option for Wilson. His 18 targets double the next Cat in terms of volume. Only three other SECers have received a higher share of their teams’ passes. But unlike last year where he was mostly on the receiving end of a late down heave, UK is actively trying to let him make plays. With a high Screen Rate, Wilson has delivered seven tunnels or bubbles Ali’s way. He’s managed to haul in all but three targets. Among players in the conference with at least 10 targets, he’s top15 in Success Rate and First Down+TD Rate.

DeMarcus Harris is next in UK’s pecking order, but with three drops across his nine opportunities, it’s fair to wonder if someone else becomes the beta option. With a mostly unproven group filling out their ranks, the answers are not in the stats right now. Still, I feel I should mention Akeem Hayes has caught all four of his passes; two were conversions and the other was UK’s lone passing TD.

KJ Costello is a pretty good quarterback. For the BBNers who haven’t seen him play much. He’s late-in-career Ben Roethlisberger. He has a long winding release, has below-average ball security and mobility, and throws plenty of risky passes; but he’s accurate, savvy, and talented enough to best any defense in any given game.

So far through two weeks, Costello sports the SEC’s 5th-best Explosive Pass Rate, 6th-best Depth Adjusted Accuracy, and the 9th-best down-to-down Success Rate. His 42.9% clip of the latter is lower than Wilson’s heading into Saturday. But overall, he’s just like a room temp Ale-81: just okay.

What really stinks up his profile is his aforementioned occasional carelessness. He commonly holds the ball like a loaf of bread when climbing in the pocket, doesn’t respond well when put on the move, and has thrown an SEC-high 13 interceptable passes. The next man in line, Myles Brennan, has only tossed 6. By a rate basis, he’s one of the three SECers with a clip in the double-digits. He’s likely to give the Cats an opportunity or two for an extra possession. Now’s the time I’d like to point out Kentucky is the only team in the conference without a takeaway.

The Air Raid will likely morph responding on how UK’s backend presents itself. Stoops hasn’t been afraid to go with shell coverage before. In fact, that was one of the major tactics his defensive staff implemented after the first bye week last season. Arkansas had immense success bottling up the Bulldogs last week doing exactly that. A quarter of Miss State’s passes versus LSU went 20+. But Costello only produced one against the Hogs across his 59 attempts.

Mesh is the play to look out for. Rubs Variations have logged the most reps of any concept for Miss State so far this year. Of the concept’s 27 tries, 24 have been varieties of Mesh. Over a quarter of MSU’s yards have come via this pattern. The Mesh combo calls for intersecting drag routes and is a natural man-beater. Trails are also designs that will pop up to beat man. When teams go zone, Leach loves the Air Raid certified Y-Cross or taking a chance will his “99” play (All Verts).

Looking at how shaky UK’s secondary has been, I can imagine Costello will operate with a YOLO attitude. Half of MSU’s targeted All Vert patterns have resulted in completions so far this year. Still let’s remember if the big plays aren’t there, the Air Raid can become a ball control offense. In addition to those other looks, expect to see Stick, Spot, and designed screens.

Mississippi State’s Offense
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Mississippi State has 5x the players with at least 8 targets than the Cats. Their top-two receivers are Osirus Mitchell and JaVonta Payton, who are responsible for a third the team’s aerial yards and targets.

By volume, no other SEC player has as many 20+ yard receptions as Mitchell’s 7 while his Explosive Catch Rate is the conference’s 3rd-best. But while big plays are all over his profile, Mitchell’s average depth of target is actually on the lower end. As a threat after the catch, only five SECers can top his 11.3 YAC clip. His Success Rate is just as good as Ali’s at 53.3%

Payton’s early returns are a little less efficient. His Catch Rate and Success Rate are very middling at this point in time. But thanks to the Air Raid he has above average potency per his Explosive Catch Rate and Yards/Target. And only one of his catches hasn’t resulted in either a first down or a score. While Mitchell has the more versatile route tree, Payton has shown to be more of an underneath outlet or a deep threat; no in-between.

Kylin Hill will also be a featured pass catcher. Via screens, angles, and other routes out of the backfield, Hill has showed his big play potential isn’t limited to just the ground game. No SECer averages more after the catch and his sizzling 20.3 clip. That in turn has helped his 14.4 Yards/Target to sit inside the conference’s top4 entering this week. Granted those numbers will change, but they cannot be completely disregarded especially considering his 63.6% Success Rate and craftiness working defenders in space.

Besides Hill’s reserves offering similar outlets, MSU’s other receivers that will play a role will be slots Austin Williams and Jaden Walley as well as other outsiders ex-Alabamer Tyrell Shavers, JUCO-transfer Malik Heath, and sophomore Cameron Gardner. Williams has seen three-fourths of his targets result in success, which is one of the highest rates in the SEC; but his Yards/Target is well below average.

Walley is a horizontal option. Nine of his 11 targets so far have been cross or drag routes. As Leach’s slot, these are the routes often deployed in his staple concepts. Heath and Gardener are reserve X receivers. But thanks to inconsistent passing their way, their numbers are nothing to write home about. From the Z-position, Shavers has displayed a versatile route tree much like Mitchell’s but has only put up a measly 37.5% Success Rate so far.

Run Game

Kentucky is obviously buoyed by its run game. So it is a damn good thing they currently sport the SEC’s best Rushing Success Rate and top Rush Yards Before Contact clip. They are so in a class of their own within the SEC that the gap between their 3.52 clip and 2nd-place Tennessee’s 2.28 clip is more than the gap between the Vols and the 14th-ranked team in the conference through the first two weeks.

It’s fair to wonder, however, if those stats are a direct result of playing Ole Miss’s lousy defense, which currently ranks dead last in defensive Rushing Success Rate, Yards/Carry allowed, and Rush Yards Before Contact in SEC play. In Week 1 versus Auburn, if we were to omit Kavosiey Smoke’s 35 yard untouched scamper, UK’s 2.5 YBC clip would have been sliced by a yard. That implies, the Big Blue Wall didn’t have the best afternoon on the Plains.

Still as it stands ahead of Saturday, AJ Rose, Smoke, and Wilson sport top5 Yards/Carry clips with Chris Rodriguez rounding out the group with a top10 average within the league play. All of them have Rushing Success Rates over 50%, which bests the conference average.

Kentucky’s Rushers at a Glance
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While Smoke will be out, Rose and Rodriguez are ready to roll. Rose’s Yards After Contact average of 4.63 yards currently holds the conference’s silver medal. But his Explosive Run Rate is in the single digits and about 60% of his carries have gained three yards or less, which is one of highest clips in the SEC. Despite his high YAC average, he’s been middle of the road at breaking tackles on a per carry basis.

Strangely, so has Baby Benny. Rodriguez’s bruising running style allowed him to end 2019 as the leader in SEC play in Broken Tackle Rate while being second in YAC average, First Down+TD Rate, and Explosive Run Rate. While he is currently one of two SECers with a Rushing Success Rate over 70% and is top4 in 1D+TD Rate, his Broken Tackle Rate is below average. Perhaps that changes with more carries as he finds his groove, but Kentucky’s ground game simply won’t be the same if its backs cannot bust big gainers.

With the Big Blue Wall providing excellent cushion, Kentucky’s run game owns the SEC’s 4th-best Explosive Run Rate and HAVOC Rate allowed. It’s certainly easier to run the ball with less mess in your path. Getting around the bookends have sparked the most potency. When the Cats can get outside, they currently average 11.2 Yards/Carry on an electric 76.2% Success Rate.

With the most diverse run script around, Eddie Gran does a phenomenal job of preventing defenses from getting comfortable. While some Cat fans might think UK runs a mellow scheme, that simply isn’t the case despite its one-dimensional perception. Take the opening script versus Ole Miss last week for example. Over UK’s first ten plays from scrimmage, nine were runs. But EIGHT separate run wrinkles were called. With a mix of zone reads, counter reads, bash reads, Utah/Tap passes, and veer looks, UK can be hard to pinpoint if they get going on the ground. All three master run concepts that currently have 10 reps all command at least a 58.3% Success Rate and 5.94 Y/C. Not bad..

Kentucky’s Offense
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With the Air Raid, Mississippi State’s run game is much less sophisticated. Outside of runs to light boxes, you simply don’t see much. The technique MSU’s line currently displays is far from exemplary. No SEC run game suffers from lower rush yards before contact on average than the Bulldogs. Much of what their run game produces is thanks to what their backs can do after defensive engagement. This run game has been just as likely to run for a first down as turn contact behind the line of scrimmage into a positive carry. Though they only have logged one negative rushing attempt, only two have gone 10+. None of their backs have a Rushing Success Rate over 45% and their clip as a team is only 40%, which is the SEC’s 4th-worst.

Kylin Hill, whether it be as a passing outlet or running against a light box, is one of the most accomplished running backs in the conference. So while his numbers don’t scare you in this facet at this point in time, he’s much more threatening than his backfield mates Dillon Johnson and Jo’Quavious Marks.

Those two’s Yards/Target are both under 4 yards as both average less than 4.4 Y/C. As you might guess from a run blocking unit who’s dead last in the conference generating cushion, no SEC offense has been worse preventing HAVOC plays from altering their runs than the Bulldogs. This could either be a result of MSU’s bad blocking, smaller than average sample size, or both.

Defense

Point blank, Kentucky’s pass defense has sucked the first two weeks of play. While the main driver of UK’s optimism heading into 2020 was rooted in its O-Line’s ability to push people around, the Cats’ presumed ability to prevent opposing passers from finding success also played a big part. In SEC play last year, only Alabama allowed a lower Yards/Pass than Kentucky as the Cats cracked the top5 in Explosive Pass Rate allowed.

But defending throws is much more volatile and unpredictable year-over-year than clogging run lanes. I mean, think of all the separate variables involved in any given pass play. Outside of the matchup, coverage, route, depth, and pass location, there are dozens of other items to consider for each attempt. With the already sporadic nature of collegiate personnel groups, banking on them to run it back without any hiccups was a bit presumptuous.

When UK led the conference in Takeaway Rate, it made Stoops’ D rather formidable. The stats said as much. But when that aspect disappears — like say the first two weeks of 2020 — UK’s defense comes off as toothless. Again, UK is the only SEC defense without a takeaway entering Week3.

Kentucky’s pass defense has been a let a big letdown from back to front. Looking at the numbers across the conference, the Cats are bottom3 in Pressure Rate and Pass Havoc, bottom5 in Sack Rate, and dead last in Defensive Pass Success Rate and 15+ Pass Rate allowed. Only Texas A&M currently dons a worse Yards/Pass allowed than their 9.88 average. Not great considering the offense UK is about to square up against.

The Cats run defense, however, has displayed major year-over-year improvement in the young season. Perfect for this matchup I know. Still, UK sports the SEC’s best Run HAVOC Rate, 2nd-best run Tackle for a Loss Rate, 3rd-best Run Tackle Rate, and a top5 defensive Rush Success Rate. Considering how dismissible Miss State’s ground efforts have been, I’ll be shocked if the Cats falter in this facet. With the Cats projecting to have a major shortcoming through the air, Leach is probably all in on torching the Cats’ backend rather than toying in the trenches.

Mississippi State’s run defense has been rather ho-hum to start the year. The Bulldogs sit in the middle of the pack in Rushing Success Rate and Rush Yards Before Contact. But nearly 60% of their defended runs have failed to gain more than three yards. With the 3rd-best Explosive Run Rate, the Bulldogs join Alabama as the only conference defense to prevent a rush of 15 or more yards.

MSU is equally mediocre against the pass down-to-down and equally stingy on allowing big gainers. The Bulldogs currently rank 4th in Explosive Pass Rate, 15+ Pass Rate, and Pass HAVOC Rate. With all those elements coming together, their Yards/Pass allowed is top5 within the conference.

While so-so on any given down, Miss State has done a fantastic job keeping opposing offenses off the field. When the Air Raid isn’t scoring at will, it can be rather methodical and eat clock. Playing into that, only Georgia’s and South Carolina’s defense has forced a preferable 3-and-Out Rate than MSU’s 42.9% clip. Plus, their 2.01% Takeaway Rate is top5. With the 3rd-lowest First Down/Play Rate in the conference, the Bulldogs have played higher than their billing as ESPN’s SP+ worst conference defense to start the year. While nothing jumps out via the traditional stats with this bunch, success seemingly doesn’t come easy for opposing offenses.

Meanwhile, Kentucky owns the worst Touchdown/Play Rate and Takeaway Rate with the 3rd-worst Scoring Drive Rate allowed. This shouldn’t come as a major shock considering the performances we have seen the last couple of weeks on that side of the ball. Captain Obvious wanted me to point this out in case it wasn’t clear last Saturday: it doesn’t matter how well the Cats can run the ball if these metrics remain in the toilet.

If you are still one of those people that go by traditional volume numbers, Mississippi State still looks to have the more desirable unit heading into this matchup. Only Georgia has allowed a lower Yards/Game clip than the Bulldogs’ 352 average. The Cats are right in the middle ranking 7th in this regard.

While both defenses’ Early Down numbers are general reflections of their overall stats, Mississippi State has shown to be the harder unit to convert against. Thanks to their opponents rocking the SEC’s 2nd-highest average yards to gain on the money down, the Bulldogs have a 63.3% 3rd Down defensive Success Rate and have only allowed a single play of 15+ thus far in these spots. UK, on the other hands, is no better than average relative to the rest of the conference.

Conclusion

Despite the Cats being favored by a slim margin, a good amount of folks love the Bulldogs’ chances to keep Kentucky winless. With the pass-happy attack facing one of the more hapless units curbing gains through the air, it’s a matchup that hurts the Cats.

UK will have to find explosive gains to extend drives, wear down MSU’s defense, and keep Costello and Co. off the field. Overcoming a defense that doesn’t allow many big plays and has been great at forcing 3-and-Outs is a challenging obstacle. But with the one of the best lines around, Kentucky can still dictate the flow of the game. As we saw in Week 1, however, playing with a deficit is something UK isn’t really designed to do especially if the run game has a hard time finding momentum.

UK has to start fast offensively and do their best to fluster Costello. With his proclivity for turnover-worthy plays, Kentucky’s defense might have been dealt a trump card in dealing with the Air Raid.

While expectations for tomorrow are 50/50, the overall outlook for 2020 will dive bomb if the Cats drop to 0-3. Though a couple of weeks ago the Cats rocked a top25 ranking in the polls and ESPN’s SP+, this game almost has a “must-win” feel to it if the Cats wish to win at least half of their games. For what it’s worth, the latter metric projects UK to win by 2 points, which is a cover by the current Bovada line.

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