The 12th ranked Kentucky Wildcats come off a bye week to head south to Starkville in a huge game for the Wildcats.
Kentucky is coming off its lone loss of the season to Georgia and will be looking to get things back on track in a hostile environment in Starkville, where Kentucky hasn’t won since 2008 and Mark Stoops has yet to get his first win.
A special season is still in play for Kentucky as 10 or 11 wins is still on the table. However, that could be contingent on doing what Mark Stoops has yet to do at Kentucky: Beat Mississippi State in Starkville.
The Bulldogs are coming off of a 45-6 win over Vanderbilt and enter at 4-3 looking to move closer to bowl eligibility. Things don’t get much easier from here on out for Mike Leach’s squad, as they still have trips to Arkansas and Auburn remaining, along with the Egg Bowl matchup to finish the regular season.
The Bulldogs host Mississippi State in the next-to-last game of the season, so this matchup could play a big role in determining whether the Bulldogs will go to a bowl game.
As Kentucky goes on the road on Saturday, here are 5 players (or groups) to keep an eye on.
#1. Chris Rodriguez
Rodriguez is the catalyst for Kentucky’s offense.
The junior running back has ran for more than 700 yards on the season and is one of the best running backs in the SEC. Rodriguez was held in check against Georgia’s historically good run defense, but Kentucky will need Rodriguez to get back to form on Saturday to take down the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State has held up well against opposing rushing attacks this season, ranking third in the conference only allowing 93 rushing yards per game. Kentucky, on the other hand, averages around 191 rushing yards per game.
Alabama and Texas A&M have been the only teams to produce a strong day on the ground against the Bulldogs. If Kentucky can get Rodriguez going early, Kentucky should be able to come away with a win.
#2. The cornerbacks
Going more broad with this one, because it’s hard to pick out one corner to keep an eye on as Kentucky will likely utilize different matchups throughout the game.
Carrington Valentine, Cedrick Dort, Davonte Robinson and Quandre Mosley will have their hands full on Saturday and will have to make big plays when the opportunity presents itself.
Mississippi State throws the ball more than anyone in the country, but they look to utilize short passes to move the ball down the field.
QB Will Rogers is among the nation’s passing leaders with more than 2,500 pass yards and 18 touchdowns. He hasn’t thrown fewer than 47 passes in a game all season.
WR Makai Polk has been one of the top receivers in the SEC this season. The 6’3 junior has caught 58 passes for 552 yards and 6 touchdowns this season.
It’s pretty obvious. Mississippi State is a Mike Leach-coached team. They’re going to sling the ball around, so Kentucky’s corners will have to make sure to wrap up receivers and not allow 5-yard passes to turn into 20+ yard gains.
Rogers has also thrown seven interceptions on the season, so Kentucky’s corners need to be ready. With so many passes flying around, there will be opportunities for interceptions. The Cats haven’t done very well with intercepting passes, but if Kentucky can create one or two interceptions on Saturday, it will turn the momentum significantly in Kentucky’s favor.
#3. JJ Weaver
Kentucky has struggled getting to the quarterback this season with only 14 sacks on the season, which ranks 12th in the SEC.
But getting pressure on Rogers this Saturday will be key to forcing incompletions or interceptions and keeping the Bulldogs behind the chains and forcing them to throw the ball further down the field, where they’ve had some issues.
JJ Weaver has been Kentucky’s best pass rush threat, with 4 sacks on the season. If Weaver (and some of Kentucky’s other pass rushers) can help put pressure on Rogers throughout the game, Kentucky can keep more players in coverage without drawing up as many blitz packages and put a strain on State’s passing attack.
The Bulldogs have had issues with that this season. The offensive line has allowed 20 sacks on the season, including three against Vanderbilt last week. This should be a game where Kentucky can get some pressure on the quarterback, and if that’s the case, Weaver will likely be the player causing havoc in the Bulldogs backfield.
#4. Isaiah Epps
Josh Ali is set to return following a two-game absence due to a leg injury, though he could be a little rusty. Kentucky needs Isaiah Epps to play a big role as a second/third pass-catcher alongside Wan’Dale Robinson and Ali when healthy.
Epps had three catches for 27 yards in that Georgia game, but the Wildcats coaching staff would ideally like to see more out of him.
Expect a healthy dose of the run game on Saturday, especially if they can find some success early with it. But Epps will be key for spreading out Mississippi State’s defense and making them focus on the passing game as well.
#5. The Field Goal Unit
Matt Ruffolo has kicked the ball well this season.
When those kicks haven’t been blocked.
It hasn’t come back to bite Kentucky yet, but the Wildcats have had four kicks blocked this season.
Ruffolo is a really solid kicker, but the blocks probably have partial blame on him along with the blockers.
Regardless of what the issue is, it’s something the coaching staff needs to address. Blocked kicks are points left on the field, and can be costly mistakes. Those are mistakes the Wildcats can’t continue to make if they want to have the season they’re capable of having.