This is a big one. Many are calling it the biggest game of the season for the Wildcats. Some are even saying it’s a must-win game, despite the fact that we are just entering week five. I’m not sure if it’s the biggest game of the year or a must-win, but entering a crucial three-game home stretch with a 4-1 record and a big SEC road win would be nice and do a lot for UK’s bowl hopes.
Ole Miss owns a 26-13-1 series advantage over Kentucky and the last time that the two teams squarred off was in 2006, when the Wildcats rolled the Rebels 31-14 at The Wealth. The win in 2006 was Kentucky’s first SEC game of the year and it marked the first time that they had won their conference opener since 1987.
In an on-going trend that seems to stretch from Lexington to Hysteria, Kentucky has not beaten Ole Miss in Oxford since 1978. The home team has won five of the last six contests.
Ole Miss enters the game with a 2-2 record with their two losses coming to teams they expected to beat, Jacksonville State and Vandy. In the loss to Jacksonville State, the Rebels led the Gamecocks 31-10 at half, 31-13 after three quarters, but fell 49-48 in two overtimes. They fell 28-14 to Vandy at home with three turnovers being their downfall.
Their two wins are a 27-13 victory at Tulane and last week they downed Fresno State, 55-38 at home. Against Fresno they racked up 578 total yards, including 425 on the ground.
They are averaging 36.0 points and 454.0 yards-per-game. Their offensive attack is extremely balanced, averaging 237.2 yards on the ground and 216.8 through the air.
Houston Nutt’s squads usually favor the run and this team is no different. They want to run the ball, control the clock and keep their defense off the field. After struggling against the run the first two games of the season, Kentucky managed to keep Florida’s ground numbers somewhat in check. I say somewhat because the Gators still rushed for 176 yards and averaged 5.3 yards-per-pop. This with the speediest man in college football, Jeff Demps, only carrying the ball eight times for 57 yards.
Their offense is led by senior quarterback Jeremiah Masoli (5-11, 220) and junior tailback Brandon Bolden (5-11, 215).
Masoli came to Ole Miss from Oregon prior to his senior season. We covered this yesterday, but basically he was kicked out of Eugene because of burglary charges and weed smoking, was then scooped up by Nutt and Ole Miss, and finally was somehow declared eligible by the NCAA one day before the season started.
He is a run-first quarterback who has the ability to throw the ball when necessary. He is especially dangerous in the open field. We are all well aware of Kentucky’s struggles in that department. In the past, run-first qb’s like Tim Tebow, Vandy’s Chris Nickson and even Kent State’s Julian Edelman have really caused Kentucky problems. Last week, Trey Burton rushed all over Kentucky with about a 10-percent threat of actually throwing the ball.
In 2008 with Oregon, Masoli passed for 1,744 yards and 13 touchdowns, while rushing for 718 yards and ten touchdowns. Last year he passed for 2,147 yards and 15 touchdowns and rushed for 668 yards and 13 touchdowns. This year he has passed for 733 and has already rushed for 219 yards.
One flaw in Masoli’s game this season is his tendency to turn the ball over. After only throwing 11 picks in two years at Oregon, he has already thrown five this season. He threw two picks in their 28-14 home loss to Vanderbilt, one of which was returned to the house by Eddie Foster.
In the Vandy game he finished just 19-of-35 for 190 yards and two interceptions, but rushed for 104 yards, including a 28-yard scamper for a touchdown.
The Wildcats have to focus on Masoli and make him throw the ball. To do that, they need to pressure him and force him into making bad decisions. They can’t let him sit in the pocket, look for an open receiver, and then either find one or take off.
Last week they put no pressure on the quarterback. That has to change.
Bolden is coming off of a Fresno State game where he rushed for a career-high 228 yards. On the season he has rushed for 410 yards, while averaging 7.7 yards-a-pop, and has four rushing touchdowns. He has also caught nine balls for 107 yards and one touchdown.
Look for Kentucky to put eight or nine in the box in an effort to force Masoli to throw the football. Still, with extra guys in the box they still have to tackle better. Loading up the box does absolutely zero good if you aren’t wrapping up guys. And the Cats have struggled with tackling all season long.
On the other side of the football, the Rebels are really struggling. They are allowing 32.0 points and 346.8 yards-per-game. Opponents have already scored 14 touchdowns this season and opposing quarterbacks are completing two-thirds of their passes, while throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Mike Hartline just smiled when he read that, I’m sure.
Their run defense has performed much better through four games, allowing just 3.3 yards-per-attempt. But, they have yet to face anyone with the talent level of UK’s Derrick Locke.
Last week against Fresno State, this disparity between run defense and pass defense was especially evident. The Bulldogs gained 420 total yards, 390 of which were through the air. The Rebels held them to just 30 yards on 33 carries.
Kentucky and Ole Miss are very similar in the fact that their offenses have had success while their defenses have struggled. Ole Miss’ defense should struggle even more on Saturday because they haven’t seen an offensive attack with the weapons that Kentucky has at their disposal.
There is no denying the fact that the Wildcats will move the ball on Ole Miss. Last week, they moved the ball against Florida better than anyone has done all season long. Against Ole Miss they just need to make sure that they convert those yards into points and I don’t think that should be a problem. Harline should have a field day finding Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews. Locke will prove that the Ole Miss run defense isn’t as good as it appeared to be against Fresno.
The Wildcats could struggle on defense on Saturday because they are facing a talented quarterback and running back, both of which are threats to run the football. It’s no secret Kentucky has struggled against running qb’s. I don’t think we need to dwelve into that anymore. They just need to limit their production on the ground. If they can do that, their offense should do their job and give Kentucky a lead, which will force Ole Miss to rely on the pass a little more than they want to.
Getting a lead will be crucial. If the Cats can get up a few scores and force the Rebels to move away from their ground attack, they should be in good shape. If they get behind and allow Houston Nutt to do what he wants and just run, run, run, it will do two things. It will shorten the game and wear down the UK defense.
Whenever teams are fairly evenly matched, the team that wins the turnover most likely wins the game. Saturday should be no different.
The Wildcats entered the Florida game as just one of two teams in the country who had yet to turnover the football. Then, Hartline threw two picks in the second quarter which pretty much put the game out of reach. They can’t turnover the football in Oxford and the defense needs to pounce on an Ole Miss offense that has a tendency to give the ball away. In their loss to Vandy, they held the ‘Dores to just 300 yards, but they turned the ball over three times which completely altered the course of the game.
I’m expecting a fairly high scoring game. Overall, I just think Kentucky has more talent, especially on offense, than Ole Miss has. Hartline and Locke will both have big games and Cobb will wreak havoc both by catching balls and by running the ball in the Wildcat. You will see more Wildcat in this one than you saw last week, I promise. Ole Miss will score, but Kentucky will score more.
Kentucky 41, Ole Miss 31