Every week in SEC play it seems as if you are playing a game that can alter your season. This Saturday the Wildcats go to Starkville to take on the No. 23 Mississippi State Bulldogs and it is another big one.
A win here and the Cats avoid falling below the .500-mark for the first time this season. A win here and they move to 5-4 and should be favored in their remaining three games. A win here and despite past frustrating losses, they have a clear shot at finishing the season at 8-4, which means a shot at a bigger bowl. A win here puts them on a path of avoiding Nashville.
The Bulldogs enter the game with a 6-2 record, with their two conference victories being a 24-12 victory over a Georgia team that was playing with A.J. Green and their much-publicized 10-7 win at the Swamp over the Gators.
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Mississippi State is a team that always seems to play their best game of the season against the Wildcats. Last year they ran all over Kentucky as Anthony Dixon rushed for a school-record 252 yards. Overall, the Bulldogs gained 493 yards, 348 of which were on the ground.
Expect the same game plan from MSU on Saturday. They want to RUN, RUN, RUN, NOT PASS, CHEW UP CLOCK and RUN SOME MORE. The Bulldogs are second in the SEC with 219.2 rushing yards per game and lead the conference in time of possession, with 31.17 per game. These numbers could spell disaster for a Kentucky team that is dead last in the SEC at defending the run.
A huge offensive line combined with runners that run down hill are the reason for their success on the ground. They have two running backs with over 350 yards so far this season and they both average over 5.6 yards-per-carry.
Their feature back is the 5-11, 215-pound, junior Vick Ballard. Ballard, who missed last week’s game vs. UAB with an ankle injury, is expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday. He has rushed 78 times for 516 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. When the Bulldogs get the ball in goal line situations, the rock will be handed off to Ballard and he will bully his way in. This spells trouble for a Kentucky team that is one of the worse teams in the land at defending inside the red zone.
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Freshman LaDarius Perkins (5-10, 190) will also see plenty of carries. On the season he has rushed 66 times for 366 yards and three touchdowns.
The ground attack doesn’t stop with the guys in the backfield. Junior quarterback Chris Relf (6-4, 250) is much more comfortable at tucking and running than he is at dropping back and passing. He leads MSU in carries with 114 and has gained 815 yards on those carries. He has two rushing touchdowns. In contrast, he has just one game this season where he has passed for over 150 yards, when he went for 209 against an overmatched Alcorn State team. In their two losses his is a combined 17-for-34 for 145 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
Bottom line is you want to force Relf to throw the football, because he doesn’t want to.
On the defensive side of things, this Mississippi State team kind of has the same mentality as they do in the running game. They want to go right at you and hit you hard. Their defensive unit ranks 35th in the country and they are giving up just 17.0 points-per-game, which ranks 13th. More impressively, they are giving up a touchdown every 44 snaps. Compare that to Kentucky, who gives up a touchdown every 14.5 snaps.
They rely on a pair of seniors in defensive lineman Pernell McPhee (6-4, 285) and linebacker Chris White (6-4, 245) to do most of the dirty work on defense. Both of these guys are beasts and the UK offensive line is going to have a heck of a task in attempting to keep them out of the backfield. On the season the two Bulldogs have combined for 17 tackles for a loss.
A bend-but-don’t-break mentality is the reason for their success on defense. Unlike UK, they strive in the red zone and they have been very good at preventing big plays. They have only given up one play of over 50 yards all season long. Despite not recording a ton of sacks on the season, they have been successful at putting pressure on the quarterback.
When they face Mike Hartline and the Kentucky offense, they will be facing their biggest test of the season in regards to the passing game. Previously their biggest test was probably Georgia, but they were forced to play without A.J. Green. In that game Aaron Murray threw for 274 yards, a touchdown and zero interceptions.
Even without Derrick Locke, who is missing his third strait game with a stinger, I think Kentucky moves the ball against Mississippi State. Hartline and company have proven time and time again that they have the ability to move the ball against anyone in the country and I don’t think that changes on Saturday. They just need to keep from putting the ball on the ground and committing costly turnovers.
Once again the burden will lay on the defense.
Mississippi State wants to go on 11-12 play drives in an effort to sustain possessions and keep the electric Wildcat offense off the field. UK is averaging about nine or ten possessions a game, MSU wants to limit those possessions to six or seven.
Slowing down Mississippi State on first down will be huge. They have to keep the Bulldogs out of second and shorts. Head coach Dan Mullen and the rest of the coaching staff have too many options on second and short and the majority of the time that option will be hand the ball off to Ballard with the bruising running attack. If they are in second and long or even third and long, it puts the onus directly on Relf to make plays through the air. Something MSU wants to avoid.
The Wildcats also have to cause turnovers, because in all honesty, they are going to have a tough time slowing down the Bulldogs’ running attack completely. Turnovers will put a quick halt to those long drives that eat a lot of clock and put the Wildcat offense on the field, where they can actually do damage. But, MSU has not committed a turnover in their last three games, so they are either good at protecting the football or they are due for a couple mistakes.
To force those mistakes, the Wildcats will obviously have to put eight in the box, but they are also going to have to blitz linebackers early and often. When you bring pressure, you open yourself up for big plays, but you also force the issue. If the Cats don’t bring pressure, you are going to see the Bulldogs move methodically down the field, in five, six and seven yard chunks. With pressure you have the opportunity to blow up running plays and rattle a quarterback who has yet to prove he can perform when pressed to make decisions.
Here’s another reason why turnovers are huge. In Kentucky’s four wins, they have a plus-eight turnover margin. In their four losses, it is minus-seven.
Mississippi State avoided a letdown last week as they snuck past UAB, 29-24. Kentucky is coming off of a game where they committed too many mistakes, which cost them any chance of downing Georgia for the second consecutive year.
It’s going to be a tight one in Starkville, as it usually is, but I think the trend of UK winning on the road against MSU continues. In the past the Bulldogs have had the luxury of sneaking up on the Wildcats a bit. This year, at No. 23 in the land, they don’t have that luxury. And the Cats need this one bad.
Kentucky 31, Mississippi State 28