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Kentucky Can Still Finish Season Strong, But Must Control Tennessee’s Offensive Pace

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It was always going to be tough for Mark Stoops to grab the win in Starkville, as history has proven over the years. But the way Kentucky approached this past weekend’s game against Mississippi State was cause for concern. Obviously the Bulldogs were going to pass the ball around, which has caused problems for the Wildcats in the past, but the main concern coming out of this game has to be the defense and its inability to slow things down.

Kentucky started the week as a 4 point favorite over Tennessee, but they are now a .5 favorite, according to FanDuel

Once we entered the third quarter at MSU, it was clear that the Kentucky defense wasn’t prepared for the pace at which Mike Leach runs his offense. But, on the flip side, Kentucky has to get Chris Rodriguez going if the offense wants any chance of being balanced. Honestly, I was starting to wonder if the Wildcats running back was dealing with some kind of issue, as his carries diminished and he didn’t seem comfortable during the game. Then on Monday, Mark Stoops admitted that Rodriguez wasn’t at full strength.

“Chris (Rodriguez) was dealing with an issue. It was not the wrist last week. I’m not going to sit up here and talk about everything. These young men go through a lot and they go through a lot of practices and do a lot of hitting and things happen throughout the week. So, he was dealing with an issue last week, yes. I don’t need to make excuses for Chris, but he was not at full strength.

If Rodriguez is not at his best, then Will Levis must take up the slack. That didn’t happen this past weekend. It’s obvious what type of player the Wildcats have in Levis, as his ability to make plays with his feet are undeniable. But the turnovers killed any chance for Kentucky to be in the game late in the fourth quarter. If they have any chance of beating Tennessee this weekend, those forced interceptions must be fixed and Levis must slow things down, which Mark Stoops explained after watching the film.

“I think it was an issue on Saturday at times, yes, where he wasn’t as calm. His footwork wasn’t as patient in the pocket. I think you see a lot of quarterbacks doing that at times and maybe regroup during (the) game. It’s not for the entirety of a game but you see certain plays. That’s a tough position. They probably all would like to have a few plays over, like most other positions as well. But I say it was like that a little bit Saturday. Will (Levis) had a chance to hit a few strikes, to hit a few strikes, complete a few passes to possibly hit a touchdown or two and we missed them, so we have to get that fixed.”

Now, a different type of animal heads to town on Saturday when Tennessee brings its fast paced offense to Lexington. The Kentucky defense knows they must be better in pass coverage, as Will Rogers was 36-39 against this defense in Starkville. But the Vols bring a more balanced offense, especially with their ability to turn the football. So, stopping the run and forcing Hendon Hooker to pass, especially outside the pocket, should be a point of emphasis in the Wildcats’ game plan.

Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

It’s clear that Mark Stoops understands the type of offense Josh Heupel will be bringing to Lexington, as the Vols are coming off a bye week. The biggest component of the Tennessee offense continues to be Hooker, who Stoops praised for being effective.

“For them, with how fast they go and the pressure they put on you, and executing, hitting shots down the field, they are doing that at a high level. Their quarterback is playing much better, when they settled in on (Hendon) Hooker, and who we played against in the Belk Bowl, but he is really playing at a high level. You can see him being very confident, he runs the ball effectively when he needs to. But he is getting the ball down the field and has a lot of arm strength and is playing very well.”

At least the Wildcats won’t have to play any kind of 2-high safety looks on Saturday, as they will look to contain the Vols running game, while also drumming up an attack of their own.

No matter what, this Kentucky team needs to get back on the winning side of things, after losing two straight games.

The Wildcats set the tone for their season early on, and now it’s time to finish it.

“We’ll be jacked up and ready to go, trust me. Our team will be excited and ready to go and ready to get back to work today. That’s not going to be an issue.”

Written by Trey Wallace

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