Who would’ve thought that Starkville would be the toughest venue for Mark Stoops to grab a win? That’s what his Wildcats are facing this weekend though. They travel to Starkville and look to snap a four-game losing streak and win in Mississippi for the first time since 2008. Luckily, Kentucky is coming off an open date, which will only help this team from an injury perspective.
The last time Kentucky faced Mississippi State coming off a bye week was back in 2017, and the Wildcats lost 45-7. Safe to say this Wildcats team has something to prove this weekend against the air-raid offense that Mike Leach runs. If you saw how many times the Bulldogs passed the football against Vanderbilt last Saturday, you could probably guess how Leach will approach this game against Stoops. Will Rogers is 292-397 for 2,546 yards and 18 touchdowns, but has thrown five interceptions in the past two games. If State is going to sit in the pocket all night, this could setup a very big day for Kentucky’s Josh Paschall and Deandre Square, who have combined for four sacks and usually fluster opposing quarterbacks with their pass rushing ability.
For the Wildcats to have success on Saturday, they will need Chris Rodriguez to find the gaps in the Bulldog defense. Establishing the run game and chewing clock should keep the Mississippi State offense on the sidelines. You don’t want to get into a passing exhibition against Mike Leach, mainly because his QB will make you pay for it.
Mark Stoops was complimentary of the Bulldogs defense, especially how well they move guys around and cause havoc for an opposing offense.
“They play very good football. I’m impressed, especially defensively. They’re doing a really good job.” Stoops said. “They got big, strong guys that can twist, they can do multiple things defensively. They can be true 3-4, they can look like 4 down, or 3-3. They move their Jack (linebacker) around a little bit and they have some big guys. They have length, they cover well. They really do a lot of good things.”
Another big question this week is the status of Josh Ali. Stoops said, “We’ll see” in regard to his return. He did say there is a chance Ali, who suffered a leg injury against Florida and has missed two games, could return. Kentucky could use all the help they can get at the WR position since Wan’Dale Robinson cannot do it all for this team. He needs help on the outside, especially with teams zeroing in on him down the field.
Mark Stoops mentioned that his team must start winning more one-on-one battles.
“It’s always an emphasis, it is always a team game. Within that team, whether it’s offense, defensively there’s always going to be some one-on-ones – whether it is pass rush, on the edge, safety, you name it. There’s one-on-one battles, and we’re going to have to win some of them. They have some very athletic guys and have some receivers that they like to isolate and put them in one-on-one situations to make some plays. So, we have to be able to counter that and compete.”
Compared to the 397 passing attempts from Will Rogers, Kentucky’s Will Levis has attempted only 177 passes on the season. Levis has thrown for 13 TDs and 6 INTs and has been sacked 12 times. So this game could hinge on how well he finds his receivers down the field, which he has struggled to do at times this season. It feels as though this team finds different ways to sputter. That’s to be expected against Georgia, but they have to find creative ways to throw the ball for 20+ yards against other opponents, like Mississippi State.
“We need somebody to step up, other than Wan’Dale,” Stoops said, during his postgame press conference after the loss to Georgia.
So, here we stand. Kentucky is ranked 12th in the country, but a .5 point underdog against Mississippi State.
If that alone doesn’t fire up this football team as they travel to Starkville, I don’t know what will. The disrespect being shown to a team that is 6-1 on the year with several nice wins is astonishing. Maybe the experts are looking at Mike Leach who rolled into College Station and beat the Aggies and who destroyed Vanderbilt this past weekend. Then again, he also lost 49-9 at home to Alabama just ten days ago.
In short, I don’t feel like this Kentucky team is as dominant as the record might reflect, but they’re damn sure better than an underdog against Mississippi State. Being ranked 12th in the country with wins over Florida and LSU should at least garner them 3 points on the road. But then again, they are 0-4 in Starkville under Mark Stoops, so maybe Vegas is thinking the Bulldogs throw the ball around on this Wildcats defense and make them play from behind.
Either way, this is a pivotal game for Kentucky, a team that wants to keep their stellar season rolling down the tracks. But if they lose this one, the Wildcats might be staring at another loss in two weeks when Tennessee comes to Lexington.
All I am saying is, Kentucky better go handle their business in Starkville, or the second half of this season won’t resemble the way it started.