It’s not often we have to prepare for a Thursday night football game in the Bluegrass, but here we find ourselves on a short week looking forward to some gridiron action. Because of the schedule, the typical Scouting the enemy post I do on Fridays of a game week has been condensed into this Thursday Breakdown post. This has the best of both worlds: the side-by-side comparison of the two teams, along with the sections detailing the possible game plans for each team’s offensive and defensive units.
The Mississippi State offense is poised to go off against the Cats, which is all the more important Kentucky had the bye prior to this mid-week clash. The Bulldogs return their stud tailback LaDarius Perkins and have inserted sophomore dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott, superseding veteran Tyler Russell. Prescott has led the way with 457 yards while Perkins has added 273 of his own. MSU boasts at least five others in a committee behind Perkins, so expect to see plenty of fresh legs. Even Russell gets minutes in a two-quarterback system when Prescott gets winded.
With the way Kentucky’s run defense has been gashed this season, Dan Mullen and his Mississippi State offense need to look no further than ground and pound. Earlier this season the Bulldogs ran for more than 200 yards against both Auburn (the team that just handed Texas A&M its second loss) and LSU (currently the No. 13 team in the country). If the picture isn’t clear enough, MSU is going to run it, run it, and run it some more. The Bulldogs have averaged more 200+ yards per game on the ground this season and proved it against great teams.
It is finally time for the Wildcats to get back to basics. The borderline inhumane schedule is now behind the team and we can all move on and perform a reality-check on our expectations. The Cats have sunk near the bottom of the NCAA in total offense so any kind of spark or sign of life will be a welcome sight. The Mississippi State run defense has been very good, but going up against them after facing Alabama it may seem like a cakewalk — after all, the Cats did approach 100 yards rushing against the Tide which is more than No. 21 Ole Miss can say.
Still, you have got to hope to see the Air Raid utilized to its fullest extent, even with Jalen Whitlow still on the mend. It has been more than four weeks since the Miami game where the sirens were wailing all day. It sure would be nice to get back to that. With the way the team performed a couple of weeks ago against South Carolina nearly pulling off the upset, and actually scoring a touchdown against Alabama — something two other SEC teams did not do — there is some positive momentum heading into this contest, even if it doesn’t appear that way because of the stat book and the win-loss column.
Six players return on defense for Dan Mullen’s Dogs — a unit that held teams to 165 yards rushing per game in 2012. Linebacker and leading tackler Benardrick McKinney headlines the unit that has struggled to stop good teams from putting up points. They had no problem holding Alcorn State and Troy to just a touchdown earlier this season, but allowed Bowling Green to hang around last week in a 21-20 nail biter. If there were ever a good omen for the Cats in this one, it is that, and that fact MSU has South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Alabama looming in the next three weeks. Maybe a little overlooking could be in order here.
No matter where the Bulldogs’ heads are at, you can expect the defensive pressure to be stout. But again, with the Wildcats are coming off games against Alabama and South Carolina; Mississippi State might look like a practice squad. Wishful thinking maybe, but there is no question this Kentucky offense has seen the best D they will see all year, so everything from here out is just gravy. It will still take an exceptional effort and one without turnovers like it had against the Crimson Tide and the Gamecocks, but if the team can establish the passing game, whether it be an Air Raid or not, to help open up some running lanes for Raymond Sanders and Jojo Kemp, this could easily go the Cats’ way.
But just as easily as it could favor Kentucky, it could swing the Bulldogs’ way as well. The Kentucky defense will play a critical role in just how close this game is. It was mentioned earlier that Mississippi State likes to run the ball, especially from the quarterback position. Kentucky has faced three mobile QB’s this season and none were contained all that well. Teddy Bridgewater rushed 6 times for 35 yards, Tyler Murphy rushed 7 times for 36 yards, and Connor Shaw rushed 9 times for 50 yards.
Dak Prescott is averaging more than 10 rushes per game and more than 7-yards per carry. He is very dangerous when scrambling, so Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith will have a huge task of setting a perimeter and keeping containment. Likewise Avery Williamson up the gut will likely have the opportunity to make some open-field tackles if and when the pocket collapses. Prescott has plenty of arm to be a threat in the passing game, but his 54 percent completion rate doesn’t scare you. With Tyler Russell in the game, however, you can expect air mail. And his 71 percent completion rate and more than 9-yards per attempt average backs that up.