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It’s time to face the truth… This Kentucky football team is legit

It’s time for honesty hour, Big Blue Nation. I have something I need to get off my chest.

Each week here at KSR, we try to give you interesting angles, insights, and analysis to review Kentucky’s previous games and preview upcoming opponents. Sometimes I’ll find an interesting statistic to build an article off of or a specific quote from a coach or player that caught me off guard throughout the week. Like always, I made an effort to do the same prior to Kentucky’s matchup with Mississippi State last night.

Going into the game, MSU was easily considered Kentucky’s toughest opponent thus far, and likely the second or third-hardest game of the season. The Bulldogs came in as ten-point favorites, and I’m not sure anyone really disagreed with that line. Given the talent and physicality of Mississippi State, most thought it was fair. Based solely on preconceived notions, it would not have been a shock to see the Bulldogs come into Kroger Field and come away with a victory.

With this “hoping for the best, expecting the worst” mentality, I decided to put on my capital-J Journalist hat to make the fanbase feel a bit at-ease going into Kentucky’s date with the No. 14 team in all of college football. I had an article idea titled “five numbers that should make you feel better about Kentucky’s game against Mississippi State,” where I was going to dive into the statistics and find even the slightest holes in the Bulldogs’ game to give fans hope. Something, anything, the Cats could take advantage of to hopefully come away with a victory.

I started looking at strength of schedule, thinking MSU’s matchups against Stephen F. Austin, Kansas State, and Louisiana-Lafayette skewed the stats heavily in their favor and made them look tougher than they actually were. After further analysis, their schedule to this point was comparable to Kentucky’s (technically harder, actually). The Cats’ matchup in the Swamp helped them out, but Central Michigan and Murray State brought them down. SFA was listed higher than Murray State in FCS rankings, LA-Lafayette was ranked higher than CMU, and Kansas State was just a hair under Florida (both true road games). The Bulldogs just flat-out dominated their competition, simple as that.

On offense, the Bulldogs averaged 50 points per game and 8.5 yards per play going into the Kentucky game, each statistic ranked in the top-two in the SEC. Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was responsible for eight touchdowns, averaged 8.8 yards per carry, and put up 7.6 yards per pass attempt through three games. He was a top-ten rusher in the SEC, ahead of some of the elite running backs in the conference.  He struggled a bit with accuracy under pressure (47 percent completion rate), and he was still finding his groove on deep balls (only 36 percent on throws 10-plus yards downfield through two games), but he made plays elsewhere to compensate for it.

Despite suffering a devastating leg injury last year, Fitzgerald looked better than ever, easily one of the best quarterbacks in the conference.

But it hasn’t been a one-man show.

Two MSU receivers averaged 20-plus yards per catch going into week four, running back Kylin Hill averaged 10 yards per touch and managed six scores in the process, Aeris Williams averaged nine yards per carry, etc. The offensive line unit as a whole was experienced, nasty, and talented. They’re maulers, ready to throw a pancake block ten-plus yards down the field, and that intensity allowed for the other pieces to mesh. The offense was No. 15 in the FBS in sack rate, and they led the entire SEC in rushing by more than 27 yards per contest.

New head coach Joe Moorhead, known as an offensive guru out of Penn State, had the offense functioning like a well-oiled machine through three games.

Dan Mullen’s coaching staff built a nasty defensive powerhouse, stacked with first-round talents on the defensive line, linebackers with nasty mean streaks, and experienced veterans in the secondary. They allowed just two touchdowns through three games, 2.5 yards per rush, and 80 total yards on the ground per game. When Mullen left for Florida, the defensive foundation remained. Coach Moorhead came in and took the offense to another level, making them elite on both sides of the football.

I came away empty-handed, and the article was never written. I would never admit it in person, but inside I felt my nerves boiling over each minute we crept closer to kickoff. I didn’t want to believe it, but I genuinely thought the Cats were going to get embarrassed on their home field in front of a heartbroken near-sellout crowd.

Mississippi State is a really, really good football team. Top-to-bottom, they’re one of the best in college football.

But Kentucky proved they’re better. Much better.

The Cats’ numbers have been solid this entire season, but it was hard to really tell how well they stack up to elite competition. The defense looked stout against Central Michigan, but the Chippewas also started a major question mark at quarterback, and he proved to be below average. Kentucky looked two or three scores better than Florida in week two, but the Gators also finished 4-8 last season. It was obviously a quality win, but could we really call the Cats a favorite in the SEC East afterward? Murray State is one of the worst teams in FCS, so how much could we really learn from a 48-10 butt-whooping?

They have looked the part, but we had to wait for legit competition before we could truly dissect this team and how well they stack up with the rest of college football. And last night, the Cats did just that, solidifying their legitimacy against an elite opponent on a massive stage.

It starts with two players: Benny Snell and Josh Allen. The rest falls into place beyond that.

On offense, Benny Snell managed to take an epic career and turn it into a legendary one in just 60 minutes of play. Against an elite defense, one that stacked the box just about every down in a sad attempt to slow him down, Kentucky’s star running back absolutely dominated. He broke tackle attempt after tackle attempt, fighting for tough yard after tough yard on national television against an elite opponent. Finishing with 160 yards and four touchdowns on 25 attempts, Snell front-flipped his way into legitimate Heisman contention. He now leads the SEC in rushing with 540 yards and seven touchdowns on the season, averaging 135 yards per game. He’s third in all of college football, behind only Darrell Henderson of Memphis (709 yards, nine touchdowns) and Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin (628 yards, five touchdowns). For comparison’s sake, Memphis has only played Mercer, Navy, Georgia State, and South Alabama this season, making Henderson’s numbers much more understandable given their strength of schedule. Taylor has racked up his yards with the help of 102 carries on the season (like Henderson, against weak competition).

During Derrick Henry’s Heisman campaign in 2015, he rushed for 420 yards and eight touchdowns on 67 carries through four games. Snell is sitting pretty at 540 yards and seven touchdowns on 87 carries in that same span. Just saying.

We all knew Snell was one of the best running backs in the SEC, but he proved to be the best in all of college football last night. And while we’re at it, we might as well admit what we’re all thinking right now: No. 26 is the best to ever put on a Kentucky uniform. You’ll never find a player more dominant at their position to suit up in blue and white. He broke Randall Cobb’s all-time touchdown record, he’s No. 1 in rushing touchdowns, No. 4 in career rushing yards (a record that will almost certainly be shattered), etc. He broke six Kentucky records as a freshman alone. Given the magnitude of the situation, last night was all I needed to see to confirm that.

Beyond Snell, the offensive line crushed the Bulldogs’ defense. They committed some costly penalties out of aggression, but that’s to be expected against an opponent that ran their mouths all week long and continued to do so in pregame warmups. During the game, they parted the Bulldog defensive line like the Red Sea, allowing for the running game to find their groove early. Terry Wilson didn’t have his best outing, throwing for just 71 yards on 8-14 passing and an interception to go with just 18 yards on the ground (with sacks). He did complete two clutch throws to Dorian Baker near the goal line and CJ Conrad for a ridiculous grab over two defenders, each play leading to touchdown runs for Snell.

The star back carried the load, but the rest of the offense did just enough to move the ball down the field when it mattered most.

On defense, Josh Allen was a freak of nature, proving to be unstoppable from start to finish. He finished with six tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one QB hurry, and one pass deflection in the victory. It’s a ridiculous stat line, but even that doesn’t tell the entire story. For as talented as Mississippi State’s offensive line is, the senior linebacker made them look undisciplined and just plain silly. Whoever lined up across Allen each snap looked like they saw a ghost. They jumped early on several occasions, held (both called and uncalled), and allowed the Kentucky star into the backfield just about whenever he wanted to. NFL scouts are drooling over him right now. What you see from Khalil Mack, Von Miller, and JJ Watt on Sundays, we saw that level of dominance out of Allen on Saturday.

Darius West had a ridiculous nine tackles (four solo) and two pass deflections, making several incredible plays on the ball. Jordan Jones looked like his sophomore self, finishing with eight tackles and a QB hurry, meeting the ball-carrier at the line of scrimmage on several occasions. Kash Daniel added seven tackles, Mike Edwards had six, Boogie Watson and Calvin Taylor each got a sack, etc. The defense allowed just 41 percent of MSU third down conversions (7-17), 201 yards (56 yards rushing), held Nick Fitzgerald to just 20 rushing yards, managed four tackles for loss, three sacks, forced a turnover, and a partridge in a pear tree. The elite defense we saw through three games continued that streak through four.

As a unit, Kentucky is allowing just 13.3 points per game, tied for seventh nationally and tied for third in the SEC. Eight interior defensive linemen have combined for 38 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 3.5 sacks, while last year’s group had just 11 tackles for loss and five sacks throughout the entire season. The Wildcats are No. 11 in the country and No. 2 in the SEC in total defense, allowing just 279.5 yards per game and 4.4 yards per play. (H/T to Jen Smith of the Herald-Leader)

Sources told KSR this summer that this defense would be a force to be reckoned with, one that could potentially find its way into elite conversation in the SEC. It was one that got Mark Stoops and company absolutely giddy, the best since had been here by far.

“The defense is looking good. Scary good,” one source said in July. “One of the best in the SEC, good.”

You can read those comments from my 4th of July post below:

Come get your Fourth of July Kentucky football whispers

As of today, those comments are absolutely holding true.

Mississippi State got chippy, the Cats got chippier. Mark Stoops said the most physical team would win the game, and Kentucky proved to be just that on both sides of the football. Plays that the Kentucky football of old seemed impossible, this current unit made look easy. They went out there and dismantled a team that many felt was a sleeper team to compete with Alabama in the SEC West.

This Kentucky team is legit and they deserve to be treated as such going forward by local media, national media, and everyone in between.


Cats walk the walk in statement win over Mississippi State

Cats walk the walk in statement win over Mississippi State

Photo by UK Athletics

Mississippi State did the talking and had people believing that they were coming to Lexington for a blowout. The Bulldogs blistered their first three opponents as they averaged over 50 points per game and were giving up less than 10 points per outing. With a senior quarterback who is about to break a rushing record set by Tim Tebow, a legit offensive line, two future first rounders on the defensive line, and a head coach who many have claimed as a football genius, they appeared poised to be on their way to double-digit wins.

The advanced stats had State a top 10 team in the country and many, including myself, believed that the Bulldogs were Alabama’s toughest competition in the West. They could still be all those things, but in week four, they were outclassed by Kentucky.

Mark Stoops and his program made a statement on Saturday and they have cracked the top 25 this week for the first time since 2007. Kentucky’s defense is legitimately good and the Wildcats are now in position to do some special things this season.

Offense

For the day, Kentucky collected 300 total yards (229 rushing, 71 passing) with 18 first downs and a 4.9 yards per play average. It was not Terry Wilson’s greatest performance.

The sophomore quarterback completed 57% of his 14 attempts, but only averaged 5.1 yards per throw. Wilson took three sacks and seemed off all night. When rushing chances were there, he succeeded. The OKC native had 48 yards on seven non-sack carries, but those were very limited. The offense had to go through Benny Snell early and often.

The junior made another statement on a big stage as he rushed for 165 yards on 25 carries with four touchdowns against a defensive front that was only giving up 85 rushing yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry. Behind an impressive effort from Snell, the Wildcats ran for over 200 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. After slowly hammering away, Snell finally broke loose in the fourth quarter.

In the final quarter alone, Kentucky ran for 89 yards on 17 carries to put the game on ice. Kentucky held a 6-0 first downs advantage and they continue to be a dominant second-half team. Through four games, Kentucky is outscoring opponents by a score of 86-13 in the second half.

There wasn’t much to be talked about from the receiving game, but the UK wideouts did a great job blocking on the perimeter. That was shown in Snell’s two long fourth-quarter touchdown runs. There were no drops and Lynn Bowden once again led the team in receptions. Dorian Baker and Terry Wilson finally connected on a vertical pass thanks to this beautiful catch.

The offensive line bounced back for a very strong performance. They paved the way for an outstanding rushing effort as they bullied around a talented and deep defensive line for most of the night. Drake Jackson played the best game of his college career against very good competition. The redshirt sophomore handled future NFL first-rounder Jeffery Simmons the entire game. Kentucky even kept up its rotation with Luke Fortner spelling Logan Stenberg at left guard while E.J. Price and Naasir Watkins continue to platoon at left tackle. The tight ends were heavily involved in the run scheme and did a great job helping out with State’s defensive ends. It was exciting to see C.J. Conrad make a play down the field with this circus catch.

After a slow start, it was a very efficient game for the offense against one of the better defenses they’ll face this season. They stayed with the gameplan as the running game delivered body blows to Mississippi State’s front seven. Finally, they broke through in the fourth quarter with two long scoring runs. For the fourth game in a row, Kentucky buried its opponent in the fourth quarters.

Defense

When Mark Stoops was hired in December of 2012, Mitch Barnhart stated that the administration wanted a coach with a strong defensive background. In the past, Kentucky had won with high flying offenses and leaned on a bend-but-don’t-break defense to hopefully force some timely turnovers in the second half to pull off wins. The plan was for Stoops to build a legit defense that was capable of stopping teams in the upper echelon of the SEC.

It took a little longer than expected with Kentucky going through three different defensive game callers and the switch from a 4-3 base to a 3-4. But in 2018 with seven senior starters, they have found the right mix.

UK entered Saturday night with a major challenge. To this point, they had gone up against bad MAC and FCS offenses and shut down a Florida offense that most had expected to not be very good. In came Mississippi State with their powerful running game and a head coach who is thought to be a top-five offensive mind in college football. The challenge would be tall and the perception was that the Bulldogs ground game would flex their muscles at Kroger Field.

That couldn’t have been farther from the case with the Bulldogs recording only 56 yards on 23 carries. This was a top five ground game in college football entering Saturday night and Kentucky’s front held them to 2.4 yards per carry. Even when you don’t include the sack yardage, the Bulldogs only averaged 3.2 yards per attempt. That is big league.

The success forced Moorhead to abandon the running game and hand the offense over to Nick Fitzgerald in the pocket. The senior entered this contest completing less than 50% of his passes against Power Five competition on the road and that inefficiency would show up on Saturday night.

Fitzgerald would complete just 50% of his 32 attempts as the Wildcats limited the Bulldogs to just 145 passing yards. State entered this game having an inefficient but explosive passing attack. However, Kentucky was able to totally eliminate the big plays. Fitzgerald only averaged 4.5 yards per pass attempt and had a huge fourth quarter turnover that put UK in a position to pull away. 

The secondary had the MSU receivers covered all night and redshirt freshman Tyrell Ajian, replacing injured Jordan Griffin, looked excellent in his first serious playing time. The former four-star prospect from Ohio proved that there is plenty of depth in UK’s secondary. However, they received a ton of help.

Josh Allen made himself some money last night as his speed rush from the edge was absolutely dominant against Mississippi State’s left tackles. With the ground game completely shut down, Allen found himself in obvious pass rushing situations that had the Bulldogs flustered. Mississippi State would use multiple guys at left tackle and each would be responsible for false start penalties. With a crazed crowd behind him, Allen absolutely feasted.

It would be a bad look if we didn’t take a moment and give this defensive line their props. No group on the team has improved more from last season and this win was just another moment where they showed that they can play with anyone. On Saturday, we saw Calvin Taylor record his first career sack and Tymere Dubose get the best of a really good opposing center. Adrian Middleton flashed and there was no letdown when reserves, Phil Hoskins and Kordell Looney, entered the game. The stats aren’t great, but this group took up blocks and allowed UK’s linebackers and secondary to make plays.

At linebacker, Jordan Jones continues to play the best football of his career. He’s playing sound and disciplined football as a senior. On Saturday, the Youngstown native recorded eight tackles and one QB hurry. He was key in slowing down Nick Fitzgerald on the ground. Kash Daniel continues to lead Kentucky in tackles as he notched seven more on Saturday night. After a slow start, Boogie Watson flashed his pass rushing potential with a sack to end the first half.

At safety, it is important to not underestimate just how good Mike Edwards and Darius West are. Edwards is an excellent blitzer and his pressure in the fourth quarter caused the timely interception. West remains a huge weapon with his great closing speed and the ability to be a key cog in Kentucky’s pass defense. He’s missing tackles in space on the perimeter, but he’s slowing down plays and allowing the rest of the defense to recover.

Saturday was a dominant defensive performance. Kentucky faced one of the best offenses in the country and limited them to just 3.3 yards per play. That’s big league. Through four games, no offense has scored more than one touchdown on Kentucky. This defense has a chance to be one of the best in program history.

Special Teams

Entering the game, UK’s biggest advantage appeared to be on special teams due to Max Duffy’s big leg and MSU’s inefficiency on punts and kickoffs. Kentucky won the battle, but it wasn’t by much.

Duffy only had a plus-three net yard advantage over Mississippi State’s punts and Lynn Bowden averaged less than 20 yards on his two kick returns. Add in a missed 36-yard field goal from Miles Butler and it’s obvious that Kentucky’s special teams left some points on the field.

It wasn’t a great day, but the kick coverage remains strong and Zach Johnson has replaced Charles Moushey as a highlight waiting to happen.

Outlook

Kentucky is 4-0 and off to a 2-0 start in the conference for the first time since 1977. The Wildcats have a running back who is on the fast track to being a consensus All-American and a salty defense who keeps proving people wrong.

Mark Stoops coached, perhaps, the best game of his head coaching career. The Wildcats took one of the best offenses in the country out of everything they wanted to do. Joe Moorhead’s offense had no answers and they were absolutely dominated in the second half.

The offense is going to need more from Terry Wilson going forward and allowing 15 tackles for loss is a recipe for disaster. However, that could be the best defense UK is going to face this season so things are only going to get easier for the dual-threat sophomore moving forward.

Enjoy this one, Big Blue Nation. The Wildcats totally outclassed a top 15 team at home. The fourth quarter was about as much fun as you could have as a UK fan. The Wildcats slowly battered their opponent into submission as the defense smelled blood in the water and the offense went for the kill.

The Wildcats are now set up to do some special things in the next two months. We’re only four games in, but it’s hard to imagine it going any better for the Wildcats. They’re a top 20 team and will not be an easy out for anyone. Raise your expectations right now. Mark Stoops has built a legit football team in Lexington.

On to South Carolina.


Kentucky opens as two-point underdogs against South Carolina

Kentucky opens as two-point underdogs against South Carolina

I guess Las Vegas wasn’t too impressed with Kentucky’s 28-7 demolition of No. 14 Mississippi State last night.

The Cats have opened as two-point underdogs to South Carolina next Saturday at Kroger Field.

The Gamecocks impressed against Vanderbilt yesterday, but there is zero debate that Kentucky is the hotter team between the two.

If the defense keeps playing the way they have, I have a hard time believing the Cats won’t pull it off at home next weekend.

#FreeMoney


Anthony Davis signs with superstar agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports

Anthony Davis has parted ways with his longtime agent. (Via Getty Images)

Former Kentucky superstar Anthony Davis finished his Hall of Fame weekend in Lexington by making a very, very big decision that could be a massive indicator of his NBA future.

Davis has signed with agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, one of the biggest names in the business.

Davis, who still has two years remaining on his current contract with a player option in 2020/21, joins a pretty impressive client list for Paul. Other clients include LeBron JamesJohn WallEric Bledsoe, Ben Simmons, Trey Lyles, Nerlens Noel, and Miles Bridges, among several other NBA players.

Paul is known for securing big money deals for his clients, including Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith of the Cleveland Cavaliers, along with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Los Angeles Lakers. With Davis eligible for a five-year, $230 million super-max contract extension next summer, it’s obvious he wants to secure the best of the best to handle the biggest financial situation of his life.

Or could it be to set himself up for the future to make a massive career move? With DeMarcus Cousins leaving New Orleans this offseason, the Pelicans’ foundation is rather bare beyond Davis. They aren’t a major free agent destination, and they really don’t have the desirable assets to make a trade that would jump New Orleans into championship contention. Davis could see this as an opportunity to seek a trade in the future, or set up a potential move in free agency to a larger market with championship potential. Say… Los Angeles with fellow Klutch client LeBron James?

Speaking of the devil…

Regardless, Davis means business by signing the best agent in the game.


JUCO Cornerback Brandin Echols Commits to Kentucky

The weekend keeps getting better and better for the Kentucky football program.

Brandin Echols, the 44th-rated JUCO prospect in the country, just announced on his Twitter page that he has committed to Kentucky.

He decided to join Kentucky’s 2019 recruiting class following an official visit to Lexington this weekend.

This is Kentucky’s second commitment since their huge victory over Mississippi State last night, with three-star quarterback Amani Gilmore choosing the Cats almost immediately after the game went final.

Echols has a chance to make an immediate impact in 2019 as Derrick Baity, Chris Westry, and Lonnie Johnson are all seniors.

Watch him work below:

Welcome home!


Kentucky ranked No. 17 in the latest AP Poll

The AP voters were big fans of the Kentucky Wildcats this week.

In the latest week-five AP Poll, Kentucky came in at No. 17 in the nation, ahead of Texas, Oregon, BYU, Michigan State, Duke, Mississippi State, Cal, and Texas Tech to round out the top-25. It’s the first time UK has been ranked in the AP Poll since 2007.

The Cats sit behind Miami (No. 16), Wisconsin (No. 15), Michigan (No. 14), UCF (No. 13), and West Virginia (No. 12), among others.

With the jump in ratings, Kentucky is considered the second-best team in the SEC East, behind only Georgia (No. 2), and the fifth-best team in the entire SEC. Only Alabama (No. 1), Georgia, LSU (No. 5), and Auburn (No. 10) are ahead of the Cats.

The Coaches Poll also had Kentucky at No. 17 in the nation.


Kentucky comes in at No. 17 in the Coaches Poll

Kentucky comes in at No. 17 in the Coaches Poll

Your Kentucky Wildcats are officially ranked for the first time since 2007.

The latest Coaches Poll has been released, and the Cats have come in at No. 17 in the nation, ahead of the likes of Michigan State, Mississippi State, Oregon, Texas, and Virginia Tech, among others.

Check out the updated list, featuring that gorgeous UK logo alongside some pretty solid football teams:

Kentucky came in at No. 26 in the Coaches Poll last week, meaning they shot up nine spots with their dominant victory over Mississippi State last night.

The AP Poll will be released shortly.


Flag on the Play: A recap of the night’s penalties

Flag on the Play: A recap of the night’s penalties

There were yellow flags everywhere last night. From a fight between the teams during warm ups to (what felt like) hundreds of false-starts, the penalties had a way of stacking up by the end of the night.

By the time the game clock expired, Mississippi State collected 16 penalties for a total of 139 yards, while Kentucky had five calls for 42 lost yards.

The Bulldogs drew six false-start penalties, several of which pushed them behind the line-of-scrimmage before the play had even begun. Coach Stoops credited the BBN and the rowdy atmosphere for Mississippi State’s costly mistakes, but Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead took the blame all for himself.

“It was a lack of composure… We were on the right path last week, but it was an emotional game,” Moorhead said. “We talked in the preseason about showing our emotions without being emotional, and we didn’t do that today. Again, that’s all on me and my responsibility. We’ll get it fixed.”

In addition to the false-start calls and the unsportsmanlike conduct flags from post-whistle scuffles, Mississippi State gifted Kentucky with a pass interference infraction out of UK’s own end zone. The Bulldogs beat themselves in the fourth quarter when a first-and-10 at UK’s 25-yard line turned into a fourth-and-39 at their own 46-yard line following a holding penalty, a false start and two tackles for loss from the Cats. 

But Kentucky did not leave the game unscathed. Like one young caller pointed out on KSR’s post-game show last night, “there were some penalties that could be cleaned up.” Most notably, the shoving matches that lingered from warmups through close to the very end of the game could have been avoided. After the game, Coach Stoops noted some of his players, including Bunchy Stallings, were “getting extremely frustrated,” but their coaches and teammates just hugged them and worked to calm them down.

“I don’t want to throw attacks at [Mississippi State] about what was going on, but there’s a point sometimes when you have to accept things for your team,” Stoops said. “It takes a stronger man and it takes a big person to swallow that bad pride and have good pride and do that for your team. There were many cases of that tonight.”


@MaggieDavisKSR