A slobber-knocker. A knock down, drag ’em out. Four yards and a cloud of dust. The Saturday night match-up between Kentucky and Mississippi State will fulfill all of the classic physical coaching cliches and much more.
“They’re as physical as anybody you’re going to play in this league, if not more. So you have to match it. It starts there,” Mark Stoops said at Monday’s press conference.
The nation’s fifth-ranked rushing offense will come to Kroger Field averaging more than 311 yards per game on the ground.
“You put together a physical offensive line, a dynamic back and a big beast at quarterback. That’s a lot of good things, and their tight ends — they’re big, they’re strong and they’re explosive. They put a lot of pressure on you.”
Miss. State has multiple weapons in the rushing attack. Kylin Hill leads the team with 293 yards; 211 of those came from just 17 carries against Kansas State. Last year’s leading rusher, Aeris “The A-Train” Williams, surpassed 100 yards for the first time in 2018 Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Bulldogs’ most dangerous weapon is Nick Fitzgerald. The 6’5″ 230-pound senior is just 196 yards away from breaking Tim Tebow’s SEC record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Through three games he has 266 yards on the ground and is averaging almost eight yards per carry.
“He has experience. He’s physical. He makes plays when he has to. He’s talented with his arm. As always when you play a team like this, that’s not only physical running the ball, they have a physical quarterback and they use quarterback runs. That makes you play with numbers, and he’s talented enough in the receiving corps, their tight ends are talented enough to hurt you throwing the ball. It puts a lot of pressure on you.”
Fitzgerald has given Stoops headaches in the past. Danny Clark will be able to give UK’s defense a comparable look, but it’s incredibly difficult to prepare for a playmaker like Fitzgerald.
“You have to be disciplined in your rush lanes. You can’t just be running up the field on them all the time because they can pull it down, or it could be a designed quarterback draw or they can just pull it down when they see a gap,” something Stoops also sees from Terry Wilson.
“That’s what makes it very difficult for defensive coordinators at times to stop, because they can have everything matched up very good, and then a guy just pulls it down and runs for 54 yards and a touchdown. That’s hard to overcome.”
Kentucky was able to do just enough to take down Fitzgerald the last time the Bulldogs traveled to Lexington. Much of their roster remains the same from a year ago, but they have a new leader on the sidelines, Joe Moorhead.
“There are some things that carry over, and then you see his wrinkle, his nuances with the offense and what he’s doing. They’re still very good. They’re still very physical.”
To combat State’s offensive attack, Stoops will lean on his secondary. Fitzgerald must be accounted for as a rusher and as a passer. To keep him contained, the UK defense must use another defender to put pressure on Fitzgerald.
“They make you do that, therefore it puts a lot of stress outside…It creates an opportunity for big plays so we have to match-up and we have to win some of those one-on-ones, because we have to put some pressure on those guys.”
And that’s just one side of the football. State’s dynamic All-SEC defensive linemen, Montez Sweat and Jeffrey Simmons, will be NFL stars. They set the tone for a defense that leads the SEC in tackles for loss with 33 and is second in rushing defense.
Taking down Miss. State will be no small task. If the Cats want to leave Kroger Field with their second win of the season against a Top 25 opponent, they must be prepared for 12 rounds in the trenches against the heavyweight competition.
* As you noticed by the bolded words above, Stoops said “physical” quite a bit today. Eight times to be exact.