Before the Mississippi State game, I posted four keys to the game for UK to pull out the win and keep bowl hopes alive. Let’s see how they stacked up with actual game results:
Continue to pound the rock on the ground
“Mississippi State only gives up 132 yards on the ground per game, but as we saw against Vandy, UK can run on some pretty tough defenses. If the Wildcats keep pounding it and running it down the defense’s throats, the Bulldogs will almost certainly become the next victim of UK’s rushing attack.”
This proved to be exactly true. The running game was established early on, and though it took a little while for success to come, UK ended up dominating in this area. Kentucky rushed for 262 yards, roughly double of MSU’s average allowed rushing yards of 132 a game. Benny Snell led the way with 128 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, and Boom Williams followed with 99 yards on 14 carries. In the third quarter, there was absolutely nothing the Bulldogs could do to stop UK’s rushing attack, and that continued into the fourth. With back-to-back games of over 250 yards on the ground against dominant rush defenses, the Kentucky backfield is certainly in conversation as one of the best in the SEC, and maybe even the nation. This will continue to be the Wildcats’ biggest strength for the remainder of the year.
Establish some kind of passing game
“Stephen Johnson does not have to be great. He doesn’t even have to be that good. That being said, he has to be able to move the chains and make the easy throws and catches for Kentucky to have any major success for the remainder of the year.”
Johnson started out the game with a few successful throws, but went absolutely cold late in the first quarter and into the second. In the second half, however, Johnson turned into an animal through the air, completing passes of 26, 44, 17, 24, and 40 yards with two touchdowns. He finished the day with 292 yards and two touchdowns, his second best game of his young career. I said he didn’t have to be great, or even good for that matter, but he ended up with a really solid outing. His mechanics were solid, he found the open guys, and even hit on some really tough throws. Through the air, I was extremely impressed with Johnson last night.
Contain Nick Fitzgerald
“He’s going to make some impressive plays on his feet, but UK cannot allow him to break away on any home run balls.”
Fitzgerald rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, including one huge rush of 38 yards. To start out the game, Fitzgerald was awful. His throws were off, he was tackled either in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage on every rush attempt, and he muffed the snap a few times. He soon found his groove on the ground, and UK couldn’t do anything to stop him. Despite not being able to do much to stop him on the ground, he looked rough throwing the ball all night long, only tossing for 81 total yards (13/21).
Fitzgerald certainly made way too large of an impact on the ground, but the secondary giving up only 81 yards through the air certainly balances that out a little bit. The 38-yard touchdown run hurt, but overall, Fitzgerald wasn’t as stellar as many expected him to be.
Win the turnover battle
“The margin for error is incredibly thin tonight, and if UK wants to pull off the win, fundamental mistakes must disappear. The ball has to stay off the turf and out of the opponent’s hands.”
UK lost the turnover battle 2-1 following two crucial fumbles by Stephen Johnson. The first was understandable, he was hit from behind on a solid hit, and a lot of quarterbacks would fumble that ball. The second, however, was inexcusable. Kentucky was in the red zone, well in position to put a touchdown on the board. A potential 17 point lead immediately turned to just three, and momentum shifted completely. Johnson has to learn to take care of the ball, as that play alone nearly cost Kentucky the game.
On the flip side, Marcus McWilson’s pick-six was massive, and really sparked a lot of positive momentum for the Wildcats. In a time when UK needed a turnover most, they managed to find one in a huge way.
Overall, Kentucky dominated Mississippi State in most major statistical categories. They had 554 total yards compared to MSU’s 362, 292 passing yards compared to 81, 26 first downs to 16, etc. If it weren’t for the ugly fumble by Johnson, UK likely wins this game by 10-14 points.
UK opens as a 4.5 point underdog to Missouri next weekend, but if Kentucky can produce similar numbers next week, I believe they have a great shot on the road.
Bowl hopes are alive and well, and I love it.