Another week, another make-or-break game for Kentucky’s season. At 7:30 PM, the Cats take on the Dawgs of Mississippi State, a game UK has to win if they want a shot at a bowl this season. Mississippi State is 2-4 heading into this week, with notable losses coming from South Alabama and BYU, and they barely managed to beat UMASS on the road, winning 47-35. The start to the post-Prescott era has been tough, to say the least.
Despite lack of early success, Dan Mullen is undefeated against Kentucky, winning seven consecutive games dating back to 2009. With the help of great coaching and impressive depth, MSU has had Kentucky’s number in the Stoops era, there’s no denying it. That being said, Dak Prescott isn’t walking through that door anytime soon, and UK has a legitimate shot to knock Mullen and the Bulldogs off in Commonwealth Stadium.
Here’s a few things the Wildcats have to do to come out victorious and keep bowl hopes alive:
Continue to pound the rock on the ground
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” UK’s dominant running game has easily been the major head-turner this season, as no one expected this kind of success in that department to start the year. The emergence of Benny Snell, combined with Boom Williams’ ability as a human highlight-reel and Jojo Kemp’s success in the WildKemp has been superb, and the coaching staff must continue to feed this hungry backfield. 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.
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. There were far too many times against Vanderbilt that he’d have his man wide open, and just absolutely misfire. Opposing defenses will immediately hone in on UK’s run-game by stacking the box and bringing the house, and a one-dimensional offense will quickly turn into zero offensive success at all. Use short throws up the middle to CJ Conrad, quick slants to guys like Jeff Badet and “Juice” Johnson, or (never thought we’d be saying this) bubble screens to the outside. Whatever you have to do, just get the ball in the receivers’ hands to let them make a play. When Johnson starts getting a few completions and gains a bit of confidence back, I think the offense will open back up and success will come. Let’s just hope that happens tonight.
Contain Nick Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald rushes for over 70 yards a game for MSU, placing him comfortably in the top five nationally among rushing quarterbacks. He’s going to make some impressive plays on his feet, but UK cannot allow him to break away on any home run balls. If Kentucky can force him to throw the ball, the Wildcat secondary can do a good bit of the dirty work and limit the Mississippi State offense. You contain Fitzgerald, your chances to win the game go up exponentially.
Win the turnover battle
Two weeks ago against Vanderbilt, Kentucky held a comfortable 17-3 lead in the third quarter until Boom Williams coughed up a crucial fumble for a scoop-and-score for the Commodores. A two-score game with UK firmly in control was suddenly cut to one, and this major momentum shift allowed the game to be much closer than it should’ve been. Though Stephen Johnson was only credited with one pick on the afternoon, he had five or six other balls that absolutely should have been picked off, and mistakes like these just cannot happen tonight against Mississippi State. 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.
If UK wins tonight, four of the last five games are victories for the Wildcats and there’s a whole lot of momentum heading into next week in Columbia, Missouri. Confidence would be through the roof, and bowl hopes are as alive and well as ever.
If UK loses, that same momentum comes to a screeching halt, and bowl hopes are in major question.
Let’s not go with scenario two. Kentucky wins 28-24.