Believe it or not, we are in week four as Kentucky will be hosting Mississippi State under the lights with ESPN2 in town. This one has a big game feel and the UK administration is using their best marketing strategies to fill the house.
The Wildcats have handled their business through three games and are now just one win away from cracking the top 25. In comes Joe Moorhead as he makes his first conference road trip as an SEC head coach.
Dan Mullen left Moorhead a loaded roster. The Bulldogs have a defense stocked with future pros, a good offensive line and a quarterback who is about to set the SEC rushing record. This is a legit top 15 team and State would be a College Football Playoff contender if they were an any other division.
Nuts and Bolts
After collecting a 38-13 record as the head coach at Fordham in the FCS, Joe Moorhead made the move to Penn State. Working under James Franklin, the Nittany Lions desperately needed a spark and that’s what he provided.
In his first two years as an FBS offensive coordinator, Moorhead’s group averaged over 37 points each season on their way to 21 victories and a conference championship. Penn State became one of the most feared offenses in the country and the work done was enough for Mississippi State to quickly hire him.
Moorhead takes over a program that achieved a high level of success under Dan Mullen. State went from the SEC cellar to legitimate contender. The bar has been raised and now the goal is to have this program competing for division and conference titles.
When divisions were created in the SEC in 1992, MSU drew Kentucky as its permanent opponent from the other division. Overall, State owns a 22-21 series lead and a 17-9 advantage once this series was made permanent. Eight of those 17 wins occurred under Dan Mullen. Four of the last nine meetings have been decided by one-possession.
Out in the desert, Mississippi State is currently favored by 9.5 with a total of 55.5. That’s a projected final score of 32.5-23. Since 2013, State is 3-4-1 against the spread as a double-digit conference favorite. In their last eight games against ranked foes, Mark Stoops and Kentucky are 7-1 against the spread with three straight up wins.
In just three games with Joe Moorhead calling the shots, the Bulldogs are averaging 50 points per game and 8.5 yards per play. These both rank in the top two in the SEC. After sitting out the first game due to a suspension, redshirt senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has performed to expectations.
The Georgia native has been responsible for eight touchdowns, is averaging 8.8 yards per carry (excluding sack yardage) and is putting up 7.6 yards per pass attempt. He’s only completing 55% of his passes but that’s not a surprise when you consider how many deep shots are taken in this scheme.
At receiver, MSU’s top two pass-catchers are both averaging over 20 yards per catch. Junior college transfer Stephen Guidry was a four-star prospect and he’s lived up to the billing with six grabs for 138 yards. Slot man Keith Mixon is State’s most efficient receiver with six grabs on six targets for 101 yards and a touchdown. In this new scheme, the Bulldogs spread the ball around. Three tight ends, five wideouts and two running backs have recorded at least two receptions.
In the backfield, it starts with sophomore Kylin Hill who was banged up in last week’s win over Louisiana. The Mississippi native is averaging 10 yards per touch as he’s collected six touchdowns on the season. He’s an explosive back and Moorhead will get him the ball in a bunch of ways.
He’s not alone in the backfield. Senior Aeris Williams is back after rushing for over 1,00o yards as a junior. In backup duty, he’s averaging nine yards per carry and gives the Bulldogs one of the best backup running back options in the FBS.
The numbers are gaudy and Mississippi State has absolutely eviscerated some bad defenses to start the season (average S&P+ ranking of 88.5). It all starts and ends with a very good offensive line.
The Bulldogs are led by center Elgton Jenkins who was name SEC offensive lineman of the week last weekend. The senior has 24 career starts and has played every position on the line. He sets the tone.
The guards are the strength of the group. Deion Calhoun and Darryl Williams have a combined 42 career starts. The two Alabama natives are each over 300 pounds and are both road graders in the run game. Calhoun also excels in pass coverage. He didn’t allow one sack in 2017.
Outside, MSU is a little more green with a pair of starting sophomores. Both left tackle Greg Eiland and right tackle Stewart Reese have early experience with 23 combined starts. Each is over 330 pounds and they’ve been dominant to start the season; MSU’s offense is 15th in the FBS in sack rate.
The offense is filled with experience at offensive line and quarterback, with playmakers at running back and wide receiver. This unit has excelled in the new scheme through three games. They lead the SEC in rushing by 27 yards per game and are one of the most balanced attacks in college football. They rank second in efficiency and seventh in explosiveness in the FBS per S&P+. Stopping this offense will be a tall challenge.
As good as it is on offense, the numbers are almost nearly as good on defense. The Bulldogs have only allowed two touchdowns in three games. On the season, State is only giving up 8.7 points per game. Their foes average just 2.5 yards per rush and 5.7 yards per pass attempt. In Starkville, it all begins with the front.
The Bulldogs made the move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 as Bob Shoop moved over from Knoxville to become MSU’s new defensive coordinator. He inherited some dudes on the line of scrimmage in junior Jeffery Simmons and senior Montez Sweat.
Simmons is the best defensive tackle in the SEC and in 2018 he’s collected 5.5 non-sack tackles for loss with double teams coming his way each game. The projected defensive end out of high school has made a seamless move to the interior of the line and he is a dominant force.
His running mate may be just as good as former Michigan State Spartan turned junior college transfer has recorded 13.5 sacks in just 16 career games. Sweat is an excellent speed rusher off of the edge and is the second best run defender on the team behind Simmons. He’s a huge reason why this team ranks 15th in the country in sack rate.
It doesn’t just stop with them, however, as the Bulldogs are a legit two deep at each position on the line. Fletcher Adams, Gerri Green, Braxton Hoyett, Kobe Jones and Chauncey Rivers are all legit SEC defensive linemen. This is the deepest group in the SEC.
At linebacker, the Bulldogs are led by sophomore Errol Thompson and junior Leo Lewis. At the second level, the Bulldogs are big and they get downhill but the second best part of their defense is in the back.
Johnathan Abram and Mark McLaurin might be the best safety duo in college football. Abram, another former junior college transfer, currently leads the team in tackles while McLaurin led the squad in 2017. These two are both fast and solid tacklers who love contact. Look for them to help out early and often in run support.
At corner, MSU will be without starter Jamal Peters due to a leg injury suffered in last week’s win. That could cause some shuffling as third safety Chris Rayford will be moved over to corner. In his first year as a full-time starter, Cameron Dantzler looks like a future all-conference performer. Another junior college transfer and former Michigan Wolverine Brian Cole is used as MSU’s nickelback. Losing Peters hurts but this is a talented secondary.
The defensive line sets the tone and they are the main reason why inferior competition has struggled so much to move the ball. They are hard to block and they’ve been very disruptive through 12 quarters of football. Teams have been able to methodically rush the ball on Mississippi State this season when they aren’t putting themselves in a hole. Much like last year with Todd Grantham, the Bulldogs can be hit with the big play due to their aggressive nature.
Special Teams Breakdown
The biggest advantage UK will have on Saturday will be in the third phase. The Bulldogs have struggled in special teams in the first three games of the 2018 season.
Kicker Jace Christmann is just 1/3 on field goals after hitting 12/14 last season. In his first year as a starter, Tucker Day is averaging just 40 yards per punt. Kickoff specialist Scott Goodman has only produced 11 touchbacks in 25 attempts and opponents are averaging nearly 22 yards per return.
Field position has been a struggle for MSU due to the kicking game inefficiencies. There will be hidden yardage there for the taking for Kentucky. It would be a good time for Lynn Bowden to get his first big return of the season.
Keys to Victory
Since the win over South Carolina in 2014, Kentucky has faced many SEC foes at night with a big time atmosphere at
Commonwealth Stadium Kroger Field. In those games, they have come down to the wire in the fourth quarter with UK eventually succumbing to the opponent. Here is what they need to do to close the door on Saturday night.
- In two meetings, Eddie Gran’s rushing attack has ran all over Bob Shoop’s unit. UK has ran for 732 yards, eight touchdowns, and eight yards per carry in the two contests. MSU’s front will create some negative plays but UK must stay loyal to the running game. Teams have had success on State but had to abandon it early due to the deficit.
- For the season, Kentucky’s defense has done a very good job of limiting big plays. On the year, opponents have only eight plays that have gone for over 20 yards and zero that have been for over 40 yards. These rank third and first in the SEC. Mississippi State has had 20 plays go for over 20 yards. Kentucky must have good outside pass coverage and make tackles when State gets in space on plays like this.
- Early in the season, field position has been problematic for UK’s offense. Due to inefficiencies in returns and not getting enough three-and-outs, UK has a starting field position average of their own 28 yard line. However, MSU has not been good in field position on defense due to some of the same things. UK must take advantage of this on Saturday. Create short fields for your offense and pin MSU back as much as possible.
- One thing that will help with the field position battle will be turnovers. For the season, UK has only forced three takeaways while Mississippi State has only lost it twice. This will be a key battle. UK must take care of the football and take advantage of the wild crowd to force some turnovers to produce significant momentum swings in the ballgame.
- Terry Wilson is getting better with each outing but this offense needs him to connect on vertical throws. Outside of the touchdown to Lynn Bowden against Florida, UK has struck out on the home run ball and they must start to hit on them soon. Wilson’s current 6.6 yards per attempt will not be satisfactory enough to beat the best teams on the schedule. To help out the ground game and to keep the atmosphere buzzing, connecting on a few deep shots will be vital.
I could obviously make a Starkville joke but the place they call Stark Vegas gets too much of a bad wrap. The “Hail State” motto being in the endzones of both the football stadium in basketball floor is kind of lame. But it’s the cowbell. It’s definitely the cowbell. Here’s a quick history lesson.