Well, this is suboptimal. Kentucky is off to an 0-2 start in the year of the SEC only schedule and it feels like they let a major opportunity slip through their fingers last week at Kroger Field. Despite rushing for 400-plus yards, putting up more yards per play, more chunk plays, higher success rate and a better third down conversion rate, the Wildcats were unable to beat Ole Miss. Little things keep rearing their ugly heads and UK must get their issues fixed quickly.
Once again, the Wildcats will enter a home game on Saturday as a small favorite and their backs will be against the wall with Mike Leach making his first trip back to Lexington since leaving the program following the 1998 season. The Wildcats need a win in the worst way and they’ll be facing a team that stops the run and throws it well. Two areas that figure to make this a potential nightmare matchup.
It’s time to get you ready as UK returns to the Saturday Night Special on the SEC Network with Tom Hart, Jordan Rodgers and Cole Cubelic on the call. Mark Stoops will be looking for his third straight against the Bulldogs at Kroger Field and the Wildcats will need to put together their best team effort through four quarters to get it done.
Nuts and Bolts
Heading into the 2017 version of the Egg Bowl, Dan Mullen was 69-45 as the head coach at Mississippi State in nine seasons and was on his way to his third top-15 finish in Starkville. Everything was good for the Bulldogs and they had become one of the most consistent programs in the SEC. However, things can change quickly in this league.
State was upset at home by Ole Miss and Mullen left for Florida almost immediately after. Athletic director John Cohen made a quick move by hiring Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and the hype was out of control going into 2018 with one of the best offensive minds in college football inheriting an elite defense with multiple NFL draft picks. Again, things can change fast.
"I want you to clear off a spot on your mantle for the Heisman Trophy and I want you to know what your ring size is. You’re going to need it.”
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) July 18, 2018
That didn’t age well. Moorhead was fired after just two seasons highlighted by his best defensive player punching the starting quarterback in bowl prep and once again Cohen made a spirited hire bringing Mike Leach back to the SEC.
— John Cohen (@JohnCohenAD) January 9, 2020
In what was an obvious reaction to Ole Miss reeling in Lane Kiffin, State brought Leach to Starkville making the Egg Bowl the most exciting rivalry in college football. The Bulldogs have hit both sides of the spectrum in just two weeks with a win at LSU and a loss at home against Arkansas as a heavy favorite. It’s going to be crazy ride to follow as the Bulldogs will probably break every passing record in the SEC.
This will be the 48th meeting between the two programs and Mississippi State owns a slim 24-23 edge. The Bulldogs have won 9 of the past 11, but UK has won the last two meetings at Kroger Field. The Dogs and Cats have met every season since 1990 with 13 games being decided by one possession.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 2.5 point favorite with a total of 58. That’s a projected final score around 30-28. The Wildcats are 0-7 ATS and 4-3 straight in their last seven games as a home SEC favorite. Mike Leach was 19-11 ATS as a road dog at Washington State with a nice start in the SEC with a win at Tiger Stadium as a 17-point dog.
UK's recent performances as an SEC home favorite. pic.twitter.com/jVCibBmYqb
— Adam Luckett (@AdamLuckettKSR) October 4, 2020
Air Raid passing concepts have taken over the football world and the first branch of the coaching tree is officially an NFL head coach as the Arizona Cardinals hired Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury. The dean of them all is now in Starkville after head coaching stops at both Texas Tech and Washington State. Despite being the root of it all, Mike Leach does it very different than the rest.
Mississippi State will spread the field horizontally with formations and throw it on nearly ever down, but they will not use tempo. Leach’s offenses won’t huddle, but they will take their time before they snap the football and will not be looking to catch the defense in a bind by playing with tempo. They will take their fare share of vertical shots, but they’d rather attack you horizontally with a precision based passing game.
State will use mesh, other crossing concepts, wide receiver bubble and tunnel screens to try and pick defenses apart underneath. They lean on efficiency more than explosiveness in the passing game and will take timely shots vertically when they feel the matchup is right. When playing defense against this attack it is more about defending east/west than it is north/south which is different than almost any other offense you will see in football.
Through two games, the Bulldogs aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire. State ranks just seventh in the SEC in scoring, fourth in yards per play, sixth in yards per pass attempt, eighth in third down conversion rate and are 13th in red zone touchdown rate. After lighting up LSU, they kind of got exposed going against the dime cover three defense used by Arkansas last week.
Expect to see some similar drop 8 looks used by Kentucky. However, Mississippi State played last week without their best offensive player. Kylin Hill (No. 8) is fresh off a season that saw him rush for 1,350 yards while scoring 10 touchdowns and averaging 5.58 yards per carry. That isn’t how he’s being used this season.
Hill has just as many receptions as carries through the early portion of the season and he will be a key cog for the offense in an effort to take advantage of defenses dropping in coverage. Expect plenty of checkdowns to the senior and UK must make sure they get him to the ground as quickly as possible.
Through just eight quarters, Mississippi State has seen eight different receivers record receptions. Osirus Mitchell (No. 5) leads the team with 12 grabs on 17 targets from his Z wideout spot, but this is an offense that will spread the wealth. However, the Bulldogs have a bunch of tall receivers with six players in the rotation that are at least 6-foot-3. This scheme would prefer more small, shifty wideouts underneath and that is not something this roster has. After struggling with some quickness from Ole Miss in the slot, that should change for Kentucky this week.
At quarterback, Stanford grad transfer K.J. Costello (No. 3) has been a bit Jekyll & Hyde to begin the year. Costello threw for 623 yards and put up 10 yards per attempt in the win over LSU, but followed it up with just 5.3 yards per attempt on a 72.3% completion rate in the upset loss to Arkansas. He has been loose with the football (5 interceptions, 12 pass break-ups) which comes out to a potential turnover rate of 14.29%. He’ll throw it up for grabs and Kentucky could get their first interception of the season in the matchup.
The offensive line has been a pleasant surprise to start 2020 with three new starters. Despite 119 throws, the Bulldogs have allowed just a 4.76% sack rate which is the third best in the SEC while State is averaging 4.26 yards per carry on 34 non-sack rush attempts. Not great, but pretty good for a totally new unit in a new scheme. However, all the sacks allowed came against LSU as Arkansas did not put a major emphasis on getting pressure on Costello.
This team, however, is worst in the SEC with eight turnovers lost and they are scoring touchdowns on just 37.5% of their red zone possessions. Both of those rank near the bottom of the FBS. If you can eliminate the big play, State is putting up 3.86 points per scoring opportunity (possessions inside foe’s 40). They are leaving points on the field.
One of the more surprising coordinator moves in the offseason came when Leach went looking for his defensive coordinator. After being turned down by Navy’s Brain Newberry, the Pirate stole a hire from Dino Babers at Syracuse. Just 11 days after accepting his first Power Five coaching job, 33-year-old Zach Arnett headed to Starkville.
The former player and assistant under 3-3-5 king Rocky Long at both New Mexico and San Diego State served as the defensive coordinator the last two seasons for the Aztecs. While at the helm, SDSU finished in the top-25 of defensive efficiency both seasons while leading the Mountain West and finishing in the top-10 nationally last year in scoring and yards per play defense. So far they are passing the test.
State’s sack rate of 11.9% leads the SEC and ranks sixth nationally while their run defense enters Saturday as the best in college football. Through eight quarters, SEC offenses have had a difficult time figuring out Arnett’s unique scheme and it starts with the line of scrimmage. They will give you some exotic blitz looks and want to cause confusion so they can always have a man running free. Take a look at the left tackle.
In their six-man rotation on the front, four players were former blue-chip recruits and only two have been in the program less than three seasons. Nose may be the strongest position as both Jaden Crumedy (No. 94) and Nathan Pickering (No. 22) can move at 300-plus pounds and they’ve combined for 12 tackles and 2.5 sacks. State will have this position slant a ton and their goal is to make the center and guards’ night very difficult.
At the ends, both Kobe Jones (No. 52) and Marquiss Spencer (No. 42) bring a ton of playing experience as redshirt seniors. They are both playing well. In the second level, Erroll Thompson (No. 40) is back for his redshirt senior season and the Alabama native has started 31 games in his career. He may be an All-SEC player at Mike.
When you look at the middle of the defense, Arnett will stack his linebackers directly behind each of the three-down who will line up directly across the center and both tackles. State has great size at this position with Thompson checking in at 250 pounds, junior college Sam backer Tyus Wheat (No. 2) coming in at 260 pounds and Will backer Aaron Brule (No. 3) sitting at 230 pounds. This trio has produced 4.5 sacks in two games and UK’s offensive line must find a way to get them blocked on Saturday.
The seventh box defender will quite often be Marcus Murphy (No. 7) or Shawn Preston Jr. (No. 12) from their hybrid safety spot. They will move the platooning players all over the field to help with run support in addition to trying to confuse the quarterback.
In the secondary, the Bulldogs have struggled a bit in coverage when the pass rush isn’t able to get home. Both LSU’s Myles Brennan and Arkansas’ Feliepe Franks had a passing success rate of over 45% and averaged 7.5 yards per attempt when playing against this unit. Chunk plays aren’t always easy to grab, but there will be plenty of intermediate options available for Terry Wilson.
Special Teams Breakdown
At punter, Tucker Day ranked 10th in the SEC in average last season and it is just about the same this season hovering around 44 yards per attempt. LSU was able to pop a return against them and an opportunity to flip the field could be there for Josh Ali. On the other side, true freshman Jaden Walley (No. 31) is a young wideout the coaching staff is high on. He recorded a 20-yard punt return last week and will be out there this week along with fellow slot wideout Austin Williams (No. 85).
Brandon Ruiz is 3 of 3 on field goals this year with a long 43 yards. The Arizona State grad transfer started for two seasons and has a few makes from 50-plus to his name. He’s connected on 76.92% of his 52 career attempts. Ruiz is one of the best placekickers in the SEC in addition to having 11 of his 12 kickoffs this season end as a touchback. He’s a weapon.
Returning kicks, slot receiver JaVonta Payton (#0) is capable. This is a solid special teams unit and Kentucky must find a way to take advantage of their punting mismatch.
Keys to Victory
- Kentucky’s defense has been bad in a lot of areas and this week, the inability to force turnovers has gotten a lot of attention. However, even the worst defenses yearly are able to have some success in creating takeaways. Fumbles can be a bit random and eventually a quarterback will throw it to the other team. Where Kentucky’s biggest issue can be found is with backed up defense. The Wildcats have allowed touchdowns on 8 of their 10 red zone possessions and foes are scoring 5.92 points per scoring opportunity. That has to change fast. Going up against an offense with their own finishing issues, Kentucky must find a way to force some field goals on Saturday.
- Yes, Mississippi State is currently the best run defense in college football. Yes, this version of the 3-3-5 defense did consistently stop the run at San Diego State. However, Kentucky still must do what they do. Against LSU, the Bulldogs were unable to produce negative plays in the traditional run game. While they didn’t give up big plays, the Tigers were able to fall forward. This feels like a game to ride Chris Rodriguez Jr. and the QB run element with Terry Wilson could give them issues. UK needs to make a concerted effort to establish the run even if there is some confusion early against a unique front.
- There are a few misconceptions about Mike Leach’s Air Raid and one of the biggest ones is thinking they just let it rip deep. You don’t consistently field quarterbacks that finish in the top-five nationally in completion percentage by constantly getting vertical. This is a short passing game that uses a ton of crossing variations and screens to try to create room for run after catch. The most important thing UK can do on Saturday is tackle in space. The Wildcats have to eliminate YAC.
- We haven’t seen the tight end factor into the passing game yet, but this could be the matchup. State will be all set on stopping the run after the Wildcats went for four bills last week and that means committing numbers to the box. Play-action opportunities should be alive and Keaton Upshaw’s athleticism and size could be a factor.
- UK’s mental state is a big one entering this game off a tough 0-2 start. They have to avoid a hangover at all costs. A slow start is a very real possibility facing two very unique schemes on both sides of the football. Kentucky cannot go in the tank early if things don’t immediately go their way. This team’s fortitude will be tested on Saturday night. The staff and players are currently saying all of the right things, but we’ll truly see what kind of football team they are under the lights at The Kroge.