Kentucky is coming off a hard-fought, overtime loss to Ole Miss. The Cats will be back on Kroger Field to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday night. Mike Leach will bring his vaunted Air Raid offense and the nation’s leading passer K.J. Costello to Lexington. The Bulldogs are coming off a 21-14 home loss to Arkansas and will be looking to bounce back vs. the Wildcats. Let’s take a look at what UK will need to do in order to win the football game.
Rush for 200 yards. This week’s talk will focus on Mike Leach, K.J. Costello, and the Air Raid. But, Mississippi State’s defense is nasty and only allows 71.5 rush yards per game. Running between the tackles will be tough sledding against the Bulldogs. MSU will have the best defensive front that the Cats have faced in 2020, by far. DT Marquiss Spencer is a havoc producing player and is joined by DE Kobe Jones and NT Jaden Crumedy. Miss State’s defensive line has produced 4 QB sacks, 19 tackles, and 5 tackles for loss through two games. Behind them is a linebacker corps that features 260-pound Sam LB Tyrus Wheat and All-SEC LB Errol Thompson, who weighs in at 250. It’s built to stop the run and the 3-3-5 is a unique scheme that has caused the Cats trouble in the past.
No turnovers. Insert broken record comment here. AJ Rose’s goal line fumble left seven points on Kroger Field vs. Ole Miss. The Wildcats must secure the football in order to not give the Miss State offense extra possessions.
50% plus on 3rd down conversions. UK leads the SEC and nation by converting 60% on 3rd down. Again, this Mississippi State defense is stout and is allowing a 32% success rate on 3rd down. How to ensure UK stays around 50%? Be successful on 1st down. The Cats can’t afford to get off schedule vs. this defense.
Find a third and fourth receiver. Josh Ali has surfaced as Terry Wilson’s primary target. Akeem Hayes has been a nice surprise and earned a starting role. Somehow, some way, Kentucky has to find at least two more pass-catchers to field a threatening aerial attack. If the Cats aren’t effective through the air, Mississippi State will crowd the box to stop the run.
More of the same from Terry Wilson. Wilson was terrific vs. Ole Miss after going 14/18 for 151 yards. Three of his attempts were drops and had one throw away. He also rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns. Mississippi State is allowing 278 pass yards per game. There will be opportunities through the air.
Score touchdowns in the Red Zone. How does a team relieve pressure from a struggling kicker? Score touchdowns in the Red Zone. Also, Mississippi State is going to score points. It only managed 14 vs. Arkansas but I expect a bounce-back game from Leach’s offense. Kentucky is 5/8 inside the 20-yard line. Five were touchdowns, but the Cats also have two turnovers in this area. MSU opponents are scoring 50% of their trips to the Red Zone.
Clean up the little things. Catch the football. Don’t have an untimely hold that stalls a potential scoring drive. Don’t fumble in the Red Zone. Don’t take unnecessary sacks. All these and more need to be cleaned up.
Steal possessions. All of America saw the Bulldogs light up LSU for 623 pass yards in a Week One win over the Tigers. The Bulldogs are averaging an eye-popping 468 pass yards per game. This offense has the potential to score points in bunches. A possession can be stolen by turnovers, sacks, and other havoc plays. The fewer times Costello is on Kroger Field the better.
Tackle in space. Arkansas was terrific in this category last Saturday in Starkville. Leach will run numerous crossing and underneath routes. The UK defensive backs and linebackers will need to be effective tacklers which will limit yards after the catch. This has not been a strength for two games.
Eye discipline. Defensive coordinator Brad White will run plenty of zone coverage. The secondary can’t get caught up on diversionary tactics and maintain its responsibilities. Zone defense is pretty simple. It calls on defenders to just do their jobs and defend their area of the football field. The Bulldogs’ intent will be to utilize every inch of green space on Kroger Field. All-SEC RB Kylin Hill was injured vs. Arkansas. His status has not been updated at the time of this post; however, Hill is averaging 19.8 yards per catch and is extremely dangerous coming out of the backfield. Wildcat linebackers have to account for Hill at all times.
Fight for 50/50 balls. Mississippi State receiving corps has players that are listed at 6’6, 6’5, and 6’4. The primary group of pass catchers average 6’3, 197-pounds. There will be 50/50 situations that Kentucky needs to start winning.
Create turnovers. A turnover will take away a Mississippi State offensive possession. Limiting possessions will be paramount on Saturday night. Kentucky hasn’t recorded a turnover in 2020; that has to change vs. the Bulldogs. MSU had three fumbles and an interception against Arkansas. The Hogs provided the defensive blueprint on how to defend the Air Raid.
Kick the ball. Matt Ruffolo’s missed PAT will be talked about for generations. The truth of the matter is that he should have never been in that situation in the first place. Multiple points that were left on the field that should have been sufficient to win the game in regulation; however, he or Chance Poore must convert PATs and field goals.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
Believe it or not, UK matches up better vs. the Air Raid passing game than it did vs. Ole Miss’ fast-paced onslaught. Still, K.J. Costello is averaging 468 pass yards per game and is an elite quarterback in a pass-happy offense. The Bulldog pass catchers possess tremendous size and will challenge the Wildcat secondary.
I’m equally impressed with Mike Leach’s defense. It’s ranked 2nd in the SEC in Rushing Defense after allowing 71.5 yards per game, 2nd in the SEC in Total Defense (350 yards per game), 1st in QB Sacks with 10, and 3rd in Tackles for Loss after registering 14 through two games. Lots of havoc in that stat line.
An 0-2 start is less than ideal with an unforgiving schedule that features the nation’s second, third, and fourth ranked teams coming up later this fall. A win on Saturday night would re-energize the Cats and its fanbase going into an extremely difficult stretch.