LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s second half of the season starts Saturday against Mississippi State with the chance for the Wildcats to move above .500 for the first time — and creep closer to a postseason bid.
Coach Mark Stoops hasn’t beaten the Bulldogs in his tenure and Kentucky has lost seven in a row to Mississippi State. But the matchup is more even this year as the side from Starkville, Miss., comes into Commonwealth Stadium having lost three of its last four while Kentucky is winners of three out of four.
Kentucky (3-3, 2-2 SEC) and Mississippi State (2-4, 1-2 SEC) kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
Here are five things to watch for Kentucky:
Contain Nick Fitzgerald
Mississippi State’s sophomore quarterback is the most dynamic piece of an otherwise lackluster offense. Fitzgerald has only passed for 166 yards per game, 10th in the SEC, but he does plenty of damage for the Bulldogs on the ground.
Fitzgerald averages more than a dozen rushing attempts and 70 rushing yards per game. His dual-threat numbers are only behind Texas A&M QB Trevor Knight. Kentucky has fared well against mobile quarterbacks in 2016 and containing Fitzgerald will be the key to a Wildcats win.
Stoops said the first-team offense and the first-team defense have been facing each other in practice and that Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson’s mobility is helping the Wildcats defense prepare for what they might see from Fitzgerald.
There aren’t too many quarterbacks in the NCAA who could pull this off.
NICK. FITZGERALD. ?
That's a @HailStateFB Touchdown.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 15, 2016
Win the turnover game
Turnovers have been Kentucky’s biggest nemesis in 2016.
The Wildcats are last by a mile in the SEC with a -8 turnover margin. The next worst is Tennessee at -2. Mississippi State checks in at +2 in the turnover game and coughing up the ball on Saturday might be the difference in what figures to be another slugfest short on scoring.
Kentucky will keep it on the ground most of the game and Johnson will have to minimize mistakes through the air.
Make Mississippi State play the pass
Kentucky is comfortable with where its run game is. Boom Williams dances around defenses, Benny Snell rolls right through them and Johnson is coming off his best game on the ground, a 55-yard performance against Vanderbilt. But the Wildcats have posed no threat through the air in their last three games.
When former starter Drew Barker left with an injury against New Mexico State in Week 3, Johnson replaced him and threw for 310 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s thrown for 273 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions in his last three games combined.
Kentucky hasn’t passed for a touchdown in more than a month and while Johnson has led the Wildcats to two victories in those last three games, Kentucky is averaging 14 points per game since putting up 62 against New Mexico State. The Bulldogs and every other future opponent will try to make Kentucky prove it can pass and make rushing yards hard to come by.
Let Stephen Johnson loose
While his passing struggles have been noted (see above), Johnson has added another dimension to Kentucky’s offense when he’s been able to. The junior quarterback has rushed 10 or more times in three games, and in two of them he tallied more than 50 yards on the ground. It doesn’t create a huge dent in the stat book, but it makes an already solid Wildcats run game even harder to stop.
Barker didn’t possess Johnson’s dual-threat abilities, and while Johnson might not have the moves of Fitzgerald, Kentucky seems to be holding him in check just a bit considering the injury situation at quarterback. Freshman Gunnar Hoak is slotted behind Johnson on the depth chart and the Wildcats would still like to redshirt him and keep Johnson healthy.
Letting him run is a risk, but so is not going all-in on a much needed bowl bid.
Vying for a rare third SEC win
Kentucky could clinch its third SEC win Saturday. It might not sound like much, but it’s a feat the Wildcats haven’t secured since the 2009 season.
The matchup against Mississippi State falls under the same category as the South Carolina and Vanderbilt games: must-win. With Austin Peay on the schedule in late November, a win against Mississippi State guarantees Kentucky five victories. The Wildcats would then need one of two winnable games to go bowling — at Missouri or home against Georgia
The SEC East is in bad shape and Kentucky is quietly sitting tied for second in the division.