Kentucky football: Wildcats run defense faces biggest test at Mississippi State
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Kentucky will be in the same place Saturday at Mississippi State as it was in its last road game at South Carolina — as the underdog.
The Wildcats overcame that in Columbia, S.C., with a 23-13 win against the Gamecocks. Kentucky is a 10.5-point underdog against the Bulldogs in Starkville, Miss. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Kentucky just a 21 percent chance to win the game.
Kyle Tucker and I filed our Kentucky-Mississippi State predictions for SEC Country. Kyle picked Mississippi State 27-24, and I picked Mississippi State 26-20. Neither of us think the Bulldogs will cover the spread, but neither of us picked the Wildcats to come away with a win.
And that brings us to our question of the day. Holly Ivy @OG_KG1 asks: What is keeping you from predicting UK as a winner this weekend in Starkville?
The key to the game I’m looking at is Mississippi State’s rushing attack vs. Kentucky’s run defense. I think the Bulldogs hold a slight advantage in that matchup, and that’s why I’m picking Mississippi State to win.
Mississippi State boasts one of the best ground games in the nation. The Bulldogs average 262 rushing yards per game — third in the SEC and 14th in the nation. The counter, of course, is that Kentucky’s defense has been one of the best in the country against the run. The Wildcats are allowing just 97 rushing yards per game — third-fewest in the SEC and 10th in the nation.
Mississippi State has two of the top 10 rushers in the SEC in running back Aeris Williams and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Only Alabama’s Jalen Hurts is averaging more rushing yards per game as an SEC quarterback than Fitzgerald.
“He’s a big, strong guy,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said of Fitzgerald. “Can throw the ball, can certainly handle designed quarterback runs. I think he’s a very tough runner and puts a lot of pressure on you.”
Williams averages 87 yards per game on the ground (the same number as Kentucky’s Benny Snell), and Fitzgerald averages 74 rushing yards per game. Fitzgerald has thrown for 10 touchdowns and rushed for 7.
Kentucky’s defensive line was questioned and criticized heading into the season, but the group didn’t look like a liability in the first half of the season. The defensive line, along with a strong corps of linebackers, has made rushing yards hard to come by for opponents.
But Mississippi State has a better ground game than any Kentucky has faced in its 5-1 start. Yes, the Wildcats are 10th in the nation in fewest rushing yards allowed per game, but here’s where the Wildcats’ FBS opponents rank nationally in rushing: Southern Miss 45th, Florida 62nd, Missouri 73rd, South Carolina 115th, Eastern Michigan 127th.
Mississippi State is 14th.
Kentucky’s path to victory is slowing Mississippi State’s rushing attack. It’s going to be quite the test.