For a dramatic rivalry that traces its roots back to 1914, one long-standing SEC matchup gets lost in the swarm of the season far too often.
Mississippi State and Kentucky enter Saturday’s meeting in Starkville, Miss., tied 21-21 in the all-time series. But the Bulldogs have taken six straight. In 2009, running back Anthony Dixon churned out 252 yards rushing (a school record) in a 31-24 road victory, and Kentucky took five more losses after that — all by 14 points or less.
This weekend will mark an end to that trend. Here’s why:
Here comes the “Boom”
Even in the absence of UGA star Nick Chubb, the SEC remains loaded at the running back position. Kentucky starter Stanley “Boom” Williams is one of the better ones. The sophomore is averaging over 7.2 yards per carry (fourth-best in the SEC) and can be leaned upon for 15-20 carries per game. Mississippi State’s defense, meanwhile, is allowing over 160 yards rushing per game. And what’s worse for the Bulldogs: they’ve given up 10-plus yards on running plays 37 times this season, which is tied for the second-worst mark in the conference.
Season-ending injuries to Mississippi State defensive back Kendrick Market and linebacker Dezmond Harris already have the defense thin, and Thursday’s report that cornerback Will Redmond tore his ACL during practice certainly won’t help matters. The Kentucky ground game has had its issues this season, but Williams and backup JoJo Kemp can still reel off a couple of explosive runs and enjoy productive Saturdays. What matters more, though, is whether those two backs can put the game away late. To date, Kentucky is averaging just 2.12 yards per carry in the fourth quarter.
Stopping the Dak attack
Much has been made of Dak Prescott’s “evolution” in his senior season — a fancy way of saying he is trying to become more of a pocket passer to improve his NFL chances. And his numbers have indeed correlated to the change in emphasis. He is completing over 65 percent of his passes, claims 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions and has not topped 100 yards rushing yet this season.
So what hindered Mississippi State in losses to LSU and Texas A&M? A combination of inconsistent blocking and iffy pocket awareness by Prescott played large roles. LSU picked up three sacks in Week 2, and the Aggies added two more in Week 5. The Bulldogs also received little help from their running backs in those games. LSU held them to 43 yards on 26 carries. Texas A&M surrendered 196 yards on the ground, but Prescott accounted for 96 and wide receiver Malik Dear broke one for 52 yards. That leaves 48 yards on 15 carries for everyone else. No bueno.
Missing injured defensive tackle Melvin Lewis will hurt Kentucky here. But the unit’s performance on third down, excluding the Auburn game, has been tremendous. Florida and South Carolina combined to go 4-for-21 in those situations. If Stoops can put his players in a position to stifle Mississippi State’s anemic ground game on early downs, it’s not a huge stretch to think they play fundamentally well enough to keep Prescott in check on third down.
The timing is right
Kentucky comes off a heartbreaking 30-27 home loss to Auburn, but coach Mark Stoops’ squad has had an extra couple of days to prepare for Mississippi State while also mulling over that defeat. For what he began with and what he has at his disposal, Stoops has been excellent at Kentucky. Even so, this team has lacked a perception-changing victory over the past two seasons.
Sure, the Wildcats have beaten a couple of declining SEC East powers in South Carolina and Missouri. But they’ve otherwise whiffed after nearly tasting the sweetness of an upset-fueled Gatorade bath. In 2014, it was a triple-overtime loss to Florida coupled with a four-point loss to in-state rival Louisville. This season, they again allowed the Gators to narrowly escape and ran into Auburn during its best game of the season.
The over-achieving Stoops will want this win badly. While his tenure has been great by Kentucky’s standards, he knows full well his teams have left success on the table. Even though Mississippi State is an 11.5-point favorite, according to most sports books, expect the Wildcats to take the field with fire and make the Vegas betting line look silly.
Prediction: Kentucky 24, Mississippi State 20