What to Watch: Kentucky

The Bulldogs will get back to SEC play this weekend for an extremely important game against Kentucky following the 35-10 win over BYU. The Wildcats enter this game sitting at 5-1 coming off their bye week, and could easily be 6-0 if a couple balls had bounced their way in their 28-27 loss to Florida. While this may not be the biggest game in Mississippi State’s history, this game will go a long way in determining whether or not the Bulldogs can get to eight, maybe even nine wins on the season. In order to come out on top, this is what State must accomplish to come away with a victory this Saturday in Starkville.

Slow down Benny Snell

Entering the game this Saturday Mississippi State’s Aeris Williams and Kentucky’s Benny Snell are tied for sixth in the SEC in rushing yards with 523 yards, and much like Mississippi State, Kentucky’s offense goes where the running game takes them. Snell has carried the ball 126 times this year, 29 more than Williams, and is averaging 4.2 yards per carry with a long of 71 yards. Through six games, Mississippi States defense ranks 55th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game at 152.2 rushing yards allowed, which is improved from last season when the Bulldogs ranked 64th in the country with 179.2 rushing yards allowed per game. With that said, the defense will have to be better than that Saturday to force quarterback Stephen Johnson to beat them through the air.

Don’t get beat deep

The biggest deficiency the Bulldog defense has had so far this season has without a doubt been the fact that the secondary tends to get beat down the field far too often. A lot of that seems to be on the safeties being undisciplined on play action fakes, and as former Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch mentioned on this week’s 13 and 34 Podcast, is a huge part of the Wildcat’s offense. While it is true that the Bulldog secondary has struggled with the deep ball this season, they still manage to rank 15th nationally in passing yards allowed per game with 183, which is a major improvement on the 266 passing yards per game allowed in 2016 under Peter Sirmon. Mississippi State should have a ton of success defensively this Saturday if they can slow down the run and keep the receivers in front of them. You want to force Stephen Johnson to consistently complete short passes versus allowing him to hit you for a single big play over the top.

Run the ball effectively

It is no secret that the Bulldog offense is much more successful when they are able to run the ball consistently, and this week will be no different. So far this season, the Bulldogs have averaged 299.8 yards per game on the ground in their four wins, and have averaged just 185.5 yards in their two losses against Georgia and Auburn. That alone should be a clear indicator on what drives this Mississippi State offense. Luckily for the Bulldogs, they are facing a Kentucky defense that ranks 106th nationally in run defense, allowing 228.6 yards per game on the ground, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the Wildcats don’t have play-makers up front. Linebacker Josh Allen is currently tied for first in the SEC in sacks with seven. With that said, State should have success running the football, but the offensive line will have to have one of their best games of the season.

Fitzgerald needs to be efficient throwing the football

If there was ever a game where Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldog offense could have a big game through the air, it would be this one against Kentucky. The Wildcat pass defense currently ranks 119th in the country in passing yards allowed per game with 295.2 per game, and to make things easier on the Bulldogs, I expect Kentucky to load the box to stop the run which should leave corners in one-on-one coverage on the outside. With that said, the Bulldog receivers haven’t shown much of an ability to get separation in these types of situations so far this season, but that could change this weekend with BYU being the next worse pass defense State has faced so far at 50th in the country. I expect guys like Gabe Myles, Keith Mixon and maybe even Jamal Couch to have breakout games and take some of the pressure off the run game this Saturday against the Wildcats.

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