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Offense looking to take another step forward in Smith's first start

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Gameday
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Kentucky vs. Ole Miss
Sat., Nov. 5 - 3:30 p.m. ET
Lexington, Ky.
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Commonwealth Stadium
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TV: ESPNU
Radio: UK IMG
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UK 2011 Team Stats UM
16.5 Scoring/game 20.9
15.1 First downs/game 15.6
265.8 Total offense/game 283.6
139.8 Rushing yards/game 122.8
126.0 Passing yards/game 160.9
20.0 Kickoff returns (avg) 20.9
1.7 Punt returns (avg) 27.8
40.3 Net punting (avg) 39.0
29:15 Time of possession/game 28:02
31.1 Third down conversion 32.7
40.0 Fourth down conversion 40.0
-3 Turnover margin -2
27.4 Points allowed/game 30.6
389.9 Total yards allowed/game 438.6
196.8 Rush yards allowed/game 226.8
193.1 Pass yards allowed/game 211.9
The struggles of the Kentucky offense through six games were well documented. The Wildcats managed just 13 points per game in a 2-4 start and were left searching for answers in both the passing and running game. Even more importantly, Joker Phillips needed to uncover the identity of his offensive unit.

Two weeks later, as UK (3-5, 0-4 SEC) prepares for a matchup with the Ole Miss Rebels (2-6, 0-5 SEC) on Saturday, the Cats seem to have made progress toward uncovering that identity. UK may not have the sort of game-breaking ability of a Randall Cobb or a Derrick Locke, but if the last two games are any indication, the Cats may indeed have the pieces to control the line of scrimmage and move the ball consistently.

Over the Cats' last 20 drives against Jacksonville State, the UK offense has scored a field goal or touchdown on 10. The Wildcats have driven the ball 50 yards or longer on seven occasions and have held the ball for seven plays or more 11 times. Over that span, UK has one turnover and seven punts. By contrast, the Wildcats had just seven scoring drives in their previous 63 tries against Louisville, Florida, Louisiana State and South Carolina, punting 34 times and committing 13 turnovers.  

Under center for the majority of the Mississippi State game in relief of Morgan Newton was freshman Maxwell Smith, who will make his first career start against Ole Miss. During the second half of that game, UK best executed the brand of ball control offense that could become its hallmark. Smith couldn't complete a comeback win, but he conducted three drives of 11 plays or longer for 189 total yards.

With Smith now stepping into the starter role, Phillips guesses the freshman will only improve.

"I think it definitely helps that he got a chance to play," Phillips said. "He got a chance to come back and watch the film and see the mistakes that he made, see how he can protect himself and how he can make it easier on himself."

Last week, Smith completed 26-of-33 passes for 174 yards, showing accuracy and touch on a series of underneath throws and developing chemistry with Matt Roark, who caught 13 passes for 116 yards.

"He kept going to the guy that was his first read, and Roark was his first read," Phillips said. "I was just happy that his eyes were in the right place and he was seeing the field and he was getting the ball out of his hands, which matters. He completed some passes and he got going."

Smith did not stretch the field against Mississippi State, but mainly because the opportunities weren't there. Phillips says Smith has the ability to throw downfield and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said after last weekend's game that Smith has as much "arm talent" as any quarterback he's coached.  Opportunities to throw vertically could come against an Ole Miss defense that has allowed over 30 point per game on the season, but if not, Smith has shown he has the patience to take what's given to him.

When UK is on defense, the big play is exactly what the Cats will have guard against. Ole Miss is led by dual threat quarterback Randall Mackey, who has spearheaded improvement in the Rebels' play since he took over the position on a full time basis. The Rebels utilize a spread option attack that capitalizes on the dynamic ability of running backs like Brandon Bolden and Jeff Scott, which concerns UK.

"They run more triple option out of the gun and more Wildcat plays than Mississippi State did," Phillips said. "Mississippi State was more of a downhill (running team). For the most part that's what we've been pretty good at stopping. A problem we've had is when people get us out in space."

Another area of concern for Phillips is the punting game. Ray Guy Award candidate Ryan Tydlacka will face perhaps his greatest challenge of the season in a Rebel team averaging an astounding 27.8 yards per punt return. Opponents have resorted to punting away from Scott and Nickolas Brassell, who each have returned a punt for touchdown on just 10 combined returns. Tydlacka will be called on to do the same while also flipping the field as he has done all season.

Regardless of what happens on special teams, offense or defense, Phillips knows he'll get his team's best effort come Saturday, just as he has all year.

"Our guys have shown up every week and went about their business the right way," Phillips said. "This is an important week because it gets tougher and tougher every week."

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