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Unique test awaits rejuvenated Cats on Thursday

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Maxwell Smith will start at quarterback on Thursday at Mississippi State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Maxwell Smith will start at quarterback on Thursday at Mississippi State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The timing was close to ideal.

Of course Kentucky would have liked to have gotten back on the field immediately to wash away the taste of defeat, but bye weeks are built into the long college football season for a reason. The Wildcats, with 12 days between games against Alabama and Mississippi State, took full advantage of theirs.

"I think the bye came at a good time," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We were a little banged-up coming out of that Alabama game for sure. It was really a culmination of four consecutive tough weeks."

UK's injury report was seemingly interminable after the loss Alabama, but it's now much more manageable. Just as importantly, the Cats have had a chance to get their minds right after four straight games against top-20 opponents.

"I think having a chance to recoup physically and mentally I think should help us going into this game," head coach Mark Stoops said. "I think our preparation has been very good. I feel like the team is in a good place right now. I feel like we're getting our legs back up underneath us."  

UK will need to be focused, because the Cats are in for a challenge the likes of which they haven't seen.

To begin with, they'll be playing a Southeastern Conference game on a day other than Saturday for the first time since 2007. The bye week preceding UK's 7:30 p.m. ET Thursday  matchup with Mississippi State (3-3, 0-2 SEC) allowed the coaches to move the team's practice schedule ahead by two days to make preparations as close to normal as possible, but the game still represents a change in routine.

"There will be some subtle changes in there because Saturday morning they're up usually watching football if we're playing a Saturday-night game or in between meetings, and now they'll be sitting there watching soap operas, I guess," Stoops joked.

With only soap operas on television on Thursday, apparently, many viewers figure to tune in for UK's primetime appearance.

"It is nice to get the national exposure," Stoops said. "It's certainly nice to play a Thursday night game because I think a lot of people watch that game, so hopefully we'll go out and represent us the right way and play tough and play the way we're capable of. I anticipate that we will."

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will be looking to do the same.

Like Kentucky, Mississippi State will be after its first SEC win and will rely on a solid ground game. Quarterback Dak Prescott leads the way with 457 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.

"Anytime you got the quarterback involved with the run and they're physical, it makes you add numbers," Stoops said. "We have to be very disciplined with all the different option that they do and all the quarterback run game and then you gotta get them on the ground. And then of course when you commit numbers, you gotta play the play-action. That's the big thing."

Mississippi State relies on pace heavily to move the ball, so the experience the UK defense has going against Brown's offense in practice will be an asset.

"That's what Coach has been telling us a lot, so we really gotta make sure we're getting the calls in fast and make sure we're getting lined up fast and we gotta read our keys fast as well because they're going to try to gas us," linebacker Avery Williamson said.

On offense, UK will look to get back on track after Alabama shut down the UK attack. Maxwell Smith will start at quarterback, though Jalen Whitlow -- who sprained an ankle agains the Crimson Tide -- will be available in a yet-to-be-determined capacity.

"What I'm doing is, we've got a package in for him, and I probably won't be able to tell until later in the week how much of it we're gonna use, or how much we'll be able to use," Brown said. "If he keeps progressing then I think he'll be fine on Thursday."

Regardless who takes the snaps, UK will have to contend with an imposing State defense.

"The first thing I see when I see State's defense is how big they are," Smith said. "They got tons of length, huge d-line, the biggest linebackers that we'll probably see all season long. They're really big and they're really physical."

The UK offense will also have to cope with Mississippi State's most famous game-day tradition. As they did before a trip to South Carolina, coaches pumped in noise at practice this week, but there's no simulating the cowbells of Davis Wade Stadium.

"If I hear the word cowbell, I think Mississippi State and I think loud and annoying," Smith said. "I'm pretty sure that's why they do it."

If the last time UK went on the road is any indication, the Cats aren't likely to wilt in the face of a little noise, as foreign as the noise may be.

"I don't feel like we've laid down all year," Williamson said. "I feel like we've just given up certain plays and then played good at times. I definitely feel like we've been continuing to fight. If we keep that mentality, we can still win some games in the second half of the season."

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