Kentucky Trying to Sustain Momentum vs. MSU

Kentucky players and coaches agree: Their bye week was perfectly timed.

It came at the midpoint of the season and three games into a grueling stretch of seven straight Southeastern Conference matchups. The week gave the Wildcats a chance to heal up and turn their focus on themselves, with plenty of time for work on fundamentals and improving areas that needed addressing.

Saturday, then, was a rare to chance to spend time on the couch rather than the gridiron. That was a positive as well.

“I definitely believe that our players realize, just by taking a step back and watching a Saturday, which we don’t get a chance to do a lot, just to sit back and watch all the football games and football teams and you realize that a lot of people’s margin for error is really small,” Mark Stoops said. “And on any given Saturday things go different ways and I think they realize some of the good things that we have done.”

The good things have outnumbered the bad for UK in recent weeks, as the Cats have reeled off three wins in four games, including back-to-back home wins over SEC foes. That’s a far cry from the first two games of the season, which brought an 0-2 start. 

“I feel better and I feel good,” Stoops said. “We feel like we had a break with a good bye and we are ready for the last half of the season, starting with Mississippi State. I feel like our players and our coaches, we know that everything has to be earned and you have to continue to work at it but we are up for that challenge and excited for this week.”

The challenge versus the Bulldogs (2-4, 1-2 SEC) is a big one, but so is the opportunity when the Cats take the field at 7:30 p.m on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. A victory would put UK (3-3, 2-2 SEC) above .500 in league play and another step closer to the six-win mark.

“I’m looking forward to a real challenge this Saturday,” Stoops said. “But, it’ll be nice to be home, in front of our home fans. Night game against a very good Mississippi State team. So, we know it’s a real challenge like always and have a lot of respect for Coach (Dan) Mullen and Mississippi State and what they do and look forward to this Saturday.”

Stoops is right to respect Mullen, who has built Mississippi State into a perennial threat in the SEC West. The Bulldogs are 7-0 against Kentucky under Mullen, though they are breaking in a new starter at quarterback. Dak Prescott, now a candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Dallas Cowboys, is gone and replaced by physical runner and developing passer Nick Fitzgerald.

“Well, they are still difficult to defend,” Stoops said. “They have always been multiple and Coach Mullen has always been difficult to defend because of the things that we constantly talk about with the quarterback run game and the pressure that they put on you and the stress that it puts on defenses when the quarterback runs the football and spreads you out and still has playmakers across the board.”

Fitzgerald leads Mississippi State in rushing with 431 yards on the season, a fact that would have been more concerning for UK last season or even earlier this year. The Cats, however, seem to have shored up their defense against running quarterbacks.

“South Carolina had a dual-threat guy and we played that well,” D.J. Eliot said. “I think we’re just getting better overall on defense this year. We had a good two weeks of practice, had a lot of reps, were able to work on a lot of fundamentals. I think our players are getting better at everything overall.”

Perhaps most notable is the improvement in confidence.

“I feel like we do have a little swagger now that we’re getting back to our regular defense and getting better,” safety Mike Edwards said. “We have a little swagger now.”

UK is developing a similar swagger in its own running game. In the Cats three consecutive home wins, they have rolled up a whopping total of 285 yards per game on the ground behind a three-headed running-back monster.

“Well, in any offense you’ve got to run the ball first,” Eddie Gran said. “You preach it, and I think our offensive line has done a really good job over the summer when we talked about the movement. I think they’re handling the movement better, and I think the backs are hitting it up in there. Benny (Snell) has done a good job in bringing some physicality along with Jojo (Kemp). I think the last three weeks he’s gotten better and he looks healthy. Then you’ve got Boom (Williams) who’s got the explosiveness and that really helps.”

Williams will be looking for a bounce-back effort after he lost a fumble last time out against Vanderbilt that was returned for a touchdown. Coaches have said he has responded very well over two weeks of practice and said the same about quarterback Stephen Johnson III, who has struggled in the passing game the last three games while battling a wrist injury.

“I think our target throws are a lot better,” Gran said. “The receivers had a really good practice (Tuesday), and really excited about it. Excited for him to get back on the field too and get better.”

Johnson is excited too, but he knows his task on Saturday isn’t an easy one.

“They’re a great defense,” Johnson said. “A really phenomenal defense. Their record doesn’t show exactly how good they are. We just have to be able to control the ball, move the ball down the field with no mistakes.”