Cats' porous run defense faces potent MSU run game

ccosby@herald-leader.comOctober 27, 2010 

  • Cats against the run

    Kentucky is ranked 11th in the SEC in average rushing yards allowed per game.

    Opponent Result Rush yds

    at Louisville W, 23-16 190

    Western Ky. W, 63-28 187

    Akron W, 47-10 67

    at Florida L, 48-14 176

    at Mississippi L, 42-35 211

    Auburn L, 37-34 311

    S. Carolina W, 31-38 90

    Georgia L, 44-31 177

During its landmark win at Florida a couple of weeks ago, Mississippi State ran the ball 49 times and threw a grand total of nine passes. Its only pass attempt in the second half was a shovel pass to running back Vick Ballard.

Mississippi State and Auburn are the only teams in the SEC with better than a 2-1 run-pass ratio. Auburn runs the ball a whopping 72 percent of its plays (385 run, 133 pass) and State runs 67 percent of the time (353 run, 173 pass).

So the Bulldogs will run. And run some more. And they don't just run it, they run it well.

MSU's 219.2 yards per game on the ground is second in the league only to Auburn's 303.2.

Considering Kentucky has had trouble stopping anybody from running the ball this year, it's no big secret what the Bulldogs plan to do when the two tussle Saturday night in Starkville.

UK is 11th in the SEC in rush defense (176.1) and has allowed a league-high 22 rushing TDs, seven more than the next worst, Tennessee.

The Wildcats have allowed five players to eclipse the 100-yard mark, and that number would have likely been six had not South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore injured his ankle early in the third quarter. That has to be music to the ears of Ballard, who in addition to averaging 6.6 yards per carry, is tied for the league lead in touchdowns (12) with Lattimore and Auburn's Cam Newton.

Last year, the Bulldogs rode a school-record 252-yard performance by Anthony Dixon to a 31-24 win over the Cats.

"We know they're going to run the ball," UK senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said. "That's what they're known for. If you stop the run, it'll be good. If not, it will be another record-setting game against us."

UK Coach Joker Phillips said State will even run it on obvious passing downs, especially since they've got a mobile quarterback in Chris Relf to team up with Ballard in Dan Mullen's spread offense.

"That's what they do," Phillips said. "They've always been a running team, and now they've added the quarterback run game. They just pounded the football for four, five yards a carry. There were several third-and-six (situations) where they said, 'We're going to run the football, and if we don't make it, we'll punt it.' And they made it a lot of times. They decided to run it, punt it, and play great defense, and that's just what they did."

As much as they might like to try, the Bulldogs won't be able to get by without throwing at least a few forward passes. Relf is not known as a pure passer but his numbers aren't horrible: He's 63-for-114 (55.3 percent) for 815 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions, but he was just 8-for-19 for 107 yards in last week's 29-24 win over UAB.

"He throws it adequate enough, so you still have to cover down on receivers," Phillips said.

"His mechanics are there, he's just got to set his feet on some of those short throws," Mullen said. "Once you do it right in a game it just sort of catches, and we just have to get him cleaned up and get him setting his feet. Once we get him settled down on fundamentals he's going to be just fine. Earlier in the game (against UAB) he made some really good throws."

It's hard to put your finger on one particular thing that's causing UK's struggles against the run.

Defensive coordinator Steve Brown points out that his team has faced some pretty good runners, from Louisville's Bilal Powell to Lattimore to Newton.

"They talked about how poor we did against Auburn, but LSU is one of the best defenses in the country, and Auburn ran for over 400 yards against them," Brown said. "There are some good offensive teams out there."

UK's small and inexperienced defensive line was a concern coming into the season. But most of the players and coaches think it's more about the defense losing sight of their gaps than the Cats getting overwhelmed at the point of attack.

"It's just one guy at a time, an assignment breakdown here and there," Brown said. "We're just not as consistent as we'd like to be. That comes with experience. When everybody is on the same page and does it, it's pretty good, as good as anybody in the country."

"It's one guy being in the wrong spot," Lumpkin said. "It's just all fundamental. It's nothing they're doing. It's all on us. One person breaking down leads to us getting gashed and giving up big plays.

Even when the Cats have stacked the box and loaded up on the run, they've had trouble. After they closed to within two scores (41-25) of Georgia last week, the Bulldogs lined up and chewed up eight minutes on the clock and got a 30-yard field goal from Blair Walsh that ended any UK comeback hopes.

"That's frustrating to be out there that long when you've got people specifically in place to stop the run," Lumpkin said. "Fingers start getting pointed, people start getting mad, it's a nightmare. If we play gap-sound football and can be in our spots, we'll be a great defense."

MSU linebacker suspended by SEC

The SEC announced Tuesday that Mississippi State linebacker Chris Hughes has been suspended for Saturday's game. Hughes was suspended for what the league termed a 'flagrant, unsportsmanlike act' that occurred with 26 seconds left in the second quarter.

According to the SEC, the act was in violation of Rule 9-1-4 of the NCAA Football Rule Book which reads, "No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder."

Hughes, a 6-foot, 215-pound true freshman reserve, has played in seven games with five tackles and a tackle for loss.

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