How Kentucky and Mississippi State match up

mstory@herald-leader.comOctober 23, 2013 

Alabama Kentucky Football

Kentucky cornerback Nate Willis, left, and Raymond Sanders celebrated an Alabama turnover last fall. Willis is expected to miss three to four months of training to recover from sports hernia surgery. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said Willis is expected to be back in time for the start of the 2014 season.

TIMOTHY D. EASLEY — Associated Press

How Kentucky and Mississippi State match up for Thursday night's game in Starkville:

QUARTERBACKS

After dual-threat Jalen Whitlow had finally secured the UK starting quarterback job, his ankle injury against Alabama opened the door for Maxwell Smith to reclaim the position against Mississippi State. Smith's first extended playing time at UK came two years ago against MSU when he relieved an injured Morgan Newton and completed 26 of 33 passes in a 28-16 Wildcats loss. As a sophomore, State's Dak Prescott has emerged as the best running QB (457 rushing yards) in the SEC. Returning MSU starter Tyler Russell's season was sidetracked by a concussion but the senior pocket passer has completed 19 of 25 throws since returning.

Advantage: Mississippi State

RUNNING BACKS

Senior Raymond Sanders was Kentucky's best offensive player (14 carries, 72 yards) against Alabama. After rushing for a combined 158 yards against Miami (Ohio) and Louisville, true freshman Jojo Kemp has found the going tougher (93 yards in three games) against SEC foes. Mississippi State standout LaDarius Perkins ran for 110 yards and a TD last season against UK. An ankle injury slowed Perkins early this year, but he ran for 81 yards vs. LSU and 83 against Bowling Green.

Advantage: Mississippi State

WIDE RECEIVERS

By number of receptions, Kentucky's top three wide-outs are newcomers signed by Mark Stoops — junior-college transfer Javess Blue (24 catches) and true freshmen Ryan Timmons (20) and Alexander Montgomery (13). MSU's Jameon Lewis (23 receptions, 17.1 yards a catch) is a big-play threat with three TD catches. Joe Morrow and Robert Johnson (13 catches each) are both solid.

Advantage: Mississippi State

TIGHT ENDS

Kentucky's Anthony Kendrick caught five passes in the first two games and has two receptions since. Jordan Aumiller caught three balls at South Carolina but was shut out against Alabama. State's Malcolm Johnson has 10 receptions for 112 yards.

Advantage: Mississippi State

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Lexington Christian product Zach West has 15 career starts at left guard, but the UK sophomore is battling former walk-on Max Godby for the starting position now. Massive MSU guard Gabe Jackson (6-foot-4, 335 pounds) is one of the best offensive linemen in the SEC. With the senior from Liberty, Miss., leading the way, State is fourth in the league in rushing (214.3 yards a game).

Advantage: Mississippi State

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Kentucky should get a boost from the expected return of standout end Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who missed the Alabama game with a strained pectoral muscle. Before his injury, the junior from Irwinton, Ga., had recorded a sack in four-straight games. Mississippi State junior defensive end Preston Smith leads the Bulldogs in sacks (two) and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (four).

Advantage: Even

LINEBACKERS

UK middle linebacker Avery Williamson is third in the SEC in tackles with 64 (five behind league leader Ramik Wilson of Georgia) and is tied for the conference lead with two fumble recoveries. Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney (36 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (34) are the Bulldogs' leading tacklers.

Advantage: Mississippi State

SECONDARY

Kentucky junior safety Eric Dixon had a career-high 10 tackles and forced a fumble against Alabama. Junior-college transfer cornerback Nate Willis has 17 tackles in UK's past two games. State senior free safety Nickoe Whitley has 13 career interceptions, including three this season. Nevertheless, the MSU secondary has been throttled in SEC games — Auburn threw for 339 yards, LSU 340.

Advantage: Kentucky

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kentucky place-kicker Joe Mansour is still perfect on field-goal tries (6-for-6), but his long is only 37 yards. Landon Foster is 11th in the SEC in punting (41.6). Javess Blue is fifth in the league in kickoff returns (25.1 yards) and ninth in punt returns (3.5). MSU place-kicker Devon Bell is 5-for-10 on field goals (long of 40). Punter Baker Swedenberg is a standout (44.6 yards). Returner Jameon Lewis has been stellar on kickoffs (27.7 yards) and putrid on punts (0.3 yards).

Advantage: Kentucky

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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