Mark Stoops must have slept better Sunday night knowing that he didn’t have to game-plan against Dak Prescott this week.
The former Mississippi State quarterback, who had video game-type stats against Kentucky the past two seasons, is now playing quarterback in the NFL.
“I caught about 10 minutes of that (Dallas Cowboys) game in Lambeau yesterday, so definitely we talked about it,” Kentucky’s head coach said Monday as the Cats come back from their bye week to take on the Bulldogs at Commonwealth Stadium this weekend. “I just had great respect for him and have such great respect for him.”
In the past two seasons against Stoops’ defenses, Prescott passed for nearly 600 yards and four touchdowns while running for more than 200 yards and five other scores.
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“I always felt like he was so underrated,” Stoops said of Prescott, now the starter for the Cowboys. “I talked a lot about that in this press conference last year. I think I said he should be a Heisman Trophy candidate, and I think most people laughed at me. I just had great respect for him. I knew what he was doing for that team.”
Mississippi State, which fell 28-21 in two overtimes at Brigham Young on Friday, is learning about life after Prescott.
“They’re still very hard to defend,” Stoops said. “They’ve always been multiple.”
Things like the quarterback run game that has given opponents fits over the years are still very much part of Coach Dan Mullen’s plans, Stoops said.
Fitzgerald is running the ball a little bit more this season than Prescott did last season, averaging 71.8 yards per game on 13.3 carries while Prescott averaged 45 yards a game on 12.3 carries.
In the Bulldogs’ two wins this season, Fitzgerald has been able to get loose, averaging 152.5 yards on about 10 carries a game. He has 19 runs for 10 or more yards, third-most among quarterbacks nationally and second among all SEC players.
In the losses, Fitzgerald is managing just 31.5 yards a game.
Stoops sees the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Bulldogs quarterback as a formidable force who is getting more comfortable with each start.
“Just a guy that’s big and strong and can definitely throw the ball and can run it. So, it’s just reps and getting more and more comfortable.”
Fitzgerald has more rushing attempts per game (13.3) than any other quarterback in the league, which always puts a strain on the defense. The sophomore is seventh in the league in total offense, at 238.2 yards a game.
“The pressure that they put on you, the stress that it gives defenses with the quarterback running the football and spreading you out and still have play makers across the board,” Stoops said of MSU.
Kentucky (3-3, 2-2) hasn’t had much luck against the Bulldogs under Mullen, falling seven straight times.
But the Cats are feeling better about their chances against the run in the past few games. UK opponents are averaging just 135 yards rushing in the last three games.
Behind Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs are averaging 190.7 yards a game on the ground, sixth-best in the league.
There still isn’t much of an update available on former UK starter Drew Barker, who has missed much of the last four games battling a back injury. Stoops said last week the quarterback would be “week to week” after this upcoming game.
“The update is it’s about the same: No big jump one way or the other,” Stoops said Monday.
At this point, there is no plan to surgically repair Barker’s back, and Stoops wasn’t willing to definitively say that Barker is lost for the season.
“Not ready to make that decision — or the doctors aren’t ready to make that decision,” Stoops said.
Does any of this change the plan moving forward for true freshman quarterback Gunnar Hoak, who is slated to come in for Stephen Johnson if something happens?
There is no time line for when they would no longer consider pulling Hoak’s potential redshirt, Stoops said.
“We have his blessing and the blessing of his family,” Stoops said. “They know very clearly and they’re all for it. His father was a football player and understands it and is all for it. If we feel the need to play him, then he’s going to play.
“If Stephen goes down, he’s gonna, unless again it’s for one play or something, maybe get back. If it looks like Stephen has a significant injury.”
By all accounts, Hoak has looked good in practice this fall as the backup.
“We’re very impressed,” Stoops said, noting that it’s hard to know how any QB will play in a game until he’s in the game. “He’s getting better and better with every snap. He’s very poised. … He shows everything that you want in a quarterback.”
That echoed what UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said about Hoak recently.
“Gunnar is getting better and better and better,” Hinshaw said. “He came out today fired up, ready to go. The kid wants to play and so does (walk-on) Luke Wright. They’re busting their tail, and I’m really proud of them. They’re ready to go, and again, we’re gonna continue to let ’em compete and see what happens.”
News and notes
Kentucky probably will continue to be without the services of backup outside linebackers Kobie Walker and De’Niro Laster for a while as the two battle undisclosed injuries. Stoops said Laster would be out for a couple of weeks at least.
Kengera Daniel, who sat out the first four games serving a suspension, moved into a backup role on the updated depth chart behind starter Denzil Ware. Jordan Bonner is listed as the backup to starter Josh Allen on the other side.
Both Allen and Ware got breaks last week to heal up their own bumps and bruises.
“The nice thing about (Daniel) and Jordan is that they’re both bigger guys,” Stoops said. “As we play some physical teams down the stretch we can get, we got all the reps with those guys.”
Allen and Ware were able to get some work last week, just not all of it.
Stoops said: “They were able to go in practice but they definitely got a little bit of rest and let us bring some other guys along.”
Mississippi State at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)