A couple of weeks into the season, a reporter pointed out to senior Matt Elam that Kentucky’s once-maligned run defense was ranked in the top 10 nationally.
“I think we’ll take more pride if it was around game eight or nine,” the nose tackle said in a matter-of-fact way.
Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) is much closer to that timeline now and is rated 10th in the country and third in the league at stopping the run.
That defense is about to get its biggest test of the season on Saturday at Mississippi State, which is one of the nation’s elite rushing teams behind dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams.
“This is a team where it’s critical to stop the run,” defensive coordinator Matt House said of UK’s defense, which is allowing just 97.2 yards a game on the ground. “That goes without saying.
“When you’ve got a good back and a quarterback — really several good backs — and a physical offensive line, that’s where it’s going to start and stop in a lot of ways.”
The Cats’ run-stop numbers are deceptive. They lead the nation in run defense against non-conference foes, allowing only 43.3 yards on the ground, but they’ve allowed SEC opponents to rush for 151 yards a game (5.09 per carry).
Kentucky would like to see those numbers versus SEC teams get more in line with the non-conference data. The import of this game and getting the second half of the season started well is not lost on the players.
“This is going to determine our season right here, how we’re going to unfold for this half of the season,” weakside linebacker Eli Brown said of UK’s rush defense. “We have to stop the run. If we don’t stop the run, then we’re gonna get blown out.”
Kentucky has had an extra week to prepare for the one-two punch and coaches have been telling the defense to think about Mississippi State as a team with two running backs in its backfield.
“We’ve been prepping really hard, just practicing on that, practicing like he’s a second back,” Brown said of Fitzgerald, who is the league’s top running QB this season at 74.3 yards per game and seven rushing touchdowns. “When he’s a quarterback like that who can run, it’s like a two-back set. You have to play it that way. … I like the way he plays. He’s physical and he’s going to talk trash and I love that.”
At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Fitzgerald is “tough” and “a handful,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said.
Both Fitzgerald and Williams, who is fourth in the SEC in rushing at 87.2 yards per game, ran for 100 or more yards against Brigham Young last weekend.
The Bulldogs have run for 1,570 yards and 11 touchdowns this season on 275 carries.
And their stars are well protected, with Mississippi State giving up just three sacks all season (third best in the country) and only 21 tackles for loss (fifth best nationally).
So much of that is Mississippi State’s ability to run the ball and create manageable third-down situations for itself.
“They manage the game on first and second down, do a really nice job with a quarterback who can run the football,” outside linebackers coach Dean Hood said. “And they get themselves into third-and-medium, third-and-short and as a defensive play-caller, that’s a difficult situation to be in.”
It’s added up to 143 first downs this season for the Bulldogs, tied for second most in the conference. State also is converting on 44.3 percent of its third downs because it has so many short-yardage situations.
When asked if those kinds of numbers negate the benefit of players like Josh Allen and Denzil Ware, who have been effective at getting pressure on quarterbacks this season, Hood nodded.
“We’ve got to do a good job on first down and make it second-and-long and get them to third-and-long, then the advantage swings back to the defense,” he said.
Kentucky’s run defense, which gets starting linebacker Jordan Jones back after a shoulder injury sidelined him for four games, is ready to see how it measures up against Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs’ ground attack.
“Coach House keeps stressing they’ve got some running backs who will run you over,” Brown said. “We watch film and I like the way they play. … Everyone’s physical. This is probably hands down the most physical and hardest game we’ve played this year.”
Kentucky at Mississippi St.
4 p.m. (SEC Network)