It’s almost game time. Here are some final thoughts on how Kentucky’s game against Mississippi State might play out Saturday in Starkville, Miss.
Kylin Hill, contained
The Southeastern Conference’s leading rusher, Kylin Hill, has 431 yards on 65 attempts — nearly 100 more yards on just one more attempt than Auburn’s JaTarvious Whitlow in the second-place spot — and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But, I’d be surprised if he has a fourth-straight 100-yard day to begin the year.
Of three MSU ball carriers who faced the Wildcats last year, Hill fared the worst — he rushed four times for 14 yards, one of those trips a 7-yard gain. Most of UK’s defensive linemen who played in that contest are going to line up opposite the Bulldogs again this year, including Calvin Taylor Jr., who recorded a sack in last year’s bout. Misssissippi State’s offensive line has blocked well in the run game so far — it’s averaging 5.8 yards per rush and accumulated an average 224 yards as a team each time out — but those totals have come against Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Miss and Kansas State. Nearly half of Hill’s total yards were against the Ragin’ Cajuns in the Bulldogs’ opener (197 on 27 carries).
K-State is the only Power Five team in that grouping, and presents an interesting year-over-year comparison. Hill in 2018 rushed for 211 yards on 17 carries at Kansas State, which finished 5-7 and lost, 31-10, to the Bulldogs. The Wildcats, helmed by new skipper Chris Klieman, won last weekend, 31-24, in Starkville, to start the year 3-0; Hill in that game rushed 24 times for 111 yards.
Running back parade
Benny Snell scored every UK touchdown in the Wildcats’ 28-7 win over the Bulldogs last season. Snell, of course, will be on the other side of the country with the Pittsburgh Steelers in San Francisco this weekend.
Kentucky should be able to run on the Bulldogs, who are still breaking in several new starters on the defensive line. Mississippi State has given up five rushing touchdowns this season, all to different running backs (three to Louisiana-Lafayette, two to Kansas State). UK happens to have two running backs — A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke — who’ve proven to be effective since Snell’s departure; against Florida’s vaunted defensive front the duo netted 125 yards on the ground, and each has scored twice.
The coaching staff this week has said it wants to work Chris Rodriguez back into the rushing rotation after he did not receive any carries since the season opener, in which he fumbled twice. Given the high temperatures expected in Starkville on Saturday, UK might not have a choice but to trot out Rodriguez for a series here or there, and might even need to break out true freshman Travis Tisdale for a play or two if cramping becomes a serious concern.
Osirus Mitchell last year in Mississippi State’s loss posted career highs in receptions (six) for 65 yards against a Kentucky defense that was good against the pass; now a junior, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound receiver must be frothing at the idea of facing a secondary that ranks 12th in the league in that category and is dealing with injuries.
Mitchell has produced despite being hamstrung some by the Bulldogs’ revolving door at quarterback; he’s tied for 10th in the league with 13 receptions and tied for eighth with 208 yards. He’s caught three touchdown passes, tied for fifth-most in the SEC.
Kentucky can lean somewhat on the fact that its defensive backs in practice have regularly gone up against Ahmad Wagner, who’s the same height and almost 30 pounds heavier than Mitchell, but his number will be repeatedly called if the Wildcats are able to bottle up Hill, and another career day could be there for the taking.
Kentucky 28, Mississippi State 21: There’s reason to believe this pick is outlandish. Kentucky hasn’t won at Mississippi State since 2008; the all-time ledger between the programs is 23-23, but since they began playing each year since 1990, the Bulldogs are 18-11, including eight wins in the last 10 games; it’s an SEC road opener in which the home team is coming off a close loss, and in three trips to Starkville under Stoops the Cats have never won; Vegas pegs the Bulldogs as a touchdown favorite, and more often than not the oddsmakers seem to know a thing or two.
But, on paper, UK seems like the better team, and that wasn’t the case for much of Stoops’ tenure. It’s taking a lot of new guys for a swim in cowbell-infested waters, but Kentucky has enough talent up front to make the difference in what should be a physical one down south. The biggest key is not letting last week’s outcome sneak into their bags when they board the plane to Mississippi.