UK Football

UK football notebook: Defenses aim to avoid repeat of Towles-Prescott shootout

Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles. The University of Kentucky hosted Auburn University, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer
Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles. The University of Kentucky hosted Auburn University, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

Last season's version of this game turned into a quarterback clinic of sorts for both Mississippi State and Kentucky.

Not even the winning coach has fond memories of that show.

"Hopefully he eats something different or whatever," Bulldogs Coach Dan Mullen said of UK's Patrick Towles, who set all sorts of career highs against Mississippi State last season in the Cats' 45-31 loss at Commonwealth Stadium.

Towles passed for a career-best 390 yards and two touchdowns while running for 76 yards and two more scores.

"He lit us up last year," Mullen continued. "He's a guy that plays with an awful lot of confidence and swagger out there on the field and not just the talent to make things happen, but he's also got that emotional leadership and that charge. He's a fiery guy."

The Bulldogs' head coach could say that about his own quarterback in Dak Prescott. The coach had nothing but glowing things to say about the senior leader, who ran 18 times for two touchdowns and 88 yards while throwing for 216 yards and another score against UK last season.

The heady quarterback has broken 23 Mississippi State records and accounts for more than 65 percent of the Bulldogs' offense this season, completing 66 percent of his passes for 1,700 yards with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.

And even though he's running it less than he has in previous seasons, Prescott still leads the Bulldogs this season with 59 carries for 254 yards and four touchdowns.

"Very good football team that's used to winning a bunch of games, led by an incredible quarterback who's got great leadership skills," UK's Mark Stoops said of Prescott, who is second in the league in total offense this season averaging 279.1 yards a game. "Very talented, can run, is throwing the ball exceptionally well this year."

Kentucky's goal will be to do whatever it can to unnerve Prescott in the pocket and make sure he doesn't escape it.

"We just want to get pressure on him and make him rush into decisions," UK linebacker Josh Forrest said this week.

The Mississippi State coach was asked a similar question about what his team learned from last year's quarterback fireworks display and what it would've done differently against Towles that day.

"When you've got a guy that's on fire at the quarterback position, it's tough to stop," Mullen said. "I don't think there's much different we would've done. For him, he just played an outstanding game."

Both teams will get their defensive do-overs on Saturday night.

On the road again

For the first time in his tenure as Kentucky's head coach, Stoops was able to get on a plane with his team after a victory.

The win at South Carolina six weeks ago ended the Cats' road futility of 22 straight losses dating back to 2010.

Stoops has been urging his team to remember that joyful locker room feeling and avoid starting yet another road losing streak this weekend against the Bulldogs.

His players this week sounded happy to get back on the road after five straight weeks in their own beds and on their own field.

"It's our 100 guys versus 80,000 and I like that; I do," Towles said.

Wide receiver Garrett Johnson said he loves home games "but there's something about away games, I kind of look forward to it.

"Maybe just being the underdog and going against their crowd and having all of their fans going against us and just us being able to silence that."

The Cats will be facing a Mississippi State team that has won 11 of its last 12 home games and is 21-4 at Davis Wade Stadium in the past four years. All four of those losses were to teams rated in the top 16 nationally at the time.

So Kentucky knows it won't be easy.

"This is going to be as challenging as anywhere to go play and win," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "They're a good football team, their home environment is going to be great and everybody defends their home pretty well. It's going to be a challenge. I think our kids understand that."

Ears ringing?

One of the things that makes Mississippi State such a tough place to play is the Bulldogs' use of cowbells, which the UK players remembered well from their trip there two seasons ago.

"It's loud," Towles recalled. But his most recent recollection of cowbells weren't from Starkville.

"My cousin married a graduate of Mississippi State and they played cowbells at their wedding," he said laughing. "It was horrible. It was loud and annoying, but it's their thing, you know?"

One Kentucky player knows it all too well. Senior safety A.J. Stamps is a Vicksburg, Miss., native. Even though he didn't grow up a fan of either Mississippi program, he said had been to some games in Starkville.

"They get obnoxious, get real loud," he said before answering the next obvious question about his visits to MSU. "I never touched a cowbell. I never touched a cowbell."

Stamps was a late qualifier out of high school and went the junior-college route at a school about an hour south of Starkville. Mississippi State talked to him when he was done but wanted him to sit an extra year because it had returning veterans in its secondary.

So Stamps ended up at UK last season, where he led the Cats in interceptions with four. He wouldn't mind grabbing his first of this season against the Bulldogs.

"Being against my home state, going back home, that lights fuel to the fire or whatever," Stamps said. "Just going to go out there and stick to the game plan and hopefully come down with one."

274 and counting ...

Stamps isn't the only member of the Kentucky secondary with interceptions on the brain. The Cats haven't hauled one in in more than a month, when J.D. Harmon picked off Florida's Will Grier on Sept. 19.

A little extra motivation comes into play when facing Prescott, who has not thrown an interception this season. Dating back to last season, it's been 274 straight passes without one, the most in FBS currently. Prescott is the only FBS quarterback to stay perfect this season.

"Hopefully our secondary can knock that little streak off," defensive back Blake McClain said. "Hopefully."

Last season against UK, Forrest snagged a Prescott pass at Commonwealth Stadium. But it's tough to find weaknesses in Prescott's game, Stoops said, and the Bulldogs have a tough cover in 6-foot-5 junior wide-out De'Runnya Wilson, who has five TDs this season.

"They're really big at wide receiver," Stoops said. "They're talented and experienced and bigger guys. So we have to rise to the occasion and we have to challenge these guys and make competitive plays."