Mark Story

How Kentucky and Mississippi State match up — with a game prediction

After missing the past four games with a shoulder injury, Kentucky linebacker Jordan Jones is expected to return to action when the Wildcats visit Mississippi State Saturday.
After missing the past four games with a shoulder injury, Kentucky linebacker Jordan Jones is expected to return to action when the Wildcats visit Mississippi State Saturday. aslitz@herald-leader.com

How Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC) and Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2 SEC) match up at every position — with a game prediction:

Quarterbacks

Since Stephen Johnson became Kentucky’s primary quarterback, Mark Stoops’ Wildcats are 12-5 overall and 4-2 in road games. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has increased his completion percentage from 54.7 percent last season to 63.9 percent this year. Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald is the kind of dual-threat QB that has long been Kryptonite to Kentucky defenses. In 2017, the 6-5, 230-pound junior has run for 446 yards and seven TDs and thrown for 1,024 yards and 10 TDs. Fitzgerald is not an accurate passer, however, having completed only 54.9 percent of his throws with seven interceptions.

Advantage: Kentucky

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Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 81 yards and a score in MSU’s 40-38 loss to Kentucky in Lexington last season. Jim Lytle Associated Press

Running backs

Kentucky’s Benny Snell has already carried the ball 126 times this season after toting it only 186 times all last season while running for 1,091 yards. The effects of wear and tear on the 5-11, 223-pound sophomore (523 yards rushing, 4.2 yards a carry) are something to watch down the stretch. Sihiem King had a strong game vs. Florida (64 yards on five carries) but has only 33 yards on 13 carries in two contests since. Like Snell, Mississippi State standout Aeris Williams is averaging 87.2 yards a game but the 6-1, 217-pound junior is doing it on fewer carries (97) and is more productive per rush (5.4 yards a carry). Backup Kylin Hill (5.4 yards a carry, 1 TD) is capable.

Advantage: Mississippi State

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Kentucky wide receiver Garrett Johnson (9) has caught 15 passes in UK’s past two games. Ken Weaver

Wide receivers

Kentucky senior Garrett Johnson has caught 15 of his team-high 27 receptions in the past two games. The Winter Garden, Fla., product is fourth on UK’s all-time receiving yards list (1,883) and needs 457 more yards (76.2 yards a game) to pass Derek Abney (2,339) for third. Seniors Kayaune Ross and Charles Walker and sophomore Tavin Richardson all have 10 catches. Mississippi State’s Donald Gray leads Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs with 17 receptions. Keith Mixon, an explosive 5-8 sophomore, had six catches for 97 yards in MSU’s win over LSU and and five receptions for 69 yards vs. BYU. Mixon has caught only five balls total in the other four games.

Advantage: Kentucky

Tight ends

After catching nine passes and three TDs in UK’s first four games, C.J. Conrad has gone without a reception over the past two contests. Backup Greg Hart caught a 20-yard TD vs. Eastern Michigan. Mississippi State rotates three tight ends — Farrod Green (three catches, 62 yards), Justin Johnson (four, 14) and Jordan Thomas (eight, 67, one TD).

Advantage: Even

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After catching nine passes in Kentucky’s first four games, tight end C.J. Conrad, with ball, has failed to make a reception in UK’s past two contests. Michael Reaves

Offensive line

Kentucky is hoping the off week after the victory over Missouri allowed senior center/guard Nick Haynes to regain some weight as he manages Type 1 diabetes. UK seems to have settled on using Haynes, whose weight has dropped as low as the 260s from a listed 300 pounds, at center with redshirt freshman Drake Jackson spelling him. Mississippi State left tackle Martinas Rankin anchors an offensive front that has allowed only three sacks all season. A 6-5, 315-pound senior, Rankin missed last week’s game with an ankle injury and his status vs. UK is unclear. Greg Eiland, a 6-8, 330-pound redshirt freshman, played well at left tackle vs. BYU in Rankin’s absence.

Advantage: Mississippi State

Defensive line

Junior tackle Adrian Middleton (13 tackles, two tackles for loss) and Kentucky’s defensive front have played (mostly) well against the run in 2017, ranking third in the SEC (allowing only 97.2 yards a game). However, the UK defense has not faced a rushing attack as potent as MSU (261.7 yards a game). Mississippi State nose guard Jeffery Simmons has already twice been named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. The 6-4, 301-pound sophomore has four tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and has scored two TDs (fumble recovery return, blocked punt return).

Advantage: Mississippi State

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Kentucky linebacker Courtney Love (51) helped wrestle Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald to the ground in UK’s 40-38 victory over the Bulldogs in Lexington a season ago. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

Linebackers

Kentucky OLB Josh Allen (35 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, three QB hurries, two forced fumbles) has gotten some midseason All-America buzz. MLB Courtney Love is tied for the team lead in tackles (43). UK expects standout WLB Jordan Jones back from a shoulder injury after the junior missed four games. Mississippi State MLB Dez Harris has overcome three torn ACLs and leads the Bulldogs in tackles (38). WLB Leo Lewis was a Freshman All-America last season and has 21 tackles in 2017.

Advantage: Kentucky

Defensive backs

The Kentucky secondary was strafed by Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, giving up 355 yards passing and TD tosses of 50, 58 and 75 yards. UK is last in the SEC (288.7 yards a game allowed) vs. the pass. Strong safety Mike Edwards has been UK’s DB bright spot (43 tackles, three interceptions, four pass breakups). Mississippi State safeties Mark McLaurin (31 tackles) and Brandon Bryant (4.24 40-yard dash) are the strength of a unit that ranks second in the SEC against the pass (allowing 155 yards a game). McLaurin returned a fumble 81 yards for a TD vs. UK last year.

Advantage: Mississippi State

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Kentucky cornerback Chris Westry (21) and the rest of the UK secondary will try to bounce back after giving up 355 yards passing and three long touchdown passes against Missouri. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Special teams

Kentucky place-kicker Austin MacGinnis became UK’s all-time leading career scorer (314 points) vs. Missouri while also booming a 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that put the Wildcats ahead to stay. MacGinnis beat Mississippi State a year ago with a 51-yard field goal on the final play. Punter Matt Panton has been solid (42.5 yards a kick, 12 of 33 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20). Kentucky is first in the SEC in punt return average (20.8 yards a return) and third in kickoff return average (24.7). Mississippi State PK Jace Christmann, a walk-on, has not missed a kick, 5-of-5 on field goals (long of 45) and 15-of-15 on PATs. Punter Logan Cooke is eighth in the nation (46.2 yards average). The MSU kickoff coverage unit is statistically the second most effective in the SEC.

Advantage: Even

Video from the student section of Austin MacGinnis' game-winning, 51-yard field goal to lift UK over Mississippi State on Saturday night.

Prediction

Mississippi State 30, Kentucky 27

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