After dispatching plucky Murray State 48-10 Saturday before a sun-drenched Kroger Field crowd announced at 48,217, Mark Stoops and the Kentucky Wildcats are again face-to-face with a familiar peril.
When No. 16 Mississippi State (2-0, 0-0 going into Saturday night’s contest with Louisiana) comes to Lexington next week to face the Cats (3-0, 1-0), the Bulldogs will, in Nick Fitzgerald, be bringing what has long been the kryptonite of Kentucky defenses.
The run-oriented, dual-threat quarterback.
Kentucky backers do not have to be asleep to conjure haunting visions of the running QBs of the past who have gashed the Cats.
Just last year, there was Lamar Jackson running at will (156 yards on 18 carries) as Louisville embarrassed the Cats 44-17.
Bad UK dreams also feature Jackson as a freshman in 2015, coming off the bench to slice and dice Stoops’ defense to the tune of 186 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries while rallying the Cards from 24-7 down at halftime to a 38-24 win over the Cats.
The ghosts of running QBs past includes Joshua Dobbs, the ex-Tennessee dual-threat who personally accounted for 16 touchdowns — 10 throwing, six running — while engineering four wins for the Big Orange over the Big Blue (2013-16).
Mississippi State’s Fitzgerald has also confounded the Cats with his legs.
A year ago, as Mississippi State humbled Kentucky with a 45-7 drubbing in Starkville — the 38-point margin of defeat tied for the third largest of the Stoops coaching era at UK — Fitzgerald’s running was a dominant factor.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior kept the ball only 12 times. But those runs accounted for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Both of Fitzgerald’s TDs came in the first half, and set a tone Kentucky was never able to overcome.
“They kicked our butts last year,” UK senior safety Mike Edwards said of Mississippi State. “They had our number the whole game.”
How much last year’s result will supply Kentucky with motivation for this year depends on whom is asked.
It will be motivating. “Oh, definitely,” Edwards said.
It will not be motivating. “I don’t remember that game,” said UK star senior outside linebacker Josh Allen. “I’ve forgot about everything from last year and moved on to this year.”
If the 2018 Cats are going to leverage their 3-0 start in 2018 into a special season, Mississippi State is the caliber of opponent Kentucky has to master.
To do that, UK must slow Fitzgerald.
Edwards says a Kentucky defense that returns nine starters from a season ago, seven of them seniors, can draw on the lessons learned from some of the past gashings the Cats have taken on the ground from mobile QBs.
“We’ve played a lot of running quarterbacks in the past,” Edwards said.
The knowledge the veteran Kentucky defenders have taken, Allen says, is the importance of defensive discipline against a running quarterback.
Fitzgerald is “a great athlete,” Allen said. “He can throw, he also can run. We’ve got to be accountable for our jobs. When we pass rush, we can’t get out of our lanes. We’ve got to ... prepare for that whole offense because they have play-makers. But Fitzgerald is the guy who makes them go.”
Said Edwards: “We’ve just got to play sound. Stay in our gaps and stop the run for sure, stop his (QB) draw. He likes to run the ball a lot.”
After Dan Mullen exited Starkville for the Florida head coaching job, MSU Athletics Director John Cohen — the ex-Kentucky baseball coach — lured offensive whiz Joe Moorhead away from James Franklin’s Penn State coaching staff.
The theory was that Moorhead would enhance Mississippi State’s aerial attack. So far, that hasn’t happened. In the Bulldogs’ 31-10 win at Kansas State on Sept. 8, Fitzgerald completed only 11 of 27 passes with an interception, though he did throw for two TDs.
But he ran for 159 yards.
That’s the Nick Fitzgerald that Kentucky knows all too well. Even when the Cats scored their only win over the Bulldogs in the last nine tries, a 40-38 victory in 2016 secured by an Austin MacGinnis 52-yard field goal as time expired, Fitzgerald ran for 107 yards and two scores.
Having vanquished demons of Kentucky’s 31-game losing streak to Florida by besting the Gators, can UK throw off another unpleasant reminder of the Wildcats’ often-haunted football legacy by actually containing a star-caliber, run-oriented QB?
This coming week is more than Kentucky vs. Mississippi State.
It’s also the present UK defense facing the ghosts of running QBs past.
Said Edwards: We’ve just got to play sound. Stay in our gaps and stop the run for sure, stop his (QB) draw. ... “I feel like we’ve got the hand on this this year.”
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory