Mark Story

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

How Kentucky (2-1, 0-1 SEC) and Mississippi State (2-1, 0-0 SEC) match up at each position — with a game prediction:

Quarterbacks

In Kentucky’s 29-21 loss to Florida, new Wildcats starter Sawyer Smith showed a live arm — 23-of-35 passing for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Going forward, the graduate transfer from Troy will need to show better ball security — three interceptions, albeit one on a final-play Hail Mary, plus a lost fumble last week. Mississippi State’s Tommy Stevens has completed 65.5 percent of his passes and thrown for 441 yards and five TDs vs. two picks. However, the Penn State graduate transfer has left the past two games with a right shoulder injury. Bulldogs Coach Joe Moorhead said Monday Stevens is feeling better. True freshman Garrett Shrader (11-of-23 passing for 122 yards) has replaced an injured Stevens in the past two games.

Advantage: Even

Running backs

Kentucky backup Kavosiey Smoke (251 yards, two TDs, 7.4 yards per carry) has outgained starter A.J. Rose (192 yards, two TDs, 4.1 ypc) in all three UK games this season. Rose, however, is more effective in the passing game both as a receiver (nine catches) and blitz protector. Mississippi State star Kylin Hill is the nation’s third-leading rusher (431 yards on 63 attempts). The 5-foot-11, 215-pound product of Columbus, Miss., did not have a good game vs. Kentucky (four carries for 14 yards) last year when the Wildcats upset then-No. 14 MSU 28-7.

Advantage: Mississippi State

Kylin Hill vs. UK in 2017
Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill (8) leads the SEC and is third in the nation in rushing with 431 yards in three games. Jim Lytle AP

Wide receivers

Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden is second in the SEC in receptions (20, for 201 yards and a TD). The legend of Ahmad Wagner (nine catches, 198 yards, two TDs) only grew in UK’s loss to Florida, as the former Iowa basketball player made a circus catch in the end zone for a TD. The 6-5, 237-pound senior’s penchant for drawing pass interference calls from defenders continues unabated — Wagner has now drawn nine penalties on 18 career targets. Mississippi State leading receiver Osirus Mitchell (13 catches, 208 yards, three TDs) is a big-play threat. The 6-5, 210-pound junior has seven catches of 15 yards or more and three of 25 yards or more.

Advantage: Kentucky

LEX_190914UKfootballQuickas9.JPG
Kentucky wide receiver Ahmad Wagner (14) made a circus catch in the end zone for a touchdown in UK’s 29-21 loss to Florida. It was the second straight game with a TD catch for Wagner, the former Iowa basketball player. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Tight ends

UK TEs were a big part of the offense against Florida. Junior Justin Rigg caught a career-high five passes for 50 yards. Redshirt freshman Keaton Upshaw scored his first career TD on a 13-yard pass. Of Mississippi State’s main tight ends, Farrod Green (two catches, 16 yards) is known as a blocker, while Dontea Jones (four catches, 35 yards) is considered more of a playmaker.

Advantage: Kentucky

Keaton Upshaw.JPG
Kentucky tight end Keaton Upshaw (88) has caught five passes for 51 yards and a touchdown this season. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Offensive line

Kentucky junior center Drake Jackson is the anchor of a UK line that allowed only one QB sack last week to a Florida defense that had 15 in its first two games. Mississippi State senior center Darryl Williams is one of three returning starters on the Bulldogs front. So far in 2019, the MSU line has run blocked better (over 200 yards rushing in every game) than it has pass protected (tied for last in the SEC in sacks allowed at seven).

Advantage: Kentucky

Drake Jackson vs Florida 2019.JPG
Kentucky center Drake Jackson (52) anchored a UK offensive line that surrendered only one quarterback sack vs. Florida. Brian Simms bsimms@herald-leader.com

Defensive line

UK senior defensive tackle Calvin Taylor had a big game vs. Florida. The 6-9, 311-pound senior had five tackles and a tackle for loss. Backup end Kordell Looney made two disruptive plays last week, recording a sack and a pass break-up. With starting end T.J. Carter suspended for the first half this week due to targeting, UK will need Looney to play well. Mississippi State senior left end Chauncey Rivers has 10 tackles, including 1.5 TFL; junior right end Marquiss Spencer has eight tackles and the only QB sack so far this season by an MSU defensive lineman.

Advantage: Kentucky

Calvin Taylor vs Florida.JPG
Kentucky defensive tackle Calvin Taylor (91) had five tackles in UK’s 29-21 loss to Florida last week. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Linebackers

For the second straight year, Kentucky MLB Kash Daniel was the Wildcats’ leading tackler (10 this year; 11 last year) vs. Florida. WLB DeAndre Square is UK’s leading tackler (22) on the season. Mississippi State MLB Erroll Thompson and WLB Leo Lewis are tied for sixth in the SEC with 23 tackles each. A 6-1, 250-pound junior, Thompson had a team-high seven tackles vs. UK last year.

Advantage: Mississippi State

MSU linebackers vs Kansas State.JPG
Mississippi State linebackers Erroll Thompson (40) and Leo Lewis (10) each have 23 tackles this season. They combined to wrap up Kansas State running back James Gilbert (34) during MSU’s 31-24 loss to KSU last week. Vasha Hunt AP

Defensive backs

Kentucky lost starting free safety Yusuf Corker (first-half targeting penalty) and backup Taj Dodson (injury) during last week’s game. UK Coach Mark Stoops said that limited what the Cats could do during Florida’s fourth-quarter, 19-0 run. Corker will be back this week, but Dodson is not on UK’s two-deep. Mississippi State strong safety Jaquarius Landrews is fourth in the SEC in tackles (26). Hybrid safety/linebacker Brian Cole is a blitz specialist. A former wide receiver at Michigan, Cole has more tackles for loss (5.5) than any defensive back in the country. The senior leads MSU in sacks (2), too.

Advantage: Mississippi State

Special teams

Kentucky punter Max Duffy leads the SEC (51.2 yards per kick) and has stopped seven of 11 kicks inside the 20. Redshirt freshman place-kicker Chance Poore (2-of-4 field goals with long of 46) will have to shake off missing from 35 yards last week on a field goal in the final minute that would have put UK ahead of Florida. MSU punter Tucker Day is averaging 43.4 yards and has stopped five of 12 kicks inside the 20. Place-kicker Jace Christmann is 2-of-3 on field goals with a long of 47. The Bulldogs rank last in the SEC in kickoff coverage.

Advantage: Kentucky

Chance Poore after Florida miss.JPG
Kentucky place-kicker Chance Poore (12) walked off the field after missing a field goal with 58 seconds left in the game that would have given Kentucky a 24-22 lead over Florida. The Wildcats ended up losing 29-21. Brian Simms bsimms@herald-leader.com

Prediction

Kentucky 27, Mississippi State 23

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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