LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Mark Stoops can’t wait to see how much his defense has progressed going into Saturday’s Southeastern Conference encounter against Mississippi State.
The Wildcats (3-0) have allowed just 15.3 points per game this season, 23rd nationally, and have surrendered an average of just 305.7 yards per game, which ranks Kentucky 28th in the nation in that category. More impressive is the fact that Stoops’ squad has yet to give up a point in the third quarter this season, the first time the team has achieved that feat through the first three games since 1991.
Mississippi State hasn’t missed a beat in Joe Moorhead’s first season at the helm. The 14th-ranked Bulldogs have outscored the opposition 150-26 in its first three games. Moorhead, a former offensive coordinator at Penn State and head coach at Fordham, replaced Dan Mullen, who took over at Florida last winter.
Moorhead’s rushing offense is tops in the Southeastern Conference (311.7 yards per game) and third in overall offense (587.7 yards per game).
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Stoops said Thursday. “As you’ve heard me say many times, you have an opportunity to prove yourself every seven days. This is another opportunity and certainly a great challenge.”
In addition to stopping the Bulldogs, Stoops said his team’s offensive line also must produce and give the offense the blocking and protection it needs to succeed. Mississippi State’s defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in the first half through six quarters.
“This will definitely be a line of scrimmage game on both sides. It’s always important. With that, then it goes outside winning your 1-on1s. Both teams can run the ball effectively. Heck, they’ve run it for 311? We’re in the 280-range,” Stoops said. “Both teams can run the football. When you can run the football it opens up opportunities. Who’s going to defend and who’s going to make the plays down the field is going to be a big piece of it as well.”
Kentucky’s top priority will be stopping Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald who rushed for 115 yards in last year’s 45-7 victory over the Wildcats in Starkville. Two years ago, the Bulldogs’ signal caller gained 107 yards but Kentucky prevailed on Austin MacGinnis’ 51-yard field goal as time expired.
The game-winner by MacGinnis gave the Wildcats a thrilling 40-38 victory. In two games against Kentucky, Fitzgerald has accounted for six touchdowns — two passing and four rushing. He accounted for 350 yards in Mississippi State’s 56-10 rout of Louisiana last week.
“He has experience,” Stoops said. “He is physical. He makes plays when he has to. He is talented with his arm. As always, when you play a team like this, it is not only physical when they run the ball, but they have a physical quarterback and they use quarterback runs. That makes you play with numbers and then he is talented enough with the receiving corps and the tight ends are talented enough to hurt you throwing the ball. So, it puts a lot of pressure on you."
Moorhead has been impressed with the play of Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson in Kentucky’s first three contests and also is aware of Wildcats’ standout running back Benny Snell.
“He extends plays with his feet and does a great job there,” Moorhead said. “He has really done a great job as a passer this year, so they're doing an awesome job with him. Certainly, running back Benny Snell. His talent production kind of speaks for itself.”
Mississippi State has won nine of the past 11 games between the two foes, while the winning team has scored at least 40 points in the past four contests and Stoops is expecting another physical outing.
“That is the nature of this league.— you have to be (physical),” Stoops said. “You could look to the success of Mississippi State because of the way they play and they're as physical as anybody you are going to play in the league, if not more. So, you have to match them. It starts there. But again, there are a lot of other things that are going to go into it, but that is a big piece of it."
Gametracker: Mississippi State at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN2, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.