Kentucky took care of business against Murray State last week and to keep the pace going, Mark Stoops knows his team faces a tougher challenge Saturday against Mississippi State.
“We’ve got to kick it up a notch,” Stoops said Monday. “(It’s a) big game with Mississippi State, so we’re excited and guys are ready to get to work on that.”
The Bulldogs have won nine of the past 10 meetings between the two Southeastern Conference foes, including a 45-7 victory a year ago in Starkville. Although Dan Mullen packed his bags and departed for Florida during the off-season, the Bulldogs have picked up where they left off in the first three games of the Joe Moorhead era.
Mississippi State ranked No. 14 in this week’s Associated Press poll, is off to a 3-0 start and coming off a 56-10 victory over Louisiana. The Bulldogs are among the top offensive teams in the nation and ranked No. 10 in rushing offense. Despite a change in leadership, Stoops hasn’t noticed much change from the Mullen regime.
“There are some things that carry over,” Stoops said. “Then you see his wrinkle, his nuances with the offense and what he’s doing. They’re still very, very good and still very physical.”
Kentucky (3-0) has already knocked off Florida this season as part of three victories to open the season, but the Wildcats are eying their first marquee victory of the season at Kroger Field. Kentucky defeated the Bulldogs 40-38 on Austin McGinnis’s 51-yard field goal as time expired two years ago in Lexington.
“I think it’s important (to get a big win at home),” Stoops said. “Again, it’s the next game. That’s why it’s most important. It’s the game we’re focusing on. It’s a big opportunity against a ranked opponent at home. A lot of reasons why it’s a big game, and part of that is to win at home in a good environment like we’re going to have and I expect this week.”
In order to have a chance, Stoops said the Wildcats have to match Mississippi State’s intensity, especially in the trenches.
“That’s the nature of this league (being physical) and you have to be,” Stoops said. “Certainly you can look to the success of Mississippi
State because of the way they play. They’re as physical as anybody you’re going to play in this league, if not more. So you have to match it. It starts there, but, again, there’s a lot of other things that are going to go into it. But that’s a big piece of it.”
Stoops said his biggest concern is stopping the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, which features quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, along with running backs Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams. Kentucky’s defensive unit, which has allowed just 917 total yards this season, will receive a challenge from Mississippi State’s offensive line this week.
“You put together a physical offensive line, a dynamic back and a big beast at quarterback — that’s a lot of good things,” Stoops said. “They’re big; they’re strong and they’re explosive. They just put a lot of pressure on you. The quarterback run game, when you have a guy like Fitzgerald, who’s fast and also big and strong.”
The Wildcats (3-0) are coming off a 48-10 thumping of Murray State and following his review of game film, Stoops liked the way his team performed against the Racers, especially in the second half.
“I thought it was a good sign for our football team, a maturity about us to go out there and prepare the right way last week and to go out and play a good football game, but we’re going to have to do the same thing this week,” Stoops said.
Kentucky running back Benny Snell, who managed just 18 yards in last year’s loss to the Bulldogs, is looking forward to another shot at the Bulldogs’ defensive line.
“This is a good opponent,” he said. “We’re not going to change any plans (but) every game is different. The defense has got to get some stops and we’ve got to move the ball. They have a good defensive line up front, I know that for sure.
“Our offensive line is going to have to battle. We’re going to step it up, just like Florida. It’s a big game and we’re going to go into it like it’s a big game.”
Game time set: Kentucky’s home game against South Carolina on Sept. 29 will kickoff at 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on the SEC Network.
Gametracker: Miss. State at Kentucky, 7 p.m. Saturday. TV/ Radio: ESPN2, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today.