The Kentucky Wildcats are back in must-win territory. How can the Kentucky football program overcome the Mississippi State Bulldogs?
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Oct 8, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Stephen Johnson (15) runs the ball for a touchdown against Vanderbilt Commodores safety LaDarius Wiley (13) in the first quarter at Commonwealth Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Stoops is prepairing to coach the single most important game of his career thus far. That can be copied and pasted to the description of at least three more games in 2016, but this week will be critical to the Kentucky football program’s bowl game aspirations.
Kentucky remains in must-win territory as it pursues what would be its first bowl game appearance since 2010.
Kentucky opened the 2016 season with a pair of heartbreaking losses. It blew a 35-10 lead over the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles and was decimated 45-7 by the Florida Gators.
Since falling to 0-2, however, Kentucky has won three of four games to pull to 3-3 on the season.
3-3 is progress, but six wins remains the bare minimum in order for 2015 to be considered a successful season. Stoops is on the hot seat and Lexington is hungry for a football team that it can be proud of.
A loss would be a devastating setback for the Kentucky football team. A win would keep its bowl hopes alive.
The question is: what must Kentucky do to defeat the Mississippi State Bulldogs and secure win No. 4?
Sep 24, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs wide receiver Fred Ross (8) races away from Massachusetts Minutemen safety Khary Bailey-Smith (21) during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mississippi State won 47-35. Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
5. Contain Fred Ross
Though he’s often overlooked, Fred Ross is one of the best wide receivers in the SEC. He recorded upwards of 1,000 receiving yards yards and five touchdowns in 2015 and is well on his way to an even better season in 2016.
If the Kentucky Wildcats are going to win this game, then Ross must be contained.
Through six games, Ross has recorded 34 receptions for 386 yards and five touchdowns. That puts him on pace for 68 receptions, 772 yards, and 10 touchdowns over a 12-game span—reason enough to believe he can hurt Kentucky.
This is the perfect opportunity for Chris Westry and Derrick Baity to firmly establish themselves as shutdown corners.
Ross has a combination of size, speed, and strength that will open doors to an NFL career. Westry is a 6’4″ sophomore with elite upside, however, and Baity is a 6’3″ bump and run specialist—a potentially dominant combination.
If the Kentucky football team successfully contains Fred Ross, then it can contain Mississippi State’s passing attack.
Sep 3, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats safety Blake McClain (24) and linebacker Courtney Love (51) during the game against the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles at Commonwealth Stadium. Southern Mississippi defeated 44-35. Kentucky Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
4. Creating Turnovers
The Kentucky football team has the personnel to cause havoc defensively. The secondary is flush with playmakers, the front seven has upside, and the aggressiveness of the coaching staff breeds opportunities.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs happens to be prone to turnovers, which gives Kentucky a unique chance to turn defense into offense.
Nick Fitzgerald is one of the more dynamic quarterbacks in the SEC, but he’s still figuring his game out. He takes enough chances to give Kentucky an opportunity to capitalize on his occasional inaccuracy by pulling down interceptions.
For what it’s worth, Mississippi State is 2-1 when Fitzgerald has more touchdowns than interceptions, and 0-3 when he doesn’t.
In that same breath, Mississippi State has converted at a rate of just 33.3 percent on third down. If Kentucky can step up on first and second down, then it should have a chance to consistently get the Bulldogs off of the field quickly.
Whether it’s an interception, a fumble, or merely a defensive stop, the Wildcats’ defense needs to step up.
Oct 8, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats running back Benny Snell (26) runs the ball against Vanderbilt Commodores defensive Jonathan Wynn (49) in the second half at Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
3. Pound The Rock
It’d be fair to say that Stephen Johnson hasn’t been reliable as a passer. That may change, and Mark Stoops is confident that it will, but Johnson has struggled to throw the ball any reasonable distance downfield.
Having established this, the Kentucky football program must continue to pound the rock with its three-headed monster of gifted running backs.
For all of its flaws, Mississippi State has actually been strong against the run in 2016. It’s No. 37 in the country in rushing yards allowed per game—136.2—and No. 29 in rushing yards allowed per carry—3.6.
Fortunately for the Kentucky Wildcats, the trio of Boom Williams, Benny Snell Jr., and Jojo Kemp ranks amongst the best in the country.
Through six games, that three-headed monster has run for a combined 1,011 yards and 10 touchdowns. Williams had 540 yards on 7.1 yards per carry and Snell has accumulated 341 yards in just four games on 5.6 yards per carry.
Kentucky will need Williams and Snell, as well as the resurgent Kemp and the scrambling Johnson, to be at their best against Mississippi State.
Oct 14, 2016; Provo, UT, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) looks to pass in the first quarter against the Brigham Young Cougars at Lavell Edwards Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
2. Don’t Let Nick Fitzgerald Go Off
As has been established, sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is one of the more dynamic playmakers in the SEC. He still hasn’t put it all together, but when he’s on, he’s a force to be reckoned with.
At 6’5″ and 230 pounds, Fitzgerald can put up points with his arm or tuck it and run for massive gains.
Fitzgerald ran the ball 17 times for 195 yards against the South Carolina Gamecocks, and 15 times for 110 yards against the Massachusetts Minutemen. He ran for 61 yards against the Auburn Tigers and picked up 41 yards and two touchdowns against the BYU Cougars.
Fitzgerald also has a 300-yard passing game and three outings with at least two passing touchdowns.
Fitzgerald has recorded at least two total touchdowns in each of Mississippi State’s past three games. That puts him on a dangerous trajectory against a Kentucky Wildcats team that’s struggled to produce points in 2016.
The Wildcats have won a shootout already, but the New Mexico State Aggies don’t exactly compare to Mississippi State defensively.
Oct 8, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Stephen Johnson (15) passes the ball against the Vanderbilt Commodores in the first half at Commonwealth Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
1. Stephen Johnson
It may have been acceptable on the road to three wins in four games, but Stephen Johnson can’t struggle anymore. He’s matched up against a dynamic quarterback in a must-win game for the Kentucky football program.
Whatever jitters may have existed before must be eliminated; the Wildcats need Johnson to be at his very best.
Johnson completed 17 of 22 passes for 310 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions against the New Mexico State Aggies. He also ran the ball 10 times for 51 yards during that 62-42 victory.
In the three games that have followed, however, he’s averaged just 91.0 passing yards per game—a dreadful mark for a starting quarterback.
Johnson ran the ball 10 times for 55 yards and a touchdown against Vanderbilt, but he needs better accuracy behind his throws. Kentucky has playmakers at wide receiver and tight end, but they won’t make much of an impact without somewhat precise throws coming their way.
Johnson needs to settle down and prove that his performance against New Mexico State wasn’t a fluke.