Mississippi State’s defense braces for Kentucky

Mississippi State’s recent success has been built on defense,

but during last week’s 29-24 victory over Alabama-Birmingham, that

defense showed some holes.

The Bulldogs (6-2, 2-2 SEC) say that can’t happen again when

they host Kentucky (4-4, 1-4) on Saturday. The Wildcats are second

in the conference in scoring, averaging nearly 35 points, thanks to

rapidly improving quarterback Mike Hartline and versatile playmaker

Randall Cobb.

Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said his

unit’s poor performance wasn’t a reason to panic, but it certainly

gave the defense more reason to focus over the past week.

”We were playing with a dull blade,” Diaz said. ”We just

lacked cutting edge. Our tackling was poor – we regressed there. I

didn’t think we covered very well, and we didn’t play the run very

well.”

Then Diaz broke into a grin.

”Other than that, we were spot-on fantastic,” he said.

The good news for the Bulldogs is they’ve certainly played well

before – especially in a 10-7 win two weeks ago at then-No. 22

Florida. For the season, they’re allowing 17 points per game.

Holding Kentucky to that total will be a challenge, considering

the Wildcats have scored at least 31 each of their last four games.

But linebacker Chris White said its important that the defense

doesn’t fall into the trap of saying it’s OK to give up a few

points.

”Our goal is stop them completely,” said White, who has 25

tackles over the past two games. ”I’m not arrogant to say they

ain’t going to get a point, but my goal is we can’t just say, ‘Hey,

let’s give them seven points here and try to stop them next time,’

because they might get more points than we want them to.”

Kentucky’s offense is expected to miss running back Derrick

Locke, who has a shoulder injury. But the Wildcats still have

plenty of offense between Hartline and Cobb.

Hartline has quietly become one of the SEC’s most prolific

quarterbacks, throwing for 2,144 yards, 17 touchdowns and four

interceptions this season. Cobb is the team’s leading receiver with

47 catches for 511 yards and five touchdowns. He’s also the team’s

second-leading rusher and a threat to throw, completing 4 of 6

passes for 51 yards and three touchdowns.

Diaz said Cobb presents a ”unique challenge” that’s different

than facing Auburn’s Cameron Newton, who is a frontrunner for the

Heisman Trophy.

”In a way, (Cobb) presents a more dynamic element than Newton

even, because he can be lined up anywhere,” Diaz said. ”Cam

Newton is tough to deal with, but they snap it to him every play

for the most part. But with Cobb, there’s no telling.”

Mississippi State is on a five-game winning streak, the

program’s longest since 1999. The Bulldogs should get a boost from

the return of starting running back Vick Ballard, who missed the

UAB game because of a sprained ankle.

Though not nearly as explosive as Kentucky, Mississippi State

has been effective, scoring nearly 29 points per game and ranking

second in the league with 219.2 yards rushing per game.

Ballard’s been a big part of that. His 11 TDs rushing are second

in the SEC.

Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said the Bulldogs aren’t afraid to

run, run and then run some more. And they have no issue punting the

ball and letting their defense make plays.

He said Mississippi State is a very physical team that is good

at imposing its will on the offensive and defensive lines – which

helped in victories over Florida and Georgia. For all the talk of

the Wildcats’ high-flying passing offense, Phillips said they must

find a way to run the ball against the Bulldogs, or it could be a

long evening.

”For us to win this game, we’ve got to win the physical battle

and a lot of that comes down to running the football,” Phillips

said.