The Kentucky Wildcats will travel down to Starkville, MS this Saturday to do battle with the Mississippi St. Bulldogs in what could prove to be a pivotal battle for both clubs. While the Cats are coming off a loss at home to Georgia on Saturday, Miss. St. was holding off UAB at home and by doing so, they made themselves “bowl eligible” already. Not only are they bowl eligible, they are ranked in the Top 25 in both the Coaches and AP Polls and they look like a team on a mission in just their second season under Head Coach, Dan Mullens. Last season, it was the bulldogs coming to Lexington and squeaking out a victory over the Cats 31-24 in a game in which the Bulldogs just kept running the ball down the throats of the Cats. UK fans can expect to see a similar game plan this weekend from Mullens’ team.
Mississippi St. is team that is trying to take on the identity of their coach, which is a wide-open, diverse offense. While Mullens doesn’t quite have the players or talent to duplicate the offense he had when he was the offensive coordinator at Florida just a few seasons back, he was smart enough to know he can’t make something out of nothing. Therefore, until Mullens can get his type of players (particularly at QB) in the system that he needs to make the spread offense really effective he has continued to follow the plan laid out by his predecessor, Sylvester Croome. Make no mistake about it, the Bulldogs are built to run the ball and run the ball they will. They typically will rely on just two primary runners, QB Chris Relf and RB Vick Ballard; however the game against UAB may have given Mullens a third runner in freshman RB, LaDarius Perkins who gouged the UAB defense to the tune of 131 yds and 1 TD on the ground. Nonetheless, Steve Brown’s defense can expect to get a heavy dose of Relf and Ballard all day long on Saturday. Now Ballard will be coming off an ankle injury which kept him out of the UAB game but all signs from Starkville this week indicate he will be a go for Saturday. While Relf has struggled with his passing at times this season (loosely around 50% completion rate for the season) he is an athletic QB with good speed and quickness. When Relf does go to the air, the most likely target for his passes will be WR Chad Bumpis. Bumpis is an unheralded wide-out who is very much capable of giving a secondary fits; the problem is State doesn’t put it in the air a lot and when they do, very rarely is down the field.
On the flip side, for the third consecutive week, the Cats will go against a defense that doesn’t boast a big name star, but as before, they play well together and they know their roles and assignments. This defense went into the “Swamp” and held Florida to just 1 TD and harassed John Brantley all day long. This is the side of the ball where Mullens’ philosophy really can be seen. They will come at you with different looks and formations, they blitz constantly and from different angles and positions on the field. UK must be able to run the ball in between the tackles to slow down the blitz and the lineman and backs must be able to pick-up their blocks in guaranteed passing situations. UAB had success against the Bulldog “D” using screen plays, draw plays and quick routes to the outside. Occasionally, the UAB went to “max protect” in situations where they were forced to pass. The one knock on the Bulldog defense is that if they don’t get pressure on the QB, their secondary is average at best (mainly due to youth) and may get caught giving up big plays down the field.
The Bulldogs are probably not a big threat to jump out on the Cats and build a big league like Georgia, Florida or South Carolina. They don’t necessarily rely on big plays as much as they lean heavily on the run, thereby keeping the opposing defense on the field and the opposing offense on the sideline. The Cats must take care of the ball as more than 1 or 2 turnovers could result in their defense spending more than half the game on the field if they can’t stop the Bulldogs’ running game. The Cats’ offensive line will need to be focused and know their assignments and they will need help from the backs on blitz pick-ups. Hartline should still have a decent day as long as he can stay vertical in the pocket. The concern for UK is the defense and whether they can slow down the ground game of State. Based on the performance of the opposing running backs versus the Cats’ “D” this season, Ballard and or Relf could be in for a huge day. My thought is UK should “run the table” the rest of the season, but that run will have to start next week as I think the Bulldogs will outdo the Cats 27-20 in Starkville.