The Kentucky Wildcats (1-2) picked up their first win of the 2020 season Saturday with a 24-2 win at Kroger Field over the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Despite being outgained by 138 yards, the Wildcats put 24 points on the board and held the Bulldogs to just a safety after a dominating performance by their defense.
With a day to reflect, here’s a breakdown of Saturday’s UK victory, a look at what stood out and what Kentucky needs to improve on as they get set to head to Knoxville for a matchup with the Volunteers next weekend.
The Defense Delivered
Much of the blame for Kentucky’s 0-2 start fell on their defense. UK allowed a total of 71 points in their first two games of the 2020 season, only recorded a combined three sacks and did not force a turnover. Saturday that all changed.
UK’s defense did not allow a single point as Mississippi State’s lone two points came via a safety after a UK special teams’ blunder. By holding Mike Leach’s Air-Raid offense silent, Kentucky became the first team ever to hold a Leach coached team off the scoreboard.
Kentucky also was able to get to the quarterback and force turnovers as the Cats recorded two sacks, eight quarterback hits and grabbed a remarkable six interceptions as their defense put together a much-needed confidence-building effort in the win.
Eddie Gran Got the Tight Ends Involved
While Eddie Gran has become one of the most creative offensive coordinators in the nation, he has struggled the last two seasons at finding way’s to get his tight ends involved in the passing game. Saturday, he was able to get them going.
Kentucky tight ends were targeted seven times Saturday out of UK’s 21 pass attempts. Keaton Upshaw hauled in one catch that went for a 12-yard touchdown, Justin Rigg made a 12-yard reception and was targeted four times and Brenden Bates made a 14-yard grab, which was his first career college reception.
While the results were mixed, Gran clearly got his tight ends involved at a far higher rate than much of Kentucky’s games since the start of the 2018 season.
The 2019 Pass Defense Success Wasn’t a Fluke After All
After UK allowed an average of 276.5 passing yards through the first two weeks of the season, it appeared as if the secondary that finished second in the nation in pass defense in 2019 might have been a fluke. Saturday, they helped put that conversation to bed.
Kentucky’s pass defense held the Mississippi State Air-Raid to a season-low 275 passing yards and an average of just 6.1 yards per reception. The defense also grabbed six interceptions, but only one came by a defensive back (Kelvin Joseph) as linebackers four UK linebackers and a defensive end grabbed a pick Saturday.
Regardless, the UK secondary kept receivers in front and allowed their front-seven to make plays on the quarterback helping end the fluke narrative.
No position group was better for Kentucky than their linebackers. UK linebackers combined for 36 total tackles and two sacks in Saturday’s victory with Jamin Davis (11) and DeAndre Square (9) leading the charge.
Four different Wildcat linebackers grabbed interceptions in the victory as Davis, Jamar “Boogie” Watson, D’eryk Jackson and Jordan Wright all had takeaways, with Wright scoring on an eight-yard pick-six.
After watching the group struggle the first two weeks of the season, defensive coordinator Brad White had to be pleased with his group of linebackers Saturday.
Terry Wilson’s Burst
While Saturday wasn’t exactly the best performance from Terry Wilson and the Kentucky offense, one play made by Wilson makes it hard to believe the quarterback is just a year removed from a potential career-ending injury.
Just 399 days after tearing his patellar tendon, Wilson escaped the pocket for the longest run of his college career as he picked up a 51-gain to move the offense from their own 35-yard line to the Mississippi State 14-yard line setting up a touchdown pass to Upshaw two plays later.
Seeing Wilson’s speed not miss a beat not far removed from the injury continues to be impressive and encouraging for Kentucky despite his lackluster overall performance.
On the day Chris Oats, who has been battling a non-COVID-19 related medical condition, returned home from a rehabilitation center for the first time since May, his No. 22 was significant in many ways on the field Saturday.
Jamin Davis wore Oats’ No. 22 and put together the best game of his college career, Keaton Upshaw, who wore it the week before, caught a touchdown and the Cats defeated Mississippi State by 22 points.
Sunday, head coach Mark Stoops, recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow and inside linebackers coach Jon Sumrall delivered the game ball to Oats, whose number and presence was still felt during Saturday’s victory.
Areas to Improve
Help Wanted: WR 2
Kentucky has found their primary receiver in Josh Ali. Through three weeks, Ali ranks 15th in the SEC with 208 receiving yards. Outside of the senior Ali, it’s been a struggle for UK’s wide receivers.
No other UK receiver out of Ali has hauled in 100 yards yet this season as Akeem Hayes ranks second on the team with just 54 receiving yards. Saturday, Ali was held to just two grabs for 22 yards while the only other Kentucky wideouts to make a reception were DeMarcus Harris (4 yards) and Allen Dailey Jr. (1 yard).
If Kentucky wants to compete in the SEC and have a chance to upset Tennessee and Georgia the next two weekends, they need a second receiver to emerge behind Ali.
Rose ran for just 22 yards on eight attempts averaging 2.8 yards for carry Saturday and fumbled for the second straight week. On the year, he has run for 170 yards, which ranks third on the team behind Wilson and Rodriguez with a score and two fumbles.
If Rose can limit the fumbles and continue his average of 5.7 yards per carry, he should continue to maintain his starting job while also help lighten the burden of having Smoke injured.
In Kentucky’s Week 2 win over Ole Miss, it was the offense that thrived while the defense faltered. Saturday’s win over Mississippi State was the exact opposite.
UK’s offense picked up just 158 total yards of offense, with 51 of those yards coming on a single-run by Wilson. The unit also scored just two touchdowns, with one coming on a two-yard drive after a 76-yard interception return by Josh Paschal.
Eddie Gran’s group needs to regroup as they’ll take on a Tennessee defense who has impressed early on this season outside of a rough second half at Georgia last weekend.