The Kentucky Wildcats (0-2) are still seeking their first win of the 2020 season as they set to welcome another school from the Magnolia State to Kroger Field Saturday in the Mississippi State Bulldogs (1-1).
UK enters play coming off a road loss to then-ranked No. 8 Auburn, followed by a crushing defeat on their home turf at the hands of the Ole Miss Rebels.
Mississippi State enters play 1-1 as in the first game of the Mike Leach era, the Bulldogs stunned the defending champion LSU Tigers with a 44-34 upset win in Baton Rouge but then struggled their way through their home opener as they suffered a 21-14 loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The Wildcats and Bulldogs have faced off each-year since 1990 as part of their cross-divisional rivalry. Mississippi State holds a slim 24-23 lead in the all-time series between the two programs after they defeated the Wildcats 28-13 in Starkville last season. However, Kentucky has not lost to the Bulldogs in Lexington since 2014.
Can Mark Stoops and his Wildcats pick up their first win of 2020 on a night that calls for heavy rain across the Commonwealth? Here’s a closer look at Saturday’s upcoming class clash between the Cats and the Dogs.
Mississippi State Notes
Welcome Back Mike Leach and the Air-Raid
For the first time since 1998, Mike Leach will be coaching on the Kroger Field sidelines. This time, however, he won’t be in Kentucky blue.
Leach served as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator under Hal Mumme from 1997-98, where he helped birth the Air-Raid offense that he has used in each of his stops since leaving Lexington.
After leaving UK to take Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator in 1999, Leach earned a pair of head coaching gigs as he posted an 84-43 record while serving as the head coach at Texas Tech from 2000-09 and went 55-47 as Washington State’s head coach from 2012-19.
He now returns to Lexington and the SEC as the head coach of Mississippi State, looking to continue building his Air-Raid brand.
Tale of Two Stories
The first two games of the Leach era at Mississippi State have been a tale of two very different stories.
In Week 1, the Bulldogs put together a historic performance as quarterback K.J. Costello set the SEC single-game passing record with 623 passing yards while throwing five touchdowns to lead Mississippi State to a 44-34 upset victory over the defending national champion LSU Tigers in Death Valley.
Then, in their home opener last week, Costello was held to 313 passing yards with one score and two interceptions as the Bulldogs were upset by the Arkansas Razorbacks who snapped a 20-game SEC losing streak that dated back to 2017.
With one remarkable performance and one dud, it’s hard to tell which Bulldogs team will take the field in Lexington Saturday night in the rain.
Stingy Run Defense
When discussing Mississippi State, much of the discussion is centered around Leach and the Air-Raid. However, perhaps the biggest story so far for the 2020 Bulldogs is how well they have stopped the run.
The Bulldogs rank second in the country and No. 1 in the SEC in having allowed opposing rushers average just 1.91 yards per carry.
No one has been better at shutting down opposing running backs for the Bulldogs than Marquiss Spencer, who has made a team-high three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. Linebacker Aaron Brule is also off to a strong start as he’s made two tackles for loss for a combined loss of 13 yards while also making three quarterback hits.
With rain likely to force a run-first Kentucky team to keep the ball on the ground even more than usual, the Bulldogs should benefit from their dynamic defensive front.
If the Kentucky Wildcats want to make 2020 a season to remember, they must take down the Bulldogs Saturday.
While many projected UK to drop their season opener at Auburn, almost nobody saw an 0-2 start as Ole Miss’ upset victory over the Cats in Lexington came as a major surprise. While taking down the Bulldogs is a tall task, it may be their best chance to win in the next three weeks.
Next week, Kentucky will travel to Knoxville to take on the Volunteers who are off to a 2-0 start. Kentucky hasn’t exactly had their way with the Vols of late either as they’ve dropped 31 of the last 33 matchups against their division rivals and have not won at Neyland Stadium since 1984.
Kentucky’s Week 4 clash in Knoxville will be followed by a home matchup with the three-time defending and No. 3 ranked Georgia Bulldogs. After a sluggish first half at Arkansas Week 1, the Dawgs’ have rolled as they put the Razorbacks away in the second half and then steamrolled Auburn in Athens last weekend. Like Tennessee, Georgia has handled Kentucky of late as they’ve won each of the past 10 previous matchups and have not lost in Lexington since 1996.
While UK will have Missouri and Vanderbilt as their next two opponents after taking on Georgia, they must win Saturday to avoid a potential 0-5 start.
Let it Rain!
Saturday night’s forecast doesn’t exactly call for clear sky’s in the Bluegrass. With remnants of Hurricane Delta expected to make its’ way to Lexington, UK and Mississippi State will likely play their prime time showdown in the pouring rain.
For Kentucky, this is not uncommon as four of their 13 games in 2019, including three of their home games, were played in downpours. In those four games, UK went 3-1 while winning all three that were played in Lexington.
With the Bulldogs looking to throw the ball nearly every play and UK already a run-first offense, this weather forecast certainly favors the Wildcats.
Time To Make a Play
If the Cats want to pick up their first win Saturday, they not only need their defense to slow down the Bulldogs passing attack, but they need turnovers and sacks.
Through the first two weeks of the season, UK’s defense has only gotten to the quarterback for three sacks and has yet to record a single turnover.
With Mississippi State putting it in the air often, there will be ample opportunity to pick off passes, hit the quarterback and make a play or two to give the ball back to the offense with a short field.
If Kentucky wants to finish this season at least 5-5, they must win Saturday. With matchups with Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Alabama still looming, Mississippi State, who, while has shown signs of being explosive, is still one of the youngest teams’ in the conference and one UK needs to beat to have a chance to make noise. With rain in the forecast and the Cats in desperation mode, look for Mark Stoops’ crew to pull out a close but much-needed victory.