The darkest hour is sometimes just before dawn.
After beginning the season by bowling a huge halftime lead over Southern Mississippi and being crushed at Florida, UK quarterback Drew Barker sustained a back injury in the first series of the New Mexico State game. Enter backup QB Stephen Johnson, a man with almost no experience and very little fan confidence. Almost four games later, Kentucky is 3-3, and faces a chance to possibly pave a path to a bowl game, if the Wildcats can knock off slight road favorite Mississippi State on Saturday night in Commonwealth Stadium.
Drew Barker’s injury would have been regarded before the season as one of those few occurrence which would have doomed UK’s season. But in fact, without Barker, Kentucky relied heavily on its potent ground attack, and Mark Stoops’s defense has made huge strides over the course of a few short weeks. But Mississippi State has long been the thorn in the heel of Kentucky football, and with the Bulldogs at 2-4, each team’s bowl hopes are on the line Saturday.
WHERE WE ARE
Kentucky is off of a bye week, which was preceded by a 20-13 win over Vanderbilt. UK led that game 17-3 at the half and was forced to hold on down the stretch. Stephen Johnson passed for just 49 yards in his worst throwing game as a Wildcat. But the ground game, led by 94 yards from Benny Snell, produced just enough yards and points to defeat the Commodores.
Kentucky contained Vandy RB Ralph Webb, and had a fierce pass rush which slowed QB Kyle Shurmur. Two weeks later, we’re at either the third or four version of the Most Important Game of Mark Stoops’s coaching career. If Kentucky could win two of the next three games (this week’s Mississippi State matchup, next week at Missouri, and the following week back at home to take on Georgia), the Wildcats are likely bowl bound. If not… well, not so much.
WHO THEY ARE
The 2-4 Bulldogs have struggled, losing to a punchless LSU team, getting drilled by Auburn, and being upset by South Alabama and BYU. State is led by QB Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has passed for 998 yards and 8 scores and rushed for an additional 431 yards. Veteran receiver Fred Ross is his top target, with 34 catches for 386 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Defensively, State is led by linebacker Richie Brown, who has 51 tackles for the season, including 2.5 tackles for loss. The Bulldogs have 13 sacks and are led by defensive lineman A.J. Jefferson, with four sacks to his credit. DB Kivan Coman has intercepted two passes for the Bulldogs.
State is hitting just 33 percent of their third down tries, and has been quietly unexceptional in special teams. The Bulldogs are a three-point favorite over UK in Lexington.
WHAT TO EXPECT
State will try to exploit Kentucky’s historical problems defending dual threat QBs, but the Wildcats have been better in that department than in recent seasons. That said, with Joshua Dobbs and Lamar Jackson left on UK’s schedule, it is a good preview of things to come. State is big and strong up front, but this isn’t quite the caliber of MSU team that we’ve seen in years past—like two years ago when they were #1 in the nation when they visited Lexington.
Kentucky will rely on its running game, and that ground identity has been solid as the season has rolled along. Between Boom Williams’s lightning and Benny Snell’s thunder, UK has become solid on the ground, if not imposing. If QB Stephen Johnson can pass enough to keep the Bulldog defense honest, UK can score—not a ton of points, but enough points.
Around this program in recent seasons, there was desperation as Mark Stoops failed to hold onto promising beginnings. This team flips the script, and after Saturday night, they only have to flip one more mild upset to account for likely bowl status.
UK 23, Mississippi State 21
AROUND THE CONFERENCE
My current power rankings.
Texas A&M (6-0)
Ole Miss (3-3)
Mississippi State (2-4)
South Carolina (2-4)
I’m at 48-15 for the year, and here’s this week’s picks.
South Carolina 28, UMass 14
Alabama 42, Texas A&M 24
Missouri 31, MTSU 17
Arkansas 27, Auburn 24
Kentucky 23, Mississippi State 21
Vanderbilt 45, Tennessee State 10
LSU 38, Ole Miss 28
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, with his most recent, Almost Perfect, to be released in February 2017. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.