SHANE SHACKLEFORD: Heisman Candidate Snell Leads Kentucky in Stunning Victory over Mississippi State
I hate to sound like a broken record, but as I sit here in the quiet of my cottage and reflect on the Kentucky Wildcats' 28-7 blasting of No. 14 Mississippi State Saturday night at soggy Kroger Field, I'm reminded of an old coaching addadge that I learned a long time ago. To win consistently in football, teams must follow two concrete rules:
1) Your team must rush the ball effectively.
2) Your team must stop the run effectively.
Now I don’t want to sound like I want to go back to leather helmets and banning the forward pass. But if you have followed SEC football for any length of time, I know you have witnessed over and over that if a team can do those two football tenets, their chances of success rise significantly.
Saturday night, the Wildcats absolutely achieved both in their whipping of the Dawgs. Kentucky rushed for 229 yards and held the potent MSU attack to a quiet 56 in starting its 2018 campaign at 4-0 (first time since 2008) and 2-0 in SEC play (first time since 1977). As well as the Cats played as a unit, there were many accolades to pass around. You might have heard of a few of them. Let’s assess the performance, shall we?
OFFENSE: (A) There is no other way to grade it. The Cats were led by a now-Heisman candidate in junior running back Benny Snell Jr. All Snell proceeded to do was to rush for a spectacular 165 yards on 25 carries and four touchdowns. I’ve said it before and I stand by my words: Benny Snell Jr. is the best back in the SEC and I do believe one of the very best in college football. All he does is produce and produce well. He runs with purpose and conviction. He is the straw that stirs the UK offense’s drink.
But beyond that, it would be absolutely wrong not to mention the play of the Cats’ offensive line. This unit has made it a priority to create a new line of scrimmage on every offensive snap. They manhandled a vaunted Bulldog front seven with no less than two or three NFL caliber talents all night long.
I was also pleased with some other Cats as well. QB Terry Wilson played a good game in some tough weather conditions. In his fourth start, the sophomore was 8/14 for 71 yards and added 18 net yards rushing (48 yards without three sacks). He is also the first UK signal caller to go 4-0 in his first four career starts since Mike Hartline in 2008. Other than an interception, Wilson protected the ball, used his speed and vision to make some important scrambles, and made a very nice back shoulder throw to receiver Dorian Baker to set up Snell’s first score and to end CJ Conrad to set up Snell’s second. Both receivers made beautiful catches as well.
I’d also mention there is a pretty good back playing behind Snell in AJ Rose. Rose had 47 yards on nine attempts and probably most important he allows the Cat run game to continue to move the ball when Snell needs a breather. Rose and Snell create a very good 1-2 punch.
DEFENSE: (A) Could it be anything else? Coach Matt House has done an unbelievable job building the UK defense to a unit that can handle itself against the big boys in the SEC. For the game, the Cats' D held a State offense that had averaged over 500 yards of total offense coming into the game to 201. Bulldog QB Nick Fitzgerald, who has had his way with Kentucky for the last three years throwing and running, was limited to 20 yards rushing and 145 yards passing on 32 attempts.
Individually, senior LB Josh Allen terrorized the MSU offensive line all night. There is a reason he is the No.1 rated outside LB by NFL draft guru Todd McShay. Allen ran around the MSU tackles all night and was so deep in their head they might not sleep for a week. On three occasions, Allen just flinched and caused Bulldog false starts. Statistically, Allen had six tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a pass breakup, and a QB hurry. Allen was also in Fitzgerald’s lap more than kids in Santa Claus' lap, forcing the MSU signal caller to rush his throws and dictate his rushes to a UK defense that flew around all night long.
Several other Wildcat defenders had outstanding nights, including:
--DB Darius West (nine tackles, two pass breakups)
--LB Jordan Jones (eight stops, QB hurry)
--LB Kash Daniel (seven tackles, QB hurry)
--DB Mike Edwards (six tackles)
SPECIAL TEAMS: (A) Once again, the Cats had a great night on special teams. When the Cats were getting themselves right on offense, punter Max Duffy continued his stellar kicking and ability to flip the field. Duffy averaged 44 yards on five punts in bad weather. Kicker Miles Butler was solid, coming back from a missed field goal early to make all four extra points as the weather got worse all night. Again, whatever the UK brass are paying coordinator Dean Hood may not be enough. Hood has made the Cats' special teams, once a mess, into a strength.
Alright Cat fans, UK is 4-0 and 2-0 in the SEC. Let that sink in. The Cats have beaten consecutive top 25 teams for the first time in 41 years. Let that sink in. And Kentucky is now ranked -- No. 17 in both polls this week -- for the first time in many years. Heady times indeed in Lexington.
But the Cats must come to earth pretty quick as a good South Carolina invades the Big Supermarket next Saturday night. The Gamecocks are 2-1 and are coming off a nice 37-14 win at Vanderbilt. USC will also be ready to go since the Cats own a win streak over them. I expect that Lexington will be rocking again as UK looks to go 5-0 and 3-0 in the SEC. With the way that Kentucky is playing right now, that is an attainable goal.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports writer from Speedwell, Tenn. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook, and Twitter @shack_daddy_1.