Kentucky is still looking for its first win of the season after expecting to contend for the Southeastern Conference.
Unlike last fall when the Wildcats started the season 2-3, they have little room for error at 0-2. They’re not playing a 12-game schedule with non-conference opponents and don’t have time to halt a three-game slide and finish 8-5 like 2019.
Kentucky will have to avoid mistakes against Mississippi State (1-1) to get its first win Saturday night, a tall task against a pass-heavy Air Raid offense that features playmakers who are proving to be dangerous after making the catch.
Asked this week if overcoming past adversity can help Kentucky against the Bulldogs, coach Mark Stoops said, “It better. We need it to. ... When you fall to 0-2, you can respond with a reality check of the situation of ‘it is what it is,’ and you can fold to the pressure.
“Or, you can rise above it, man up, own it and move on.”
Statistically, the Wildcats have done many things right in outgaining Auburn 384-324 and Mississippi 559-459. They lack a victory to show for it because of turnovers and defensive breakdowns that paved the way for the Tigers and Rebels to win respectively.
Last week’s 42-41 loss to Ole Miss was especially painful for Kentucky, which allowed 21 unanswered points after leading 28-14 in the third quarter before rallying to force overtime. The Wildcats scored a touchdown on their possession but missed the extra point, while the up-tempo Rebels made their PAT for the win.
“We know that we let two slip away,” Kentucky outside linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson said. “We know that there’s much to improve upon, and much better that we can do as a defense. Everybody is intrigued and anxious to show how good of a defense we really can be.”
Now comes another high-flying threat in the Bulldogs and first-year coach Mike Leach, who orchestrated the Air Raid scheme as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator under Hal Mumme in 1997-98. Not surprisingly, State enters with the SEC’s top passing attack (468 yards per game) and No. 2 offense (516.0).
An error-filled 21-14 home loss to the Razorbacks knocked the Bulldogs out of the Top 25. The stunning defeat showed offensive growing pains Leach said Mississippi State must overcome quickly.
Especially against a Kentucky team looking to reach a fifth consecutive bowl game.
“Tough, gritty team,” Leach said of the Wildcats while pivoting back to his own squad’s growth.
“We have to be a steady, consistent team. We can’t rest on any level of perceived success. We have to be the same team every snap, and I didn’t think we were.”
Some other things to watch when Mississippi State visits Kentucky:
LOOKING TO REGROUP
Bulldogs quarterback K.J. Costello tossed three interceptions against Arkansas and managed 313 yards passing after a SEC-record 623-yard opening performance at defending national champion LSU. The Stanford graduate transfer remains the conference’s top passer at 468 yards per game with an efficiency rating of 140.7 that ranks eighth. Costello has six TDs, but also five interceptions.
SHARING THE LOAD
Kentucky’s SEC-leading rushing attack (276.5 yards) will likely be split between A.J. Rose and Chris Rodriguez Jr. with No. 3 runner Kavosiey Smoke out with a broken rib. Rodriguez and Rose posted career highs of 133 and 117 yards respectively to lead a 408-yard effort against Ole Miss.
Costello’s favorite target has been senior Osirus Mitchell, who ranks third in SEC receiving yardage (122.0 per game) and seventh with six catches per outing with two touchdowns. He’s also sixth in all-purpose yardage with 122.0 per game. Kentucky’s Josh Ali is third in the conference with eight receptions per game and ninth in yardage at 93.0.
Mississippi State can stop teams as well and enters just behind Georgia in total defense (350.0). The Bulldogs are allowing just 71.5 yards rushing per game and have record a league-best 10 sacks.
Kentucky’s defense seeks its first takeaway and enters with a league-low margin of minus-4 with Mississippi State, which has posted two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. “We just have to continue doing what we’ve been doing,” Wildcats linebacker Jamin Davis said. “The results will show for themselves.”
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25