Kentucky’s Mark Stoops: Mississippi State better at basics in Leach’s second year

·5 min read

Mississippi State offered itself as tribute last year to a Kentucky football team that, prior to that encounter in Lexington, was 0-2 and had failed to turn its opponents over. The Wildcats approached a school record after nabbing six interceptions against the Bulldogs in a 24-2 win at Kroger Field.

Expecting a similar performance in 2021 would be foolish even if this year’s Wildcats were ball-hawking at an incredible rate.

“That’s not the norm,” Coach Mark Stoops said Monday during his weekly news conference. “And the way Will (Rogers) is playing this year for them, you don’t ever anticipate six picks. We’d be very fortunate if that happened.”

Rogers made his collegiate debut as a true freshman last year at UK, briefly relieving starter K.J. Costello in the third quarter before Mike Leach opted to go back to Costello for a fourth-quarter rally attempt. It was a 14-2 game going into the period, and the Bulldogs forced two punts to keep hanging around. Costello’s final interception came with under six minutes to play, and was returned 8 yards by Jordan Wright for a touchdown, effectively sealing the deal for Kentucky.

This season, Rogers has thrown for more than 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Based on the film, he and Mississippi State’s receivers look more comfortable in year two running the Air Raid than they did last season.

“(They’re) just doing the basics much better,” Stoops said. “Mike always presents a problem, and his offenses always do, and you see them being more effective. That goes the same for us; we have to be multiple (defensively), we have to mix things up.”

UK’s defense last year became the first in history to keep a Leach-led offense from scoring. Alabama would later replicate that feat, but so far the Bulldogs (4-3) have been able to score in every game this season. Their defense is producing at a similar rate to where it did a year ago; MSU is allowing 327.1 yards per game, fourth in the conference behind Georgia, Alabama and Kentucky, but it’s yielding 25.7 points per game (ninth).

The Bulldogs’ 93 rushing yards allowed per game are the third-fewest in the league after Georgia and Alabama. Kentucky managed just 84 yards on 32 carries in last season’s affair, and was even less potent through the air (73 yards on 8-for-21 passing).

Improved balance on offense was promised and has been mostly delivered by the Wildcats this season, but how far it’s come in the passing game could prove to be a difference-maker against the Bulldogs, who give up 234.1 yards (fifth in the league) and two passing TDs a game, third in the league behind Vanderbilt and LSU. Kentucky will likely want to get its ground game back on track after it was held to a mere 51 yards against Georgia — 3 yards shy of matching the Stoops-era low (48 against Florida in 2013) — but that’ll be tough to manufacture without hitting some big shots through the air.

Doing that could prove difficult if Josh Ali and Izayah Cummings are both sidelined with injuries this weekend. Ali has missed the last two games with a leg injury suffered against Florida and Cummings was in a sling last week after hurting an arm against Georgia. Ali wasn’t on the depth chart Monday at receiver and Cummings was listed in his typical spot as the Cats’ third tight end, but Stoops wasn’t affirmative on whether either — or injured nose tackle Marquan McCall — would be available in Starkville.

“We’ll see,” Stoops said. “I feel like there’s a chance.”

Bye weeks

Kentucky under Stoops is 4-6 in games following a bye week. Three of those games were against Mississippi State, and only one of those contests ended in a UK win; the 2016 Cats defeated the Bulldogs, 40-38, on a 51-yard field goal by Austin MacGinnis in Lexington. Both of the losses were in Starkville.

For the pattern-minded: UK is 3-3 in its last six games coming off a bye, and has alternated wins and losses in that span. Its last outing following an off week was a 38-35 win over Vanderbilt at home last November.

“I really appreciate the players, the way they handled the bye week last week,” Stoops said. “They understood there was gonna be some built-in time off, but the time on the field, whether it was in the meeting rooms or on the field, we needed to continue to keep that (foot on the gas). I’m always concerned about that.”

Candy

ESPN analyst Alyssa Lang, following Mississippi State’s 45-6 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday, asked Leach about his favorite Halloween candy. Leach, never too shy to soliloquize, spoke for nearly a minute about his favorite and least-favorite treats.

Stoops kept his preferences closer to the vest Monday.

“I knew that question was coming,” Stoops said with a laugh. “ ... You can tell me, I eat any candy.”

Notes

The Kentucky-Tennessee game scheduled for Nov. 6 will kick off at 7 p.m. and be broadcast by ESPN2. It’ll be the sixth night game for the Cats this season; they’re 4-0 in those games heading into a 7 p.m. kickoff in Starkville.

Saturday

No. 12 Kentucky at Mississippi State

When: 7 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

Records: Kentucky 6-1 (4-1 SEC), Mississippi State 4-3 (2-2)

Blue Preview: Your one-click guide to No. 12 Kentucky’s SEC game at Mississippi State

Letters to the Editor: For helmets, UK should wear blue or white. No more chrome.

Kentucky’s 6-1 start has opened doors to major recruits. Can it finish in December?

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting