Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics
LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sports Network) - The 20th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs attempt to remain unbeaten as they face their first SEC road test of the season on Saturday afternoon against the Kentucky Wildcats.
Mississippi State tries to move to 5-0 for just the third time in school history and for the first time since 1999, when it started 8-0 en route to a 10-2 mark on the year. In Dan Mullen's tenure as head coach, the Bulldogs have had quite a bit of success against the SEC Eastern Division, winning six of nine games, but he's certainly not overlooking the one-win Wildcats in this one.
"This will be our first SEC road game, which should be a challenge for our guys," Mullen said. "We're playing a team that has some talent. (Kentucky) played a very emotional first half (vs. South Carolina) and had a good halftime lead against the No. 6 team in the country. We're going to have our hands full."
Kentucky fought hard against the Gamecocks last week but couldn't hold them off in the second half, eventually falling in a 38-17 final. The Wildcats have now lost three straight games, and Saturday's matchup will be their third in a row against a ranked team from its own conference.
UK leads the all-time series over MSU by a slim 21-18 margin, although the Bulldogs have closed the gap with three consecutive wins.
The MSU offense (36 ppg) has not been only been great in the early going, but it has been consistent as well, scoring 28 points or more in each of its four games. Balance has been the key, as the passing attack generates 214.8 ypg, and the run another 184.2 ypg.
Tyler Russell has thrown for 822 yards and eight touchdowns, and has done a very good job taking care of the football with just one interception. As the Bulldogs' schedule starts to get tougher however, it would be beneficial for him to improve upon his mediocre completion percentage (.557).
LaDarius Perkins (389 yards) has run for at least one touchdown in every game this season, and while he has only had one 100-yard game so far, his 6.8 yards per carry average is fifth-best in the SEC (minimum 50 carries).
Chap Bumphis has just 12 receptions, but for a team-best 271 yards and five touchdowns. One more TD catch will give him 18 for his career, passing Eric Moulds and Justin Jenkins for tops in program history.
The Bulldogs defense has been nothing short of spectacular so far, allowing just 13.2 ppg to its opponents while leading the nation in turnover margin at plus-12.
A ball-hawking secondary highlights the impressive unit. All-American safety Johnathan Banks has three interceptions, giving him 15 for his career, which leads all active players. Darius Slay actually has more picks than Banks this season with four.
UK's offense has been underwhelming to this point (21.8 ppg), and with the loss of starting quarterback Maxwell Smith (103-of-150, 975 yards, eight TDs, four INTs), it's hard to imagine things getting much better.
With Smith out indefinitely with a torn ligament in his left ankle, freshman Patrick Towles' redshirt has been removed and he will see playing time alongside Jalen Whitlow (13-of-29, 126 yards, 2 INTs) as soon as this week.
"We'll have to play them both," UK head coach Joker Phillips said of his quarterbacks. "It's going to take an effort of both of them. If it's not series to series, it could be play after play after play, switching them in and out, give them things that they both can do, give them a chance to go out and play and compete.
Regardless of who is under center, he will have a pair of reliable receivers to count on in La'Rod King (28 receptions, 244 yards, two TDs) and Aaron Boyd (18 receptions, 168 yards, TD).
CoShik Williams started the season atop the running back depth chart, but has missed three games due to injury. In his absence, Raymond Sanders (40 carries, 260 yards, two TDs) and Jonathan George (35 carries, 182 yards, three TDs) have shouldered the load in the backfield.
The UK defense held South Carolina to just seven points in the first half last week before unraveling after the break. The unit has now surrendered 38 points in back-to-back weeks, albeit to a pair of very impressive offenses (nationally-ranked Florida being the other). Only Arkansas has a worse scoring defense in the SEC than the Wildcats (30.8 ppg).
Avery Williamson (51 tackles) is one of the busiest linebackers in the league, while Alvin Dupree (6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) and Collins Ukwu (three sacks, FF) do a nice job making plays in the backfield.