LEXINGTON – The winner of Saturday’s Kentucky-Mississippi State football game stands a good chance to be playing in a bowl game over the Christmas holidays, while the players on the losing side will probably get a lot of quality time with their families.
It’s that simple as MSU’s Bulldogs bring a 3-4 overall record and 0-4 mark in the Southeastern Conference into battle at Commonwealth Stadium against the Wildcats, who are also 3-4 overall and 0-3 in the SEC.
If Kentucky wins, the Wildcats then only have to split their final four regular season games to go bowling. That would be quite realistic with the last four games being against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Tennessee. Not likely, perhaps, but possible.
The situation may be even more dire for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs final four games are against Tennessee-Martin, Alabama, at Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Saturday’s loser would have to win three of the final four, and that’s unlikely.
The Bulldogs are coming off an open date, while the Wildcats played their best game to date in a 38-14 win over Jacksonville State.
“This will be another huge challenge for us,” said Kentucky coach Joker Phillips of Mississippi State.
MSU could be Kentucky’s toughest challenge of the final five tilts, with the possible exception of the Nov. 19 battle at Georgia.
The Bulldogs are much better than their record indicates, thanks in large part to a typically tough defense. State’s losses have been 41-34 at Auburn, 19-6 to top-ranked LSU, 24-10 at Georgia and 14-12 to South Carolina.
MSU came into the season ranked solidly in the nation’s top 25, and while the Bulldogs are unranked now, they are probably as good as a lot of teams in the current polls.
Kentucky, meanwhile, didn’t overwhelm anybody with it’s 24-point win over Jacksonville State, but the Wildcats clearly made strides. Phillips’ team ran the ball better than it has previously, and the offensive line did a good job both run blocking and pass blocking.
“The offensive line is definitely key to this second half of the season,” Phillips said. “Our skill guys are, too, but our offensive line is the biggest key. They haven’t given up a sack in two weeks, and for us to run the ball like we did the past week was a huge confidence boost for those guys.”
The defense, in turn, showed what it can do against Jacksonville State because it wasn’t on the field all the time.
The key for the Wildcats this week will probably be improvement in the passing game. In recent weeks only junior wideout La’Rod King has shown an ability to catch the ball consistently.
If King is all the Wildcats have in Saturday’s game at wideout, it will be a long night for Kentucky because the Bulldogs will crowd the box and prevent the run all night long.
“We have got to throw the football,” admitted Phillips, whose team was able to get away with throwing it just 16 times last Saturday because JSU’s Gamecocks were not good enough to handle UK’s offensive line. “It’s hard to manage first downs, manage touchdowns, just throwing the ball 16 times.
“Our philosophy around here has been throw it to run it, and recently it’s starting to go to run it to throw it,” Phillips added. “I would like to get back to throw it to run it. But we have to feel comfortable with that. We’ve got to throw the ball in order to have a chance in the second half of the season.”
Is there anyone out there in blue and white capable of stepping up to complement King at wide receiver?
Asked that very question on Monday, Phillips pointed to sophomore Brian Adams and junior Gene McCaskill.
Adams looked outstanding last spring but has been dogged by nagging injuries this fall, while McCaskill has struggled all season recovering from a badly injured knee suffered this past year.
“He seems to be healthy now,” Phillips said of Adams who stands 6-foot-4 and has good hands. “We’ve got to get him going because he has some ability.
“And Gene McCaskill is another guy who’s done it around here, and he’s done it in big games,” Phillips added. “Seems like right now, La’Rod is the guy that we have gone to the most. But those two other guys we just spoke about have some ability. One has done it in games, and the other hasn’t, but he has the ability to.”