LEXINGTON - Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is doing his best to pass off the Kentucky Wildcats as a threat to his undefeated and 20th-ranked Bulldogs, despite the fact that the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks on Kentucky’s depth chart are both freshmen.
Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles are the UK youngsters who promise to take all the snaps for Coach Joker Phillips’ Wildcats (1-4 overall and 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference) Saturday when the game kicks off at 12:21 p.m. (on WKYT Channel 27) at Commonwealth Stadium.
Mississippi State comes in at 4-0 and 1-0.
“It is still a challenge because these guys (Wildcats) throw the ball all over the place,” said Mullen, whose Bulldogs are coming off a bye week. “We got to see one of their quarterbacks (Whitlow) last week throw the ball a lot and throw it pretty well.
“I’ve seen the high school film on their other quarterback (Towles), and he can really throw it. It is still a big challenge, especially against a team that schematically wants to throw the football a lot. They have talent throwing it, even though they are not experienced.”
Kentucky fell into this unenviable position this past weekend when sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith tore a ligament in an ankle on the second play of the 38-17 loss to South Carolina.
Smith is likely gone for the season.
That elevated Whitlow to No. 1 on the depth chart and took Towles from redshirt status/run the scout team in practice, to a No. 2 spot.
And to hear Phillips tell it, Towles is not only No. 2, but is breathing down Whitlow’s neck for the starting spot.
“Jalen will run out there first, but he is not really a starter,” Phillips said. “It’s Whitlow or Towles. I guess you guys would deem it as a starter, but it is more a slash.”
Towles told Phillips after practice Thursday that he wishes the game was just two hours away, not two days.
“You like that,” Phillips said. “I don’t want them to try to hide behind anything because you are going to be nervous, I don’t care how you spin it. You are going to be nervous the first time you run out on the field (even as the backup QB). But he (Towles) is a confident guy and has a lot of confidence in his ability.
“We are going to throw him out there and see what happens.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Whitlow, is it?
Whitlow completed 12 of 23 passing for 114 yards with two interceptions against South Carolina.
Smith’s injury is not the only significant one for Kentucky recently. Standout junior safety Dakotah Tyler and starting running back Co-Shik Williams are among the other UK players out for the season due to recent injuries.
Williams has been nursing a hip injury and had been listed day to day for a couple of weeks, but Phillips announced this week that Williams is lost for the year.
But Phillips said these setbacks have not hurt his team’s attitude.
“I think the attitude has been great,” Phillips said. “Everybody has been upbeat. They are coming out with a lot of juice in practice. The thing we have to do is carry it from the practice fields to the game field.”
Yes, and that would be a lot easier to do, perhaps, if Phillips’ team wasn’t greeting yet another undefeated team.
This appears to be the best Mississippi State team in years. The Bulldogs have an offense that is even more balanced than usual, meaning MSU is not as run-heavy as it has been in the past, led by junior quarterback Tyler Russell.
Russell has completed 55.7 percent of his passes on 59 of 106, with eight touchdowns and one interception.
Seniors Chris Smith (13 catches for an average of 44.2 yards per game) and Chad Bumphis (12 catches for 67.8 yards per game) are both good wide receivers.
MSU has yet another good running back, with 5-foot-10, 190-pound Ladarius Perkins rushing for 97 yards each time out.
Mississippi State is once again rugged defensively. The Bulldogs have held three of four opponents to 10 points or less. They lead the nation in turnover margin, which is a scary fact if you’re, say, a freshman quarterback.
Junior tailback Raymond Sanders leads UK in rushing with 65 yards per game.
Defensively, junior Avery Williamson is quietly having an outstanding season for Kentucky. Williamson not only leads the Wildcats in tackles with 51, but that rates him No. 2 in the SEC.
The UK defense also received a boost this week with news from Phillips that junior defensive tackle Mister Cobble will return from injury and start. Cobble missed the last two games.
There is much to be gained for the Wildcats in this one. An upset win could carry UK through a stretch of games that does not appear to be quite as formidable, with the most glaring exception being the Oct. 20 home game with Georgia.