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By Ethan Levine
The Edge runs every Friday before a UK football game. It breaks down two key matchups between UK and its opponent, then gives an overall Edge to one side or the other.
UK quarterback Jalen Whitlow vs. UK quarterback Patrick Towles
With Maxwell Smith out of the lineup for an indefinite amount of time, potentially the entire season, UK will be splitting its quarterback duties between these two freshmen. Both have their pros and cons, but it certainly won’t be easy for two freshmen to be sharing the job against a ranked opponent.
Whitlow holds an advantage in experience, though it is slim. He played virtually the entire game last week against South Carolina and saw some time at the end of UK’s week four matchup against Florida. The first-team offense may be somewhat familiar with Whitlow, but there are still kinks to work out.
The downside to Whitlow is that however athletic he may be, and however strong his arm is, the offense is not catered to a player of his nature. It is designed around Smith, a pocket passer in a short-pass, spread offense. That kind of scheme would benefit Towles, another pocket passer, much more than Whitlow, a player who creates opportunities with his athleticism and not his ability to throw a wide receiver screen.
Towles is a highly touted recruit who fans have called for since Morgan Newton’s embarrassing performance in the Swamp. Phillips said he would not remove the freshman’s redshirt unless he was going to play, and with Smith out he now has a chance to play.
That being said, Towles has been limited to running mostly the scout team offense in practice and has never taken live snaps at the collegiate level. Neither candidate will have a firm grasp of the playbook by Saturday, and should UK fall behind like it did in the second half against South Carolina, it will be tough sledding for the Cats’ quarterbacks.
Edge: Who knows?
No one has ever really seen either play, with Whitlow having played essentially one game and Towles sitting with a redshirt thus far. The two bring opposing styles to the table, which could conflict with the players around them at times, but can also keep a defense off balance. The Bulldogs do not know what is coming just as much as UK doesn’t, and Phillips addressed that very advantage in his press conference Monday. Don’t expect UK to be operating on all-cylinders against Mississippi State, but it will be intriguing to see if UK can put together any strong scoring drives and who the quarterback will be if it happens.
UK defensive front vs. Mississippi State running back LaDarius Perkins
UK now has a few games under its belt in its new 4-2-5 defensive scheme, and weakside linebacker Bud Dupree had arguably his best week at his new position last week against South Carolina. Dupree recorded nine tackles including one and a half sacks. With he and senior defensive end Taylor Wyndham on the field at the same time, UK has a large defense anchored by Dupree and middle linebacker Avery Williamson.
Freshmen linebackers Pancho Thomas and Khalid Henderson are beginning to see more and more playing time as the season progresses, a sign that Phillips is seeing more confidence in his young players. At this point, the head coach has little to lose.
Defensive tackle Tristian Johnson was in on six tackles a week ago against the Gamecocks and will likely start again in place of junior Mister Cobble, who is still recovering from an infection stemming from flu-like symptoms. Johnson and fellow defensive tackle Donte Rumph caused disruptions in the South Carolina backfield for much of the first half, on both passes and runs.
Perkins will prove to be another difficult test for the Cats’ defense. In four games, Perkins has rushed for 389 yards, averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns. In a week two win over Auburn, Perkins rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown to help Mississippi State secure its first conference win of the year.
The defense may be able to contain the junior running back early, but much like Marcus Lattimore a week ago, expect Perkins to wear the defense down. Considering the Cats’ troubles on offense, this defense has the potential to be on the field for a vast majority of this game, exhausting a young defense with very inexperienced depth. Lattimore and Florida’s Mike Gillislee got their usual numbers against UK, but did so rather quietly; expect Perkins to do the same.
Overall Edge: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are UK’s third consecutive ranked opponent, and the team’s lack of a quarterback does not make the task any easier. This team played with pride last week and showed more emotion on the field and on the sideline than it had this season. Fans also are intrigued by Towles and Whitlow, and the crowd may once again play a factor, something few expected for the Cats at this point in the year. It won’t be embarrassing, but Mississippi State’s talent level will prove to be as much of a challenge as South Carolina’s and Florida’s were.
Final score: Mississippi State 31, UK 7.