The week 9 Edge: UK vs. Mississippi State



The UK defense vs. Mississippi State rushing attack

It is no secret that the MSU offense is built around the run. The Bulldogs have executed almost 50 percent more running plays (293) than passing plays (205), and even quarterback Chris Relf is an athletic option to run the ball. UK head coach Joker Phillips welcomes MSU’s ground game, as he is confident in co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter’s defense’s ability to slow it down.

The strength of the defense lies in its senior linebackers Danny Trevathan, Ronnie Sneed and Winston Guy. Guy and Trevathan are the SEC’s two leading tacklers, while Sneed has had five seasons at UK to learn every trick in the book.

Phillips also endorsed his defensive line, and said that stopping a downhill running style has been a strength of his defensive front all season. With a full slew of defensive tackles available, including sophomores Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble and senior Luke McDermott, as well as the emergence of freshman defensive end Mike Douglass in the injured Collins Ukwu’s absence, UK has found youth and athleticism up front.

MSU running back Vic Ballard, who has rushed for just under 600 yards through the team’s first seven games, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, favors a downhill running style in which Ballard hits a hole with as much force and power as possible, hopefully breaking tackles on his way to a big game. UK’s run defense must close those holes and make sound, fundamental tackles to limit Ballard’s impact on the game. Phillips said the key to slowing down the offense is to limit big plays by the Bulldogs, and containing Ballard would go a long way towards accomplishing that goal.

Edge: The UK defense in a close decision. The defense has been a strength of UK’s team at times this season, and they will have to be again Saturday if UK is to have a chance at defeating MSU. Trevathan and Guy will have to play at their usual high level of play, with the rest of the defense falling in line and doing their jobs around them. But if the UK offense is unable to sustain drives and stay on the field, the defense may get tired and struggle to stop the run in the second half. Provided the Cats’ defense receives appropriate rest, expect an inspired performance against MSU.

The UK offense vs. Joker Phillips and Randy Sanders play-calling

In his weekly press conference Monday, Phillips made it explicitly clear how we would like the offense to function — throw to setup the run. The problem with that philosophy is, for this team at least, that he offense doesn’t have the personnel to throw the ball successfully on a regular basis in the SEC. Junior quarterback Morgan Newton has a strong arm, but his decision-making and presence in the pocket have been areas of concern for the Cats’ coaching staff all season. Add in the numerous drops or poorly run routes by the UK receiving corps, and you have a recipe for disaster in the passing game.

Last week against Jacksonville State, however, the UK offense discovered a bright spot. Junior running back CoShik Williams, listed as the No. 3 back on UK’s opening day depth chart, rushed for 148 yards on 22 carries and put forth the strongest offense performance of anyone in a blue and white jersey since Josh Clemons’ 87-yard run against Central Michigan in week two. Against Mississippi State, UK will have to again run the ball to setup the pass, the opposite of Phillips’ philosophy on offense.

Williams’ strength is his speed and his style of running features more runs outside the tackles than any other back to receives carries for the Cats in 2011. UK offensive line coach and run game coordinator Mike Summers said following the Jacksonville State game that if given space, Williams is a deadly asset to the offense. Last week, UK was able to give Williams the space he needed. This week, against a stiff SEC defense that is allowing fewer than 20 points per game, the Cats will look to provide him with more space to kick-start the offense once again.

Edge: Mississippi State defense. UK has run the ball successfully for one week with a back that, despite his performance a week ago, has not proven he can be a go-to back in the SEC for the long haul. Likewise, the Bulldogs’ defense has not allowed more than 12 points in a game since September 24. UK has the potential to run the ball, but the numbers favor Mississippi State in this matchup.

Overall Edge: Mississippi State. Despite being on the road, Mississippi State has a recent history of defeating UK in close calls, no matter the venue. The Cats’ defense has the playmakers to slow down the Bulldogs early and limit the run, but the Cats’ inconsistent offense has struggled against formidable defenses in conference thus far this season. As the offense struggles, expect the defense to slow down and tire out, allowing Mississippi State to quietly pull away from the Cats behind Ballard and Relf.