Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0 SEC) hits the road in the Southeastern Conference for the first time this season, and the Bulldogs make a familiar trip to Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., to do battle with the Kentucky Wildcats (1-4, 0-2).
Game time is slated for 11:21 a.m. CT on the SEC Digital Network. For the Bulldogs and head coach Dan Mullen, this is a crucial game in the schedule for several reasons.
The Bulldogs look to go 2-0 in the SEC for the first time since the 1999 season, but for that to happen, there are four keys they must focus on to leave Lexington with a win.
1. Run Baby Run
Do not let Mullen fool you. Yes, he runs the spread and quarterback Tyler Russell can throw it, but Mullen has shown he loves to run the football. Coming into this weekend's game, Kentucky is ranked 95th in the nation against the run, giving up 193 yards per game.
The Bulldog running backs should be salivating this weekend, especially junior Ladarius Perkins. Perkins, who worked all offseason to become an every-down back in the SEC, is currently seventh in the SEC in total rushing at 389 yards and five scores.
Look for Perkins and the other backs for the Bulldogs to get the call early and often. Establishing the run will settle the crowd and lay a foundation for the entire game.
2. Pressure Kentucky's Young Quarterbacks
With a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Maxwell Smith, Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips will now look to two freshmen in Patrick Towels and Jalen Whitlow.
Whitlow is expected to start, but Phillips said both will play and could rotate every other play. Both are super talented freshmen and could cause trouble for an MSU defense that has had trouble putting pressure on the quarterback this season. The Bulldogs do not have anyone in the top 10 in the SEC in sacks and really need to get JUCO transfer Denico Autry and the rest of the Bulldog defensive line going this week.
Luckily for the Bulldogs they have a secondary that is tops in the SEC in interceptions led by Jonathan Banks and Darius Slay. Both should be baiting these young quarterbacks all day long. If the defensive line can create pressure, it could be another big day for the guys in the secondary.
3. Welcome Back Malcolm Johnson and Feed Him:
During the first two games of the season, Mississippi State looked crisp in the passing game. Russell has spread the ball around to five or six guys, but one of them was not Malcolm Johnson. Johnson, the sophomore tight end, who came on late last year and accounted for 206 yards and three scores, was a focal point for Bulldog passers last year. He has been unavailable thus far due to a pectoral injury.
Senior Marcus Green did a great job in the early going, filling in for Johnson as he accounted for 85 yards and three scores. But he has disappeared over the last two games as has the consistency in the passing attack.
If Johnson is indeed back, as reported by Mike Herndon of the Mississippi Press, then look for Mullen to go to Johnson and Green early and often to open up the outside passing game for the other Bulldog receivers. This offense is best when it opens up from the middle first, then to the outside.
4. Now lets Roll!:
The Bulldogs are 4-0 and ranked 20th in the country, and that is fantastic. However, the Bulldogs have played flat, looked disinterested and very lackluster in the last six quarters of football against South Alabama and the second half against Troy.
It is important for this team to come out with that swagger and bounce they had in Weeks 1 and 2.
If this team comes out focused, gets the ball to Perkins and the tight ends and pressures the young signal-callers of Kentucky, then the Bulldogs will roll to 5-0.
This seems like a very simple concept, and hey, it is. It is only football and with having a week off, I fully expect a different team this weekend in Lexington, Ky., and I fully expect the Bulldogs to win their fourth straight versus the Cats.
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