Kentucky coach Mark Stoops calls Mississippi State the Wildcats' 'greatest challenge'

For the first time in program history, Kentucky has opened the season with six games decided by eight or fewer points.

The experts in Las Vegas don't expect that trend to continue this week as the Wildcats were tabbed an 11-point underdog for Saturday's game at Mississippi State.

"We've got a great opportunity this weekend and a great challenge," UK head coach Mark Stoops said Monday during his weekly press luncheon. "I believe it will be the greatest challenge we've had all year. It's going to be a great environment against a very mature, good football team that has an unbelievable guy back there taking snaps and a great coaching staff and a group that is used to winning a bunch of games."

While Kentucky (4-2, 2-2 SEC) has been slugging it out to the final horn in all of its games, Mississippi State (5-2, 1-2 SEC) has been rolling of late. The Bulldogs beat Troy, coached by former UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown, 45-17 two weeks ago and rallied from an early 14-0 deficit to beat Louisiana Tech 45-20 this past weekend. 

The two teams have a common opponent in Auburn, which defeated UK 30-27 in Lexington but lost 17-9 in Starkville. 

Mississippi State boasts the No. 3 passing offense in the SEC, led by dynamic senior quarterback Dak Prescott, who has thrown for 1,700 yards and 11 touchdowns with no interceptions. He also leads te Bulldogs with 254 yards rushing and four TDs on the ground.

"They have an unbelievable leader in their quarterback," Stoops said. "A very talented player and a great leader."

Stoops, a former defensive backs coach, has particular respect for Prescott's clean turnover sheet. 

"It shows you a quarterback that has an awful lot of poise, an awful lot of leadership and a lot of experience," he said. "He knows what he is doing.

"They are really big at wide receiver, too. They are talented and experienced and bigger guys, so we have to rise to the occasion and challenge these guys and make competitive plays. That is part of the difference in last week's game -- (Auburn) made some competitive plays on us. We certainly had a lot of success throwing the ball and had a lot of opportunities, but they contested some balls in critical moments and we have to continue to do that."

His team has suffered two bitter defeats in SEC play this season, but Stoops thinks the Cats are mentally prepared to bounce back strong.

“We can’t sit there and feel sorry for ourselves," he said. "Look around and watch college football. That was one of the only days I have ever had to sit around and watch a bunch of football games, and there is heartbreak across the country. You have to respond and bounce back and go to work. I believe our team will do that."

Lewis Out for Season

Stoops announced Monday that senior defensive tackle Melvin Lewis will have surgery Tuesday to repair a broken fibula he suffered in the Auburn game. The recovery time is expected to be at least six weeks, which would rule the 6-foot-4, 332-pound Compton, Calif., native out for the rest of the regular season.

Stoops noted that, if the Wildcats reach a bowl game, there is a possibility that Lewis could return.

"We need to try to win a few games down the stretch here and give him an opportunity to try to come back and play one last time for the Blue and White," Stoops said. "... He has been a terrific story. I certainly don’t want that to be his last game for us."

Lewis had recorded 20 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack during the first half of the season. Sophomore Matt Elam, a former five-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, will get more reps in Lewis' absence. 

Kickoff Set for UK-UT Game

Kentucky's Oct. 31 game against Tennessee has been set for a 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff at Commonwealth Stadium. The Cats and Vols will be broadcast live on the SEC Network for the Halloween Night showdown.

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