*With State's upset of the Gators, Kentucky is the only SEC team without a league win.
You could argue that Kentucky football has seemingly been on-hold since Guy Morriss abruptly bolted after the 2002 season for big bucks (but no success) at Baylor. The UK adminstration scrambled and found Rich Brooks, willing to come out of a six-year retirement and take over a program hammered by the NCAA. The 63-year-old Brooks is greatly respected by college and pro peers, and has a proven staff, but this would be a tough task for any head coach of any age. The last stars of the Hal Mumme era are gone and sanctions have made it harder to bring in new talent. This team won't match the four wins of last year and the immediate future isn't any brighter, though one has to believe that with a sharp, young A.D. the current staff is just filling the gap until a new coach can be picked and hired. And whatever his methods, Mumme did show that UK can win.
OK, he's finally moved on to another bakery. But the hefty shadow of the Pillsbury Throwboy still hangs over the Kentucky offense, which hasn't been able to replace quarterback Jared Lorenzen. UK ranks 114th in NCAA scoring (State is 111th), as well as last in SEC rushing and tenth in passing. Worse, this unit is not healthy. Shane Boyd waited four years to replace Lorenzen, and '04 has been his reward. He has 834 passing yards on 52% throwing, but has five interceptions against three TDs. Boyd also has a bum shoulder that kept him out of the Auburn game (maybe a good break), and nobody knows for-sure what he can do this weekend. So redshirt frosh Andre Woodson started at Auburn and while he was 14-of-26 those completions produced just 73 yards. He's a taller, more typical pocket-passer compared to the option-oriented Boyd. The ground game is hurting, too. '03 leading runner Arliss Beach has a nagging shoulder injury and now the replacement, converted cornerback Tony Dixon, is questionable with a hurt leg. True frosh Rafael Little (121 yards, 25 carries) would move up, while Alexis Bwenge (3 TDs) will also play. UK not only lost a passer/runner, but much of a veteran offensive line. Matt Huff and Jason Rollins are senior guards, but the other three are young and two freshmen, LT Aaron Miller and RG Micah Jones, are already playing. Center Mike McCutchan has had some good games, but only Vanderbilt has allowed more SEC-sacks than the Wildcats. Tight end has been a productive position with Jeremiah Drobney healthy. The receiver corps has also taken early hits, losing starters Tommy Cook and Keenan Burton for the season. In their absences Glenn Holt is a reliable target, with 33 of the squad's 113 catches, while Scott Mitchell and Lonnell Dewalt net 13 and 11 yards per grab. It's a tall group of receivers, too.
After a rough start, allowing over 400 yards in the first three games, coordinator Mike Archer's defense has showed signs of progress lately. But the Wildcats are still last in the league in scoring, allowing almost 30 points a game, and struggling in all aspects. Lack of offensive support obviously hasn't helped, and the time-of-possession is badly against UK. General youth is the other problem on defense, with only one senior listed as starting in the front-seven this week. That's because all-SEC senior DE Sweet Pea Burns is apparently out. He led the league in '03 in tackles for losses but a bad knee has slowed him all this season, and now he has a hurting ankle. Trey Mielsch takes over for Burns, leaving senior DE Ellery Moore (30 tackles, two sacks) as the ranking down-lineman. Redshirt Ricky Abren has won the nose tackle job in UK's 3-4 scheme. The inside linebackers are not those who began preseason on the first team. Dustin Williams lost his job when he went down with a broken arm, but junior Jon Sumrall beat out some returning starters to take the top spot. He leads the team with 43 tackles, though only one for loss, while Brad Booker and Chad Anderson alternate at the other spot. OLBs Joe Schuler and Durrell White are the attacking ‘backers, and White has four stops behind the line. Schuler won his job with a big game at Alabama off the bench. The secondary is the strongest point of this defense, especially at the safeties where SS Mike Williams and FS Muhammed Abdullah both have all-SEC credits. Earven Flowers (two INTs) is back at one corner, and on the other Antoine Huffman has emerged after starter Bo Smith was lost for the year with a broken bone. Huffman's five pass-breakups lead the team.
PK Taylor Begley is 6-of-8 on field goals and twice has hit from over 50 yards, with a 51 against Florida and a 52 against Alabama. He's 14-of-18 for his career from inside 40 yards. Punting has been shared by Sevin Sucurovic (42.1) and Anthony Thornton (38.4). Rookie Dicky Lyons is making a bid to take over kickoff return with a 31-yard average on four tries, and he's entirely responsible for punt runbacks. UK has 14 touchbacks on 20 kickoffs.
Though charter members of two conferences, the old SIAA and SEC, there have been only 31 meetings between State and Kentucky. And 14 of these games have been since 1990 when they were paired as permanent foes. The Wildcats hold a 18-13 lead and have won the last two games after MSU won three-straight in 1999-2001. In fact State has won eight of the last 14 games. The Bulldogs are 8-4 in Starkville while UK is 12-4 at Lexington. Kentucky's lead was built by an 8-game win streak from 1958-90, including a 1976 forfeit.
The Last Time: October 25, 2003
After a week to adjust to the impending retirement of Jackie Sherrill, the Bulldogs seemed about to give their coach a present at Lexington as Mississippi State jumped to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. But the host Wildcats shrugged off the early shots and reeled off 42 unanswered points to run away with an inter-Divisional victory. A Brent Smith field goal got MSU on the board first, then Jerious Norwood bolted 58 yards for a first-quarter touchdown. At 12:10 of the second period Ray Ray Bivines snared a 11-yard touchdown pass for the big lead, and the Bulldogs were just 38 seconds from taking a shutout into the locker room before Ronald Johnson scored on a 7-yard dash. The last half entirely belonged to the home team, partly because MSU made an inexplicable decision to change the defense totally, and partly because State stubbornly kicked to Derek Abney. After Arliss Beach scored on a one-yard dive to cut the deficit to 17-14, the Bulldogs had to punt. Abney ran the ball back 80 yards at 9:17 and Kentucky led for the first time. Two minutes into the last quarter Abney caught a 53-yard touchdown pass for a 28-17 lead. After an interception the Kats got another Beach touchdown run, and with 2:45 left Kentucky padded the final margin on a three-yard run. It was UK's first and only SEC win of a 4-8 year. The Wildcats had 410 yards to State's 305, and Norwood's 133-yard afternoon was wasted.
*MSU CB David Heard and UK's Dennis Johnson were teammates at Vicksburg High School.
Did You Know?
*The last time State won consecutive SEC games, the 2000 Bulldogs beat Kentucky and Alabama back-to-back.
How They Compare:
Omarr Conner's successful return shows just how vital the soph is to State's entire team mentality. The Dog defense is trying to prepare for two very different QBs as nobody knows if Boyd is healthy…or if UK would rather play Woodson anyway.
Running Backs: State
Norwood is explosive, Reid reliable, Davis a surprise. UK is just struggling on the ground.
Offensive Line: State
How ‘bout this? A SEC unit that the Bulldog blockers outshine. Sure, UK's line is being rebuilt, but credit MSU's front for growing up under pressure.
If not for injury losses the Wildcats would have a slight edge. As it is Dog catchers might be a bit ahead now that some guys are healthy and other getting with the plan.
Defensive Line: State
It would have been almost even if UK's Burns was not hurting. Still State would have had an edge anyway, and now the margin looks even greater as Powell matures.
That's only because some young Dog ‘backers are still not totally proven, and are a bit nicked-up after hitting Florida hard. But State appears to have more depth, and better front to back up.
But if Bobo were healthy it would likely tip things the other way, that's how close it looks. UK has two excellent safeties, and the respective corners appear well-matched.
UK has a proven placekicker, good return men and coverage. State looks better at punting, has an explosive return ace, and fast-improving coverage. Call it a wash, for now, but there looks to be more potential for MSU's special squads.
In fact, Croom worries his team might be riding a bit too high after knocking off the Gators. His job is to focus the enthusiasm on this game. It's hard for an outsider to project exactly how the Kats will approach this one: as a prime opportunity to get on the SEC scoreboard, or just another tough league road trip. Bottom Line:
The Bulldogs got their first big win of the Croom Era, and hung one coach's hide on the locker room wall. True, Brooks was seemingly hired as a temporary fix…but if Kentucky takes a beating in Starkville it might well seal his fate, as well as doom UK to a winless (unless some guys get healthy before Vanderbilt) league season. Kentucky's defensive style won't make things easy and it would only take a break or two to motivate the Wildcats to an all-out effort. Still, State has finally gotten a taste of SEC success and the Dogs want more. And Halloween Weekend is as good a time as any to score some sweets, right?