No roster regulars are expected to miss the game. Mississippi State is to depart around 1:00 Friday for the trip to Lexington and Saturday's 12:30et game.
HE'S BACK: Putting S Derek Pegues back in kickoff return paid off, briefly. After the junior got 51 yards on a second return the Mountaineers kicked the other way and Pegues didn't touch the ball again. If opponents are willing to give up some field position that way, Pegues thinks he's doing his job. But this week he's more focused on the reverse situation, of not giving up big returns to a Kentucky team that specializes in this area.
"It's a big emphasis," Pegues said of a Kentucky team that ranks 4th in the SEC in kickoff returns and 7th in punt returns. Certainly Mississippi State knows first-hand what the Wildcats can do after catching a kick; they can put up points faster than a defender can say ‘Derek Abney'.
"But it's been an emphasis since last year because we struggled against everybody," said Pegues. The situation is somewhat better here in 2007. While State still is being out-netted on both kickoffs, 21.7 to 18.1 yards, and punts at 10.7 to 6.0, the Dog cover teams haven't given up any points on a return. And don't intend to, Pegues says, especially not this week.
"I believe special teams have grown a lot, we're gotten a lot better in covering kicks. I believe the guys will be up to the challenge."
AND HE'S BACK, TOO: This is the last time the Bulldogs have to face Andre Woodson, and Pegues said the UK senior is looking "real good. He's probably the best quarterback we've faced and probably is going to be the best quarterback we face all year." By the same token State's secondary is facing as talented and experience a collection of wide receivers as they'll see this or most any year. Safety Pegues recalls having to chase guys like Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons around last year when he was a cornerback; now he must keep an eye on everyone.
"We've got to keep the big plays to a minimum," said Pegues. Note the free safety said keep it down, not shut them down as that's not likely to happen. Croom knows it too and calls Kentucky a "different" sort of test. "Our corners, our safeties, our cover security is going to be challenged as much as it has all season. And Woodson doesn't need a lot of time, he can hold it to the last possible second and still get it out and make a strike."
With that in mind State is working on a variety of coverages and, Pegues said, not tipping Woodson off any more than necessary. "Because if we do he'll burn you." It's a feeling State's secondary knows too well already as in the last four games they've struggled to maintain coverage even in 3rd-and-long settings. "That's something we're real concerned about, especially playing Kentucky," Pegues said. "They've got a lot of weapons and it's going to be difficult getting off the field in third down situations. But we've got to bow our necks and play and try to get off the field."
BIG K-LOVE: A dozen tackles, five of them primary hits. 1.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Two quarterback hurries, no sacks. Looks like a pretty modest stat-line for a starting defensive lineman, eh?
Not so. This is just about what Kyle Love would be expected to do from his tackle position. The sophomore is filling the need, not to mention the hole, quite well according to Coach Sylvester Croom. ""He's helping clog the running game up pretty well. He gives us a big guy we can sort of anchor down. The rest of our defense are what I call runners, but you always need some bulk in there."
The 320-pounder (biggest among MSU true tackles this year) Love gives that. As well as the right kind of attitude for lining up either just left of or even right over the opposing center. "Playing nose tackle I don't mind being double-teamed, triple-teamed, I'm used to it," he said. Which Love gets more often than not. It's a rare foe that can single-block a big Dog who is a far better athlete than his bulk or physique suggests. And in his second college year Love has learned some of the more technical points of play, such as better use of hands to shed a center or guard, or both. That can have a cost as this week Love is wearing a brace on the right hand.
"Right now my thumb is hurting, I jammed it up a little last game. It's getting better, they just told me to wear this and we wont' be hitting as much. I think I'll be alright for the game."
State needs Love to be better than alright this game, and the rest of the line with him. Kentucky features the SEC's most prolific passing offense, while the Bulldog defense has gone three games now without a sack. ‘Hurries' are also way down this month, which is something the MSU line did well in September. "We've got to get more pressure," Love agreed.
"We've been trying to change it, sending blitzes in." Not many, though, as mostly State's defense has stuck with three- and four-man rushes and left everyone else in coverage. So, it's up to the linemen to put on the pressure. "And coach teaches us in drills to get off blocks better," Love said. "We're just trying to get to him. Really we've focused on run a lot, but I think we need to start focusing on pass for this game and try to get pressure on."
"Kentucky has a really, extremely good offense. Last year they were pretty good, a team you had to watch out for. This year they've really come out and taken over. The quarterback is great, they're talking about him winning the Heisman Trophy. So we've got to put pressure on him, try to get in his face a little bit, try to get off a couple of blocks and get to him, hit him a few times. Pressure is the key."
STREAKING: He's only eight games and four starts into his college career, but QB Wesley Carroll has already earned a line in the MSU record book. He has thrown 109 passes without an interception, breaking the single-season record of 96 that belonged to Derrick Taite (1996 season). In fact Carroll hasn't been picked-off yet as a collegian, which would almost surely seem to be a school record except that no such stat exists.
Asked if he knew he had a record streak going, "I know I don't have one!" Carroll grinned. More seriously, "As long as we can go without that, the better." If he throws 13 more un-picked passes he'll tie Wayne Madkin's overall record of 122, set in the 2000-01 seasons. "I'm aware I haven't thrown one yet and I hope to keep it up. I work on that, even in practice."
Of course Carroll knows that sooner or later something is going to caught by the wrong team, and he knows he's been lucky on several throws already this year. And this week he's not obsessing on interceptions anyway; the quarterback is more concerned about the way State gave the ball away last Saturday on un-forced fumbles in a terrible first quarter.
"We talked yesterday about how turnovers are just morale-killers, like against West Virginia and against LSU," Carroll said. "It's tough to come back from turnovers." Particularly those that the defense had no hand, or shoulder or helmet, in. HB Anthony Dixon admitted to simply losing the handle while changing hands. And Carroll and center Royce Blackledge didn't make an exchange cleanly with the loose ball ending up in WVU hands. Why? "It's tough to say, maybe it was a combination of the environment, the fast-pace, the play was called quick, new balls. Who knows? But it will be fixed, that was the first time it's happened and it won't happen again."
Make that it can't happen if the Bulldogs are to stay with Kentucky's SEC-best scoring offense. Carroll very much buys into the principle that the best defense is a productive attack. "If we have the ball they can't do anything about it. That's why we've got to keep our defense on the sideline and have those long drives that we're capable of having, as long as we execute."
CHANGE OF PLANS: Speaking of offensive execution, Carroll was asked to clarify a minor controversy among the fan base. Does the Dog defense audible on the field or not? It's a silly question to coaches and players, yet vocal folk in the stands—or more often watching from home and posting on message boards--seem convinced that Mississippi State players stick with whatever call comes from the sideline regardless of what they see at the line of scrimmage.
Yes, Carroll said, he has the freedom and the responsibility to read and react before the ball is hiked. "It all depends on the play. Not every play has an audible but most of them are built-in. we've had a lot of good checks, like the Auburn game we had a lot of good audibles built-in and that's why we were able to run the ball effectively on them. Same thing against Tennessee, we were able to make a lot of stuff in the short passing game."
Not many freshmen have such freedom to make those on-field decisions but Carroll is a special case after his excellent prep preparations. Besides, "I've always liked audibles because we used them in high school a lot," he said. So the kid has no hesitation about changing plays while under-center. In fact, that's where he usually does it, which is why perhaps fans have developed such a misconception.
"They're pretty subtle," Carroll said of the audibles. "There could be some as simple as yelling out one call and everybody knows what to do. It's not a long process like when you see Peyton Manning running up and down and telling every single player what they have to do! What we do, we try to keep it simple but make sure the right call is made."