Offense: Controversy, or opportunity? How Kentucky handles their November quarterback choices will settle that issue, and the optimistic outlook is that both Mike Hartline and Randall Cobb offer strong points to utilize. Soph Hartline won the job by default to open the season and has had some solid efforts, completing 139 throws for 1298 yards and eight scores. But he's also had seven passes picked and has not put much pressure on defenses with his footwork. So true frosh Cobb, who had taken over one of the open receiver jobs, has gone from catcher to starting thrower this week. He's done that as well as Hartline with an identical 54% completion rate, and his 18 receptions have a higher gain-per with 214 yards and a score. Cobb also is a runner in his own right with two touchdowns and a 4.7-average rush. Still it isn't easy letting Cobb leave the wideout corps emptied by graduation and now the year-ending injury to Dicky Lyons, after 33 catches and 264 yards. In fact the second-leading receiver was running back Derrick Locke (23, 195), who is also out for the season. And Cobb was #3 in grabs from Hartline. So younger and less-experienced receivers have to pick up a lot of November slack, such as freshman Eugene McCaskill (8 catches, 79 yards) and junior E.J. Adams. TE T.C. Drake has developed into a big-play threat, netting almost 18 yards when he catches a ball. Losing Locke takes speed from the backfield, but senior Tony Dixon can run through people as needed. He has four of the team's nine rushing touchdowns and 160 yards, while Moncell Allen (198 yards, 6.0 per carry) and Alfonso Smith (190, 4.3) each have run into an end zone. They all are used in short-pass sets, too, as is blocking back John Conner. An area Brooks has rightly focused on is keeping the line stocked. So despite losing two starters from a front that helped set a school scoring record and posted excellent running stats, there hasn't been any drop-off here. Impressively, Kentucky has given up a SEC-low seven sacks through eight games, so a unit with two seniors and two juniors is working well with whoever takes the snap. Still there are two warning signs for this offensive team: the Wildcats are last in the league in third-down conversions, and 11th in red-zone efficiency. Down this November stretch they can't afford to let those sorts of chances get away.
Defense: With most of the two-deep back from the Music City Bowl, including eight starters, this was supposed to be a first-rate Kentucky defense. And even though one of the losses, middle LB Woodyard, was a big one, the unit has more than held its own…right up to the Florida debacle, which can't entirely be laid to their charge. Otherwise nobody has scored more than three touchdowns against UK and three foes never even got to the end zone. Two of Woodyard's cohorts have stepped up to the opportunity. Former middle-man Braxton Kelly has taken over at strong-side and is leading the team in tackles by a sizable margin. His 64 stops include three sacks. Promoted to MLB, Micah Johnson doesn't just hold his ground, either, with six tackles for losses himself. That's just ahead of SLB Johnny Williams, who has a knack of getting after quarterbacks as well with 3.5 sacks. ‘Backing this line is a tackler's delight, too, because the four-man front takes care of most interference. Tackles Corey Peters and Myron Pryor bring a combined 600 pounds, but these do more than just clog the action; they have 6.5 sacks between them, they force fumbles, and even return them (as Pryor did for 72 yards against Louisville. Pryor was listed as questionable going into the week with a bum ankle. End Jeremy Jarmon can cover ground, too, matching two sacks with three pass break-ups. Given how productive the front seven are one might think there isn't much for the secondary to do in support. Still FS Marcus McClinton finds a way to get involved, as his 31 tackles show. More impressive are his four interceptions and a recovered fumble. CB Trevard Lindley is having a superb season himself with four picks, and a team-best nine deflections. And SS Matt Lentz ought to have a good idea what the opposing quarterback is thinking, having been at that position himself before moving to defense. It's not a unit to beat itself, and Kentucky has done very well at getting to fumbled footballs. So if the offense can put up points, this defense is capable of making margins hold up.
Specialists: The Wildcats can certainly hope they got all the gaffes out of their system in Gainesville, with a couple of blocked punts and missed field goal. Because given time, P Tim Masthay is among the best anywhere with his 46.0 average. Eight of his punts have been downed in the red zone, and coverage has forced seven fair-catches. Third-year PK Lones Seiber is not having the expected year, though, having made just half his dozen attempts with a long of 40 yards and two blocks. Ryan Tydlacka took over the job for a while and was 3-of-6, though he did boom a 51-yarder. Those offensive injuries cited have also taken the top return men out, so State might have to wait to see who lines up to field kickoffs and punts.
The Series: Kentucky holds a 20-15 lead in this inter-Division series. In fact until the league went to Divisions, meetings of the Dogs and Kats were pretty rare, considering both got into the SEC at the start. From 1914 to 1985 there were only 17 games, and just four of those in Starkville. It became an annual series in 1990 and since these have been made permanent opponents. State is 9-5 in games played on campus, though Kentucky won on their last visit (2006) as well as in 2002. Sylvester Croom is 2-2 against Kentucky, while Rich Brooks is 3-2 against State.
The Last Time (October 27, 2007): Mississippi State chose the right point of the season to play the best-balanced game of the year, and to visit a #14-ranked Kentucky club that had played nine-straight weeks and was coming off a deflating home loss to Florida. The Bulldogs took full advantage, striking first and setting a tone on both sides of the ball. QB Wesley Carroll found TE Jason Husband for a 11-yard touchdown six minutes into the afternoon to make the Wildcats play catch-up. They did in the first quarter as Andre Woodson toss a 18-yard touchdown at 5:17. But this time the Bulldogs responded immediately with a successful and extended drive, capped at 13:26 of the second period with HB Anthony Dixon snaring a short flip from Carroll for a 14-7 score that stood at halftime. Mississippi State really asserted itself in the third period aided by UK miscues. A fumble set up Adam Carlson's 31-yard field goal at 12:27, then after the Wildcats failed to get a punt off at their 26-yard line State needed just four plays to make it 24-7, with Dixon piling into the end zone from a yard out. Kentucky cut that to a ten-point lead with Woodson's second TD toss, a 37-yarder, but midway of the final quarter HB Christian Ducre sealed the 31-14 win with a 34-yard burst through left guard. Ducre posted 119 yards rushing on 19 carries and caught five balls for 30 more yards on his busiest day of his career, while Dixon ground out 75 yards on 25 totes. Carroll was 17-of-28 passing for 152 yards, and if Woodson's 230-yard output was better he also had three passes picked.
Bulldog Player Notes: Mississippi State had a two-game stretch of no interceptions thrown ended when three Bulldog passes were picked in the fourth quarter by Tennessee. Then against Middle Tennessee not only avoided interceptions, but had no turnovers of any sort. *Mississippi State is the only SEC team yet to score a non-offensive touchdown this year. The Dogs have not been able to convert a kick, block, interception, or fumble directly into points so far. Last year State scored six touchdowns on defensive plays and one more on a punt return.
*His stats were routine, but the execution was excellent for MLB Dominic Douglas in the win over MTSU. He not only had eight total tackles but broke up one pass directly and hurried the passer into two more incompletions. Douglas extended his team-lead in tackles to 58, well-ahead of SLB K.J. Wright's 40 in second place.
*For his part soph Wright is ahead of his elder cohort in tackles for losses, 6.5 to 4.0. And Wright has two sacks, while Douglas hasn't brought down the passer yet. Wright leads the defense in tackles behind the line of scrimmage and yardage-lost (38).
*But sacks are hard to come by for any Dog this year, with only a dozen baggings through eight games. De Cortez McCraney and Wright are tied at 2.0 each.
*Nor is State picking off many passes, with just five intercepts all season. Senior S Keith Fitzhugh has two of them, both in the opening game. Fitzhugh has moved up to third in tackles at 32.
*S Derek Pegues has only one interception for the season, at LSU. It's a slow pace because Pegues is tied for 3rd in Bulldog career picks with 11. His next interception will tie for 2nd with Izell McGill (12, 1994-97). The record is 16 for Walt Harris (1992-95).
*Pegues' average return off an interception of 21.9 yards is the best of any Bulldog ever. And he holds the career record for interception touchdowns with three such scores.
*Pegues stays busy enough with kick-return duties. He now has fielded 70 in four seasons to rank third on the career chart. His 757 yards are fourth-most by a Bulldog.
*But he does hold first places on the MSU charts for kickoffs returned (104) and is the first Bulldog ever to run back 100. His yardage of 2,321 is not just a MSU record, either; Pegues now is the all-time SEC leader in kickoff return yards with four games left in his college career.
*Pegues has total return (kickoff and punt) yardage of 3,078 which is 4th-most in SEC annals…but still second best at State to Tony James' 3,194 (1989-92) who is #3 SEC.
*HB Anthony Dixon took some big steps up the career lists with his three-touchdown evening against MTSU. The junior now stands alone atop the rushing-touchdown chart with 29, having run by Michael Davis' record of 27 that had stood since 1994. The difference is Dixon has done this in three years where Davis took four seasons.
*Counting two TD catches, Dixon has accounted for 31 scores, the most of any Bulldog ever. The official record is for ‘touchdowns accounted for' which includes the passer, and Don Smith (1983-86) holds that mark of 52.
*Dixon is now fourth in MSU career scoring with 186 points, having just passed the 185 of Jackie Parker (1952-53). And the three Dogs ahead of him got all their points by kicking.
*Dixon also now holds the record for career carries with 596, jumping past three predecessors in one night to take the top spot.
*A 126-yard night against MTSU pushed Dixon three slots up the rushing list. He now stands 6th with 2,333 yards, and is 121 yards behind James Johnson (1997-98) for the fifth place. Dixon has eight career 100-yard games.
*QB Tyson Lee threw 108 passes as a college quarterback before suffering his first interception. Then his first pass of the fourth quarter at Tennessee was picked, followed by two more interceptions in the period. Lee was able to bounce back and throw 17-of-25 against MTSU without a pick, though his ratio is still in negative territory for the year with three intercepts (in one game) against two touchdown passes.
*Seven of those completions were shared among halfbacks, fullbacks, and tight ends.
*Lee had his top passing total to-date with 197 yards last Saturday. In his four starts Lee is good on 58-of-96, or 60.4%, with 567 yards. As a backup in three games, he was 30-of-45 (66.7%) for 291 yards.
*The State staff doesn't like for Lee to run often, but last week he called his own number for 46 yards. That included his first college touchdown carry, on a five-yard keeper. Lee has now netted 70 yards on 39 carries, a positive rate rare for his position this Dog-decade.
*And Lee avoided taking a sack. He has been bagged 16 times this season.
*Lee threw to ten different teammates last week. Four of the receptions were by FB/HB Arnil Stallworth, for a game-high 60 yards. Stallworth has caught nine passes in the last five games, for 120 yards, since stepping in as a two-way back for the LSU game.
*Junior WR Brandon McRae is the favored target of any Bulldog passer. With two more catches against Middle Tennessee, he now has 37 receptions for the season. That is more than the 2007 team leaders had (33) in all 13 games last season. He has 392 receiving yards this year, compared to two catches for 50 yards as a sophomore.
*Senior WR Aubrey Bell is also having a career year. After getting 14 balls for 186 yards in 2007, he now has 25 receptions and 213 yards. He has caught two or more passes in seven of eight games.
*Last season there were 188 completed Bulldog passes; two-thirds of the way through 2008 there are 140 completions. But the average gain-per-grab this year is just 9.9 yards compared to a net of 12.9 last season.
*With touchdown catches by Brandon Henderson and Austin Wilbanks, State already has as many tight end scores this year as all last season.
*Senior P Blake McAdams is the most prolific punter in MSU history. His 261 kicks and 10,252 yards are both Bulldog records, and 4th and 5th in the SEC charts. He climbed four slots in yardage just this past weekend. The four punters ahead of him all got plenty of chances, too, being from either Vanderbilt or Ole Miss.
*PK Adam Carlson was good on his only field goal try Saturday, and has made four of his last five attempts. The senior is now 24-of-39 for his career and is now tied for 6th in makes, with Chris Gardner (1989-92) and Brent Smith (2002-03). To crack the MSU top-five for field goals will require 30.
*Carlson is alone in second for career PATs with 83 (on 84 attempts). The record of 89 belongs to Brian Hazelwood (1995-99). Carlson is also up to 7th in career points with 155.
*WR Arceto Clark was put in action last week, bringing the total true freshmen to play this season to eight. Two of them, DE Sean Ferguson and TE Nelson Hurst, have game-starts to their credit. Their activated classmates are S Charles Mitchell, WR Delmon Robinson, LB Bo Walters, DT Joshua Jackson, and TE Kendrick Cook.
*First-year frosh who have yet to play are: WR Terrance Davis, DB Louis Watson, CB Corey Broomfield, RB T.J. Patterson, DE Nick Bell, LB Mike Hunt, DE Trevor Stigers, DT Devin Jones, OG Tobias Smith, OT Templeton Hardy, WR O'Neal Wilder, WR Charles Bailey, and DE Shane McCardell.
*P McAdams leads this team in career starts (44). OG Anthony Strauder leads the non-specialists in starts with 38.
*S Keith Fitzhugh, P Blake McAdams, LB Anthony Littlejohn, and S De'Mon Glanton all share the games-played lead with 44 apiece.