Mississippi State looks to continue win streak vs. Kentucky
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops leaves the field after defeating Vanderbilt in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen’s unbeaten mark against Kentucky could be in jeopardy.
The Bulldogs (2-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) are 7-0 against the Wildcats under Mullen but have struggled this year after the departure of quarterback Dak Prescott to the NFL. Mississippi State has lost three of its past four, making Saturday night’s game at Kentucky (3-3, 2-2 SEC) a must-win if the Bulldogs hope to extend their run of consecutive bowl appearances to seven.
Despite the first-half disappointment, Mullen remains confident the Bulldogs can finish strong and keep their string intact.
‘When you face a little bit of adversity, it tests your character, but it can really pull a team closer together,’ Mullen said. ‘Stuff like that can actually help pull the team closer together at times.’
Kentucky understands. After struggling early, the Wildcats still have a chance to become bowl eligible.
Since starting 0-2, Kentucky has won three of its last four with two SEC victories. A defense that ranked last in the league a month ago now stands 11th and is a key reason for the surge.
The Wildcats are coming off a bye that gave them an opportunity to recharge for the season’s final six weeks. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said his team used the week off to address areas of concern as it aims to finish the stretch run better than the past two years.
‘I felt like we used it wisely to heal up and look at all areas we need to improve on and continue to build on all the things we were doing well,’ he said.
The Wildcats now just need to break through against the Bulldogs.
Kentucky is 0-3 against MSU under Stoops and lost 42-16 to the Bulldogs last season in Starkville. Stoops is relieved Prescott has moved on to the pros but said that doesn’t make ending the Wildcats’ drought against the Bulldogs any easier.
‘They are still difficult to defend,’ Stoops said. ‘They have always been multiple and coach (Dan) Mullen has always been difficult to defend.’
Some other things to watch as Mississippi State visits Kentucky:
FOCUSED ON NOW: Kentucky is tied with Tennessee (5-2, 2-2) in the SEC East with four league games remaining and can finish in the division’s upper half. But Stoops said his team can’t look ahead, with good reason: the Wildcats are a combined 1-11 in the second half the past two years and have fallen just short of the six-win threshold for bowl eligibility both times. ‘It is so hard to look at that big picture,’ he said. ‘Six weeks is so far from here in the football world. We are worried about today.’
FITZGERALD’S THE KEY: Mississippi State sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is the team’s leading passer and rusher this season. He ranks fifth in the nation in average rushing yards for a QB with 78 per game. He’s one of just three signal callers in the country who has had 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in a game this season.
JOHNSON REBOOT: Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson is 2-1 as a starter and has led the Wildcats to three victories since relieving an injured Drew Barker against New Mexico State on Sept. 17. But he threw for just 49 yards against Vanderbilt two weeks ago and used the bye week to regain his rhythm.
FEASTING ON THE EAST: The Bulldogs have recently given SEC East teams fits with five straight wins against the division, all by double digits. Mullen is 14-4 against the SEC East.
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Starkville, Mississippi, contributed to this report.
AP College Football: collegefootball.ap.org.