So far, so good: MSU takes stout defense into Kentucky

Montez Sweat (9) helps on a tackle for Mississippi State.

Staff Writer

So far, so good.

That’s an understated way to sum up Mississippi State’s defensive performance through the first three games this season.

As the No. 14 Bulldogs begin Southeastern Conference play Saturday at Kentucky in a 6 p.m. game, they have the nation’s sixth-best scoring defense (8.7 points allowed per game), eighth-best total defense (259 yards per game) and lead the country in both sacks per game (3.33) and tackles for loss (33).

The question has now become this. Can MSU keep up its stingy ways against an impressive, unbeaten SEC foe that boasts one of the best running attacks in all of college football?

“They’re playing well,” Mississippi State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said of the Kentucky offense. “They’ve played similar to us, beating Central Michigan and Murray State and then they went down to Florida and that was a big win for their program to beat Florida at Florida. That certainly earns my respect.”

The Wildcats don’t just want respect this weekend though. They want an upset win over the Bulldogs. Their offensive pieces will be key to that endeavor.

For Mississippi State to have its best chance of thwarting Kentucky’s efforts, it likely starts with slowing down Kentucky junior running back Benny Snell, Jr.. Snell ranks 11th nationally in rushing yards per game this season with 125. Through three games, Snell has piled up 375 yards on 63 carries with three touchdowns.

MSU head coach Joe Moorhead says limiting Snell is key today, but that task is made even more difficult by a tough Kentucky offensive front.

“(Snell) is a guy that I think you’re not necessarily going to stop him, but you’re just looking for ways to contain him because he is talented,” Moorhead said. “I think their offensive line averages over 315 pounds across the board. It’s another team, like us, that I think prides themselves on their physicality, their effort and how hard they play. I think that’s something you see across the board with Kentucky. Like with any great back, with (Snell), you have to make sure you have great gap integrity, make sure you do a great job with your gang tackling and getting a bunch of hats to the ball. With this guy and how physical he is, you can’t be on the edge of him. If you’re going to arm tackle him, he’s going to run through it.”

It’s not as if Snell is a one-man show either. Much of the credit to Kentucky’s strong start to the year can also be given to quarterback Terry Wilson. Wilson, a sophomore, is the first quarterback to begin his Kentucky career 3-0 in a decade. His arm and his legs have helped the cause.

Wilson has passed for 392 yards and two touchdowns. He’s rushed for 223 yards and two scores.

In some ways, he’s a more inexperienced, unproven version of Mississippi State dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Knowing how dangerous that can be, Moorhead says the Bulldogs will have their eyes on Wilson.

“He’s very dynamic, very athletic and can make plays by design or improvisation,” Moorhead said of Wilson. “He extends plays with his feet and does a great job there. He’s really done a great job as a passer this year too. They’re doing an awesome job with him.”

Snell and Wilson will try to finally put somewhat of a dent in the armor that has been the State defense this season. The Bulldogs have absolutely smothered their first three opponents, not allowing more than 10 points in any game. MSU has been especially dominant in the first half, not allowing a touchdown over the first two quarters of any contest this year.

If the Bulldog defense keeps that up, it’s likely MSU can exit Kentucky a perfect 4-0. However, with Snell, Wilson and the rest threatening, Moorhead and the Bulldogs are taking absolutely nothing for granted.

“Keys to victory, as always, will be how well we prepare, how hard we play and how well we execute,” Moorhead said. “It’s one play at a time with a championship standard. I’m excited to get into SEC play.
“It’s going to be a great challenge and we will be ready for it.”