By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON — Mark Stoops hopes Kentucky learned a lesson in its Southeastern Conference opener last weekend.
The Wildcats (2-1) surrendered 19 straight points in the second half in a 29-21 setback to No. 9 Florida in the team’s league opener. Stoops said the Wildcats will need “to finish” when they take on Mississippi State in the first of two consecutive league games Saturday in Starkville.
“We talk about that all the time,” he said earlier this week. “We have (to finish). We’ve won a lot of close games, won a lot of games in the fourth quarter. We didn’t (last) week. (We) need to get some guys healthy, need to build some depth in the secondary, need to complement each other on both sides of the ball, get back to what we do.”
Like Kentucky, the Bulldogs came up short at home, dropping a 31-24 setback to Kansas State. Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead hopes his team has forgotten about the loss to the Wildcats last weekend.
“You want there to be a certain level of disappointment for the loss, but at the same time you can’t let the game beat you twice,” Moorhead said. “We allowed them to be upset about it, we allowed them to make the corrections and do the things we needed to do, but when that got done at practice and we moved on to Kentucky, I think there was a good energy and good bounce in their step and a good understanding that our singleness and purpose of taking it one week at a time.”
Unlike the past couple of years, the Bulldogs won’t have a veteran signal-caller calling the shots. Moorhead has been splitting time between Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens and Garrett Schrader. Stevens has been battling an “upper body” injury and Moorhead has played both quarterbacks in the first three games of the season.
Stoops doesn’t think the Bulldogs’ lack of a full-time signal-caller will make a difference in terms of his team’s preparation.
“There’s really not much difference in what they do and how they call plays, how they run the offense,” Stoops said. “There’s really not much difference at all. Both of them are very effective at running the (quarterback) run game that they like to do. Both of them are throwing the ball.”
The Bulldogs do have a veteran in the backfield in running back Kylin Hill, who has rushed for 341 yards on 64 carries this season. He is averaging an SEC-leading 143.7 yards per game and 15 of his carries have been for more than 10 yards this season.
“He’s a strong runner, really good, physical guy,” Stoops said of Hill. “Their team is physical. They’ve run the ball for over 200 yards in each game this year. But they’re also balanced, throwing for close to 200, as well. But it starts with a physical attack.”
That’s what Stoops will be looking for from his squad on both sides of the ball, especially on offense.
“We’ll have a different challenge this week going on the road,” Stoops said. “(It’s the) first time to take this team on the road and go down to Mississippi State for another great challenge.”
Another challenge will be Mississippi State’s crowd, which Stoops said will “be rocking their cowbells.”
“It will be a raucous crowd,” Stoops said. “(There are) guys that haven’t been exposed to that yet.”
Stoops said the Wildcats, who haven’t won in Starkville since 2008, will be prepared for the cowbells and other potential distractions.
“It will be good and loud to where the offense has to do everything on a silent count,” the Kentucky coach said. “They will be prepared for completely being blocked out from the sound.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Mississippi State, 4 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.