No one in Starkville has forgotten last season in Lexington, Kentucky.
The Kentucky Wildcats earned their first win over Dan Mullen thanks to a last minute drive that ended with a game-winning field goal from 51 yards by Austin MacGinnis. That game summed up a good portion of Mississippi State’s 2016 season that ended with six wins and Mullen’s seventh-straight bowl game.
There was a lot left on the table.
“They just made one more play than we did,” Mullen said. “A kicker kicks a career-long field goal as time expires, so it was a tough game back and forth. I’m sure there are things we could have done better, and I’m sure they look at it and say, ‘there are things we could have done better,’ too and maybe not make it come down to the final play of the game.”
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald remembers that game for the slow start. Fitzgerald threw a pick-six in the game and struggled passing the ball but the rushing attack picked up as time went on. If he could get the first half back, he feels things would have been differently.
“The beginning of the game was really bad for us. We kinda did everything we could to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Fitzgerald said. “Then second half we came out and started to get things rolling and ended up not being able to finish it. But I think the beginning of the game is what really hurt us, not exactly the end.
Tonight the two cross-division rivals meet in a series that has been neck and neck over the years. It’s tied at 22 games but Mullen has owned the rivalry since coming to Starkville at 7-1.
This Wildcat team is the most successful heading into the game as any under fifth year head coach Mark Stoops. They enter 5-1 with a 2-1 SEC mark and are a last minute touchdown away from being undefeated.
The physicality up front is a big part of their success.
“They are very multiple. They will be three-down or four-down (defensive linemen),” Mullen said. “They will pressure you, move different directions, blitz a lot of different guys, and show a lot of different coverage looks. We have a lot of length on the outside with the corner positions, so they pose some unique challenges with how multiple they are.”
Something has to give for MSU (4-2, 1-2 SEC) who enters the game 14th nationally in rushing at 262 yards a game while Kentucky is 10th in the country in rushing defense at 97 a game.
Running back Aeris Williams will have to be a catalyst in the game with Fitzgerald. The junior has three 100-yard games this year and is up to 523 yards and 5.8 yards per rush. Mullen said that he gets better as the game goes.
“He is a big and physical back. He gets into the flow of the game and understands how people are going to play. You need to get into the flow of the game and understand how the reads are going to be made,” Mullen said. “Fortunately, he is a guy that is a very conditioned athlete and is going to continue to get stronger. As the game goes on and he is more comfortable with the reads and understanding what is going on, he’s still going to be in great shape going into the fourth quarter.”
Kickoff on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium is set for 3 p.m. on the SEC Network.
Who: Kentucky at Mississippi State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 1580 AM, 96.9 FM