MSU running back Kylin Hill will face his stiffest test of the season as he takes on a deep and experienced Kentucky linebacking corps. Photo by: Jennifer Mosbrucker/Dispatch file photo
September 19, 2019 11:36:02 PM
STARKVILLE -- There's been a palpable anxiousness within the Mississippi State football facility this week.
Just days after falling short against Kansas State, MSU (2-1) enters Saturday's game in desperate need of a win.
For Kentucky (2-1), the Wildcats are fresh off a near-upset of No. 9 Florida seeking their first conference win of the season.
With the Bulldogs hoping to begin their SEC slate with a victory, here are three matchups to watch Saturday afternoon:
MSU secondary vs. Kentucky receiver Lynn Bowden Jr.
MSU coach Joe Moorhead is plenty familiar with Kentucky receiver Lynn Bowden Jr.
Moorhead recruited Bowden during his time at Penn State and remains a distant fan of the former Ohio Mr. Football runner-up.
"Lynn's an awesome kid and I had a chance to talk to him a little bit on the field last year, but hopefully we can do what we need to do to slow them down," Moorhead said. "I don't know if we can necessarily stop him, but he is one of the top playmakers in the SEC."
On the field, Bowden's playmaking ability can't be denied. In three games this season he's compiled 20 receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown -- leading the Wildcats in receiving yards and receptions.
"He is just a multifacet guy: get him the ball in the pass game, get him the ball on speed sweeps and plays a little bit of wildcat quarterback," Moorhead said.
Opposite Bowden, the MSU secondary will boast a tall task in containing the 6-foot-1 wideout -- especially if starting cornerback Cam Dantzler can't go. Dantzler -- a preseason second team All-American -- was hurt in warm ups ahead of the Kansas State game and remains day-to-day. It remains to be seen whether he'll play Saturday.
Should he not play, Maurice Smitherman and Tyler Williams have performed admirably in his place. Smitherman and Williams rank fourth and fifth, respectively in tackles amongst MSU defensive backs behind Dantzler and safeties Jaquarius Landrews and C.J. Morgan.
Freshmen corners Jarrian Jones and Martin Emerson Jr. have also earned high praise of late in their larger than expected roles this season.
Williams figures to earn most of the snaps on Bowden given his bigger frame at 6-foot-2, 175 pounds -- though with a stable of capable defensive backs expect MSU to throw a lot of looks Bowden's way.
Kentucky linebackers vs. Kylin Hill
Kylin Hill has been virtually unstoppable through three games this season. Having totaled 431 yards and two touchdowns -- Hill is the nation's third leading rusher and second best among Power Five running backs.
Hill also ranks fifth in the country in all-purpose yards as he's added another five receptions for 49 yards.
Further, after gashing the Louisiana and Southern Mississippi defensive fronts, the Columbus native bumped and grinded his way to 111 yards on 24 carries Saturday against Kansas State -- earning just two runs of 10 yards or more.
This week Hill will face his stiffest test of the season as he takes on a deep and experienced Kentucky linebacking corps.
Middle linebacker Kash Daniel is the hard-hitting heartbeat of the group as he sits second on the team with 19 tackles this season.
Alongside Daniel in coach Bob Stoops' 3-4 scheme are weakside linebacker DeAndre Square and defensive end/outside linebacker Josh Paschal. Square will play a more traditional linebacking role while Paschal roams between the defensive line and linebacker slot much the way former Kentucky defender and first round NFL draft pick Josh Allen did during his time in Lexington.
Combined with a steep defensive line up front, the Wildcats are allowing just 4.18 yards per carry and just 122.67 rushing yards per game.
"They do a real good job clogging up the middle with those space-eaters up front and then allowing the linebackers free to run over the top," Moorhead said.
With the MSU quarterback situation relatively clouded given Tommy Stevens' injury status, Hill should receive a heavy dosage of touches. But like last week, expect him to grind for each and every yard he gets.
The Kansas State game was an unmitigated disaster for the MSU special teams unit.
A muffed punt, a blocked punt and a kickoff return for a touchdown marred what had been a consistently successful unit through two weeks of competition.
Kentucky enters the week in similarly poor standing -- most notably in the kicking game. Chance Poore missed what would've been a game winning 35-yard kick in the final seconds against Florida.
Poore, the No. 1 kicker/punter in the 2018 class per Prokicker.com, is now 2 of 4 on field goals this season as he also missed a 40-yarder against Eastern Michigan in Week 2.
MSU has been slightly less erratic in the kicking game as Jace Christmann is 2 for 3 on his field goal attempts, but after a down week by the punt and coverage teams the MSU specialists will enter Week 4 under a slight microscope.
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.