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Southern Mississippi Will be a Major Week 1 Test for UK’s D

Go ahead take a big whiff. Exhale. You can smell it; football is in the air. After starving for action for months on end, our football famine will finally be over in about a month’s time.

The Kentucky Wildcats will try to feast on the Golden Eagles of Southern Mississippi. Many a BBNer expects So. Miss to be a pushover, but don’t let the directional moniker or Non-Power 5 affiliation fool you. So. Miss is very capable of leaving Lexington victorious. They are favorites to win the C-USA and have key pieces in place to make things interesting. UK should win comfortably, but Nick Mullins and Co. will be an early test in a pivotal season for Mark Stoops.

Over the course of the offseason, Kentucky’s defense lost key contributors. Starting pass rusher Jason Hatcher was dismissed from the program in the Spring, defensive tackle Reggie Meant suddenly walked away from the team just a week ago, and this weekend starting free safety Darius West was ruled to likely miss the entire season with a knee injury.

With West out, Blake McClain will mostly likely get the nod at FS , but group’s talent shouldn’t suffer. The Wildcat’s secondary has been heralded as vastly improved. Some people even consider them to be one of the best in the SEC East. UK’s back four have the size, speed, and skill to keep the Cats in a lot of ball games this fall. Let’s hope they are ready Week 1.

To catch you all up to speed if you didn’t know, Mullins quarterbacks a prolific pass-happy attack. Last year, he was 6th in the NCAA in yardage and 4th in TD passes. He tore up his C-USA opponents finishing first in FBS in completions over 20 yards.

That could be why Pro Football Focus considers Mullins to be the No. 1 QB prospect from a Non-Power 5 Program. And if that wasn’t enough, they consider him to be the nations most efficient passer among returning starters and the nation’s 55th best player.

So. Miss ran a versatile west coast scheme that played up to Mullins strengths, and I expect former UK OC and current Golden Eagle play caller Shannon Dawson to continue that M.O. Mullins’ TD-to-INT-ratio was over 3:1 and he was able to pass over 300 yards nine times in 14 games.

The offense is exclusively out of the pistol or the gun. The So. Miss ground game is based on a zone blocking scheme, which looks for creating creases in the opposing front seven and to force defensive linemen to play laterally. Their passing attack nickel and dimes downfield with heavy use of screens, isolation routes, and passes to the running backs. Despite the gaudy passing numbers, So. Miss is very balanced and control the line of scrimmage quite well.

UK’s defensive line has really struggled getting to the QB and stuffing interior rushes in the Stoops Era; A recipe that should allow the Golden Eagles to be advantageous against their SEC host. Besides Nick Mullins, So. Miss brings back a 1,000+ yard RB Ito Smith and one of the C-USA’s top centers Tom Cameron.

Shannon Dawson will know how to exactly attack this defense after going against it every day in practice last year. Due to the fact UK’s D-line has been the unit’s Achilles heel, I can imagine So. Miss to establish their ground game early and attempt to lull the UK secondary to sleep.

Kentucky time and again allowed 5+ yards on first down runs in their first season running the 3-4 Multiple defense. Corey Johnson was good at anchoring the front. But once he went down, UK’s defense was always playing catchup and struggled getting opponents off the field.

As aforementioned, So. Miss runs a zone blocking rushing scheme. Zone schemes often employ smaller, more athletic and agile offensive lineman since the concepts call for more side-to-side movement when creating holes. It can be highly effective against large, lumbering DTs.

Kentucky just so happens to have a large, lumbering DT in Matt Elam. Though Elam has slimmed down a bit this offseason, he is still a massive football player and has questions about his launch and ability to shed blocks. If Cameron and his guards can concisely flank and turn Elam, the Golden Eagles have blueprint to pull off the upset without testing UK’s long secondary or forcing Mullins to do too much.

Ripping off four, five, six yard runs on first downs time after time will eventually cause UK to sell out on the run. That will be when Mullins will strike; when a quick six gets put up on the scoreboard after a deep play action pass. Doing this will also help take out the Commonwealth Stadium crowd, an element vital for a young team seeking momentum for a long year ahead.

Balance and unpredictability is the most difficult thing for a defense to prepare for. If the Cats can eliminate an aspect of the Golden Eagles’ assault and force them to become a tad more predictable, things should unfold favorably for BBN.

Mullins is a good passer but still has certain flaws that can allow Kentucky to cause him problems. He is only 6’1 and has displayed issues seeing downfield past tall lineman; it’s one of the reasons So. Miss throws ample screens, drags, and allows Mullins to move the pocket.

Mullins’ worst performance last season came against Western Kentucky in the C-USA Championship. From start to finish, he never truly was comfortable. He threw an INT on his second pass attempt and sailed a good number of passes early. Though its only a one game sample, Mullins looked afraid to “let it rip” downfield unless his man was wide open. Often times the pocket collapsed on him or he had trouble escaping interior pressure when his primary man failed to create enough separation for his liking. He has good chemistry with this WRs but lacks top-level arm strength. Balls die in the air and don’t have the zip you’d expect from an elite passer.

The best way to beat a quarterback is to put him on his back. Over and Over and Over.

The matchup between Tom Cameron and Matt Elam potentially could decide the ball game. First if Elam can hold his own in the middle and force So. Miss to abandon the interior run game, Mullins will be forced to take more chances on UK’s DBs downfield. Then if Elam can move the pocket back into the Mullins’ lap while limiting his downfield vision, the So. Miss attack will be neutralized.

Elam doesn’t have to win every single battle or batt down every pass, but he needs to have his presence felt consistently. If he can be a disruption and cause Mullins to sail a pass or two, it might be the difference between a comfortable win or a nail-biter.

I find it highly unlikely Mullins and Co. come out guns-a-blazin’ and aggressive to start the game. I feel they will try to impose their will and beat down the spirit of this young UK front early and often before creating favorable situations for their Senior QB. I expect Dawson to call plenty of screens to aid in the offense’s plan to attack laterally with plenty of no-huddle. Read options and play actions will be a huge part of So. Miss’s plans if Kentucky cannot stop the run.

Dawson will force his former team to make plays in space and to win on first down. Due to Kentucky’s dwindling depth on the defensive side of the ball, Dawson will attempt to spread the Cats out and tire them out. Kentucky is bigger and more athletic than their C-USA foe, but cannot allow them to stick around in the ball game by controlling time of possession and winning on third down.

I expect this game to be close until the 4Q. Both teams will make plays on offense, but the defenses will decide it in the end. For UK, they must maintain gap integrity and use their size to their advantage. UK wins 42-28, but it won’t come easy thanks to Mullins and Co.

 

 

Clark Brooks
Clark Brooks
Former two-time football state champion at Lexington Catholic High School. Graduated with Journalism and Marketing B.A.s from the University of Kentucky. Featured in six different publications. Humungous football fan, avid basketball fan, and sports business and advertising professional. BBN

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