Kentucky’s challenge: stopping Mississippi’s passing game

November 3, 2017

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson dives into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown over Tennessee defensive back Nigel Warrior (18) and defensive back Shawn Shamburger (15) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won the game 29-26. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — As generous as Kentucky’s pass defense has been this season, an opportunity for redemption awaits against Mississippi’s successful air attack.

Kentucky (6-2, 3-2) is yielding a Southeastern Conference-worst 266.6 yards passing per contest and facing its biggest challenge on Saturday against Mississippi (3-5, 1-4). The Rebels have the SEC’s top-rated passing attack at 338.1 yards per game, leaving the Wildcats no room for error.

“We can’t afford to give that many opportunities against such an explosive offense like we’re going to face,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said.

Kentucky’s pass rush recorded a season-high seven sacks in last week’s 29-26 win against Tennessee , but the Wildcats still yielded 242 yards passing. Kentucky also remains vulnerable to big plays, allowing a 48-yard Hail Mary pass that was just a few yards short of the goal line as time expired.

The Wildcats have had several close calls like that this season, a situation it aims to avoid this week by stiffening up throughout the defense.

“At the end of the day it’s going to be the same deal,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Matt House said. “Guys leveraging the football, being violent in the run game and when the opportunity comes, being the guy that wants to make the play.”

Ole Miss meanwhile looks to bounce back from a 38-37 loss to Arkansas in which its offense didn’t miss a beat even with a new quarterback.

Junior quarterback Jordan Ta’amu made his first start in place of injured Shea Patterson and completed 20 of 30 attempts for 368 yards, the most for a Rebels QB in his first start. Ta’amu also rushed for two touchdowns, but threw an interception and fumbled an exchange that the Razorbacks returned for a TD.

Rebels coach Matt Luke nonetheless praised Ta’amu’s performance and looks forward to seeing how his dual-threat QB builds on it.

“I’m really happy to see him step into that role,” Luke said. “I think he adds a dimension with the ability to pull the ball and run, not to set up a pass down the field, but to hurt you with his legs.

“There were some negatives at the end of the game, but we choose to build on the positives.”


Some other things to watch as Kentucky hosts Ole Miss:

MULTIPLE CHOICES: Sophomore A.J. Brown’s 765 yards and six TDs on 41 catches lead an Ole Miss receiver corps that also features DaMarkus Lodge (511, 6 TDs), D.K. Metcalf (479, 4 TDs) and Van Jefferson (345). Each one is at least 6 feet 1, posing a tall challenge for Kentucky’s secondary as well.

STEPHEN’S STEEL: Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson is expected to play despite injuring his left (non-throwing) shoulder against Tennessee. The mobile senior was hurt in the third quarter but returned to score the game-winning TD, landing on that same shoulder after he dove into the end zone. Teammates have applauded his toughness and Stoops added, “It does say a lot about him and it does help us.”

NO MISTAKES: Both schools seek better ball protection after turnover-prone performances. The Wildcats won despite losing four fumbles, dropping their overall margin to plus-2. Ole Miss committed three turnovers and is minus-6, ranking next to last in the SEC.

BACK IN FORM: Kentucky junior linebacker Jordan Jones has returned from a four-game absence with a shoulder injury to make his presence felt all over the field again. Last year’s top tackler had a season-high 13 stops against Tennessee included two for loss and a sack, all on one three-and-out possession. He was named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week and has 20 tackles the past two games.

SERIES NOTES: Ole Miss enters the first series meeting between the schools since 2011 leading Kentucky 27-14-1. The Wildcats lead 11-9-1 in Lexington, and home teams have won the last four games.


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