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No. 14 Mississippi State, Kentucky run into SEC matchup

September 21, 2018
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Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) celebrates his first touchdown of the day as teammates Austin Williams, left, and Greg Eiland, center, come in to congratulate him during the first half of their NCAA college football game against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — No. 14 Mississippi State and Kentucky boast two of the Southeastern Conference’s top three rushing offenses, and the similarities don’t stop there.

The Bulldogs (3-0, 0-0 SEC) and Wildcats (3-0, 1-0) also boast mobile quarterbacks in Mississippi State senior Nick Fitzgerald and Kentucky sophomore Terry Wilson, creating the potential for a fast pace in Saturday night’s showdown between the unbeaten schools.

“They really put a lot of pressure on you in rushing for 310, 311 yards a game with the ability to throw the ball,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said of MSU, which leads the SEC with 311.7 yards rushing per game. “Their total offense is off the charts as well as their scoring offense, so they’ve been extremely explosive.”

The Bulldogs’ dominance has shown up on both sides of the ball as they rank either first or second in nine SEC statistical categories, including the second-best scoring offense at 50 points game. MSU ranks third in total offense at 587.7 yards per contest.

However, Mississippi State’s success starts with the league’s best ground game led by Fitzgerald, who’s averaging 133 yards per game. He’s coming off a six-touchdown performance in a 56-10 rout of Louisiana-Lafayette highlighted by four scores rushing and 243 yards passing of his 350 yards from scrimmage. Fitzgerald has also had help this season from running back Kylin Hill (293 yards, three TDs).

Kentucky, meanwhile, gained 245 yards in its 48-10 blowout of Murray State and stands third in SEC rushing at 282.3 yards per game. Wilson got things going with a 42-yard TD run and enters the game averaging 205 yards from scrimmage.

Junior Benny Snell Jr. (375 yards) remains the Wildcats’ catalyst, though Wilson, A.J. Rose (146 yards rushing, three TDs), Sihiem King and Chris Rodriguez Jr. have contributed to a strong ground game. Wilson has tried to provide balance through the air, completing nearly 70 percent of his attempts for 392 yards and a pair of scores.

That sets the stage for a matchup where both schools aim to continue doing what they do best as they seek to maintain perfect starts.

“Both of our offenses do a good job reading second- and third-level defenders and attempting to put them in conflict and giving the quarterback the option whether to hand the ball off or to pull it and run,” first-year Bulldogs coach Joe Moorhead said.

“Both teams have quarterbacks who can beat you with their arms and their legs, and certainly the latter helps in the run game.”

Other things to watch as No. 14 Mississippi State visits Kentucky:

STINGY STARTS

Kentucky’s defense has begun both halves strong, allowing just three points in the first period and shutting out opponents in the third. The Wildcats’ most vulnerable quarter has been the second, where they’ve been outscored 30-24.

GETTING IN THE BACKFIELD

Mississippi State’s defense already has 33 tackles for loss, which is the second-highest total in the country. Defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons lead the team with 5½ each. The constant pressure in the backfield is a major reason why the Bulldogs have allowed just 26 points all season, or 8.7 points per game.

MOVING UP THE RANKS

Kentucky back Benny Snell Jr. needs 93 yards rushing to match Mark Higgs (2,892 from 1984-87) for fourth on the school’s career list. He’s two touchdowns away from matching Randall Cobb’s career mark of 37.

CLOSING ON TEBOW

Mississippi State senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald needs just 196 yards rushing to set the record for most career yards rushing by a Southeastern Conference quarterback. The current leader is former Florida star Tim Tebow, who ran for 2,947 yards. It’s unlikely Fitzgerald breaks the record on Saturday against Kentucky, but it’s possible: Fitzgerald has averaged 133 yards on the ground in wins over Kansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette.

SERIES HISTORY

The Bulldogs lead 23-22 after last year’s 45-7 rout in Starkville, Mississippi, earned their eighth win in nine meetings. Kentucky’s lone win in that stretch was a 40-38 comeback two years ago at home, where it’s 13-9 against MSU.

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AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Starkville, Mississippi, contributed to this report.

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