It’s almost football time in the Bluegrass! Here are some final thoughts and predictions about how No. 7 Kentucky’s game at No. 14 Ole Miss might play out on Saturday afternoon.
TEMPO, TEMPO, TEMPO
A year after ranking 22nd nationally in passing yards per game (274.8), Ole Miss ranks fourth in the country in rushing yards per game (280.8). While the emphasis on the run has increased this season, the rapid tempo at which Lane Kiffin’s offense operates has not changed.
“Obviously if you don’t come out ready to play, they can score in a hurry,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White said. “You’ve seen it in most of the games they’ve played. That tempo will jump on you.”
Among teams that have played four games, Ole Miss ranks 20th in total plays. The Rebels average a play every 20.8 seconds, compared to Kentucky’s average of one play every 31.8 seconds.
Of the Rebels’ 23 touchdown drives this season, only one has taken longer than four minutes to reach the end zone.
While Ole Miss ranks 106th nationally in passing attempts, the offense is far from one-dimensional, Kentucky coaches warned this week. Ole Miss has not been pushed often in the first month of the season with just one Power Five opponent on the schedule. That team, Georgia Tech, has already fired its coach.
“A lot of their pass game is off that,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. “They still have a lot in their tank that they haven’t had to use. There is a lot there that they can do.”
HELP FROM THE INSIDE
Two Kentucky defenders were able to offer their own advice for dealing with the Ole Miss offense this week.
“You don’t want to be in long-drive situations, 11- or 12-play drives,” cornerback Keidron Smith said. “Because then you start to wear down as a defense. For sure just having eye discipline, staying focused on your keys, that’s the main part.”
“Just get back to the ball and get the call,” linebacker Jacquez Jones added. “You know it’s going to be super fast. You’ve got to get them behind the sticks at the beginning. Kind of like Tennessee. Once they get the first down, once they get it rolling it’s hard to slow it down. So, you’ve really got to get them behind the sticks, get the call and get set up and then play the call.”
Both Smith and Jones played at Ole Miss before transferring to Kentucky.
The duo met with Kentucky quarterback Will Levis this week to offer pointers about the Ole Miss defensive scheme. Their experience facing the Ole Miss offense in practice could help teammates prepare for the tempo they will face Saturday.
Just don’t expect Smith and Jones to be much help directing teammates to the visiting locker room.
“I don’t have no idea where it’s at,” Jones said.
As with any homecoming game, Smith and Jones will have to guard against trying to do too much this week. Teammates and coaches downplayed that risk due to the experience both super seniors bring to the matchup, but it was clear there was something extra on the line for both players this week.
Smith logged out of his social media profiles this week to avoid getting caught up in any trash talk among fans. As for facing his former teammates and friends still at Ole Miss, he’s taking a businesslike approach.
“We’ve got a good relationship,” Smith said. “No bad blood between us. We’re definitely looking forward to meeting each other out on the field.”
EXTRA MOTIVATION FOR THE KICKER
Smith and Jones were on the other side of this matchup the last time the two teams met in 2020. Asked what they remembered about the 42-41 Ole Miss win, and they had the same answer.
“I just remember Ruffolo,” Jones said. “Ruffolo got the other team the win. He missed the kick, the extra point. That was that.”
Ruffolo would be Kentucky kicker Matt Ruffolo. The 2020 Ole Miss loss marked the low point of the former walk-on’s UK career when he missed an extra-point after Kentucky scored first in overtime. Ole Miss was able to clinch the win by converting its extra point on the following possession.
In reality, there was plenty of blame to be shared in the loss.
Kentucky rushed for 408 yards in that game but still lost. The defense surrendered 320 passing yards and four passing touchdowns. The Wildcats led by 14 in the third quarter but allowed Ole Miss to climb back into the game.
Still, Ruffolo, who has been one of the best kickers in the SEC this season with a perfect mark on extra points and a 7-for-8 success rate on field goals, would probably love the chance to kick a game-winner in Oxford.
“Ever since I got here he says Coach Kiffin owes him a present for missing a field goal,” Jones said.
Kentucky 35, Ole Miss 28: Despite both being ranked in the top 15, Kentucky and Ole Miss have looked vulnerable in their respective 4-0 starts to the 2022 season. With questions about both teams, I’ll take the squad that has actually played a ranked team already. Florida does not look as good as pundits suggested when Kentucky upset the Gators in week two, but winning in the Swamp should help prepare for a sold out crowd in Oxford. A week after Tulsa totaled 457 yards against Ole Miss, I like Kentucky’s chances of scoring enough to win a close one.
MVP: Chris Rodriguez. Maybe the expectations are not fair, but Rodriguez will have all eyes on him as he returns from a four-game suspension. No, Rodriguez cannot fix Kentucky’s rushing struggles alone, but he brings an element to the Wildcats offense Ole Miss will not have seen on film yet this season. Rodriguez can be a factor as a pass-catcher, too. He needs to guard against putting too much pressure on himself to make up for missed time, but it feels like the perfect chance to put a tumultuous summer behind him.
The spread: As of Thursday, Ole Miss was favored by seven points. That margin has to be due at least in part to Kentucky’s 0-10 record on the road against SEC West teams in the Stoops era, but this is a different UK squad. These Wildcats have already proven capable of winning on the road, and they simply have better players than most of the Stoops teams that piled up that record.
Chris Rodriguez rushing yards: 115
Will Levis passing touchdowns: 3
Jacquez Jones tackles: 12
Turnover margin: Kentucky, plus-1.
THE LAST WORD
Kentucky offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello on threat of teams bringing extra pressure with UK ranked 128th nationally in sacks allowed (16).
“I hope they do. Literally, this offense is built for pressure. I love it. Will and I talk about it every week. They’ll learn at some point. Keep bringing it. I hope you do.”
No. 7 Kentucky at No. 14 Mississippi
When: Noon Saturday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 4-0 (1-0 SEC), Mississippi 4-0 (0-0)
Series: Mississippi leads 29-14-1.
Last meeting: Mississippi won 42-41 in overtime on Oct. 3, 2020, in Lexington.