STARKVILLE – (AP) Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said his team enjoyed a week away from football and got some much needed rest.
The Bulldogs weren’t too tired, though. Most of September had already been a vacation.
No. 19 Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) has had an extended break from league play since beating Auburn on Sept. 8. The Bulldogs have won two nonconference games and taken their off week in the interim, but are eager to get back to league play against Kentucky (1-4, 0-2) on Saturday.
“You don’t want to call the first four games the preseason, but it is different,” Mullen said. “It’s so much conference-oriented now. When you come into the season, your goals are to get a shot at playing in your conference championship and these are the games that really matter.”
Mississippi State has room for improvement, even though it’s undefeated through September for the first time since 1999.
The Bulldogs looked lethargic in victories over Troy and South Alabama, even needing a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Trojans. But they still pushed through the stretch unscathed, managed to stay healthy, and are now focused on competing for the Western Division title.
“We came into the season knowing these first four games we should win,” Mississippi State running back LaDarius Perkins said. “We have to keep improving as the season goes on. We just can’t get complacent, keep working hard and grind every day.”
It remains to be seen whether Kentucky can provide Mississippi State with a challenge.
The Wildcats are without quarterback Maxwell Smith indefinitely after the sophomore suffered an ankle injury against South Carolina. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips says he’ll rotate freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles against the Bulldogs.
Whitlow completed 12 of 23 passes for 114 yards, ran for a touchdown and threw two interceptions after coming in for Smith in the Wildcats’ 38-17 loss to South Carolina. Towles hasn’t played yet this season.
The Whitlow/Towles combination appears a huge mismatch against Mississippi State’s veteran secondary. Senior cornerback Johnthan Banks has 15 career interceptions, including three this season. The Bulldogs’ other cornerback – Darius Slay – has four interceptions.
The starting secondary of Banks, Slay, Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley has combined for 126 games played, 94 starts and 37 interceptions, including eight that were returned for touchdowns.
“Everybody attacks freshmen,” Slay said. “We’ve got older guys, and I know we’ll have a package to confuse the quarterback since they’re young.”
Mullen said Kentucky’s quarterback uncertainty makes game preparation more complicated. He compared it to facing an all-new coaching staff during the opening game of the season.
“For us, you’ve got to prepare for both (quarterbacks),” Mullen said. “(Whitlow) is athletic. From what you saw, he threw the ball really well. They didn’t make it complicated, kept it simple and let him play with talent. When you go with a true freshman, you’re letting them play with talent and play with emotion and a lot of good things can happen.”
Mississippi State is trying to get its own offense back up to expectations.
Tyler Russell started the season with three impressive games – throwing eight interceptions and no interceptions – but he completed just 13 of 27 passes against South Alabama for 171 yards and an interception. Mullen said Russell’s reads were off and called the offense “embarrassing” at times.
Mullen said the bye week came at a good time. Even though the Bulldogs have played only four games, it comes at nearly the exact midpoint of the football season when factoring in preseason camp. The coach said he could sense some fatigue.
“It was nice for (Russell) to get some relaxation and get ready to roll,” Mullen said. “We put a lot on him.”