In preparation for Saturday’s matchup between Mississippi State and UAB, Saturday Down South’s Ethan Levine is taking a look at the key matchups that may decide the showdown between the Bulldogs and the Blazers.

Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney vs. UAB tailbacks Jordan Howard and D.J. Vinson

The UAB Blazers will try to establish the run early and often in a hostile road environment in Starkville Saturday afternoon. The Blazers rushed for 338 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-10 win over Troy last week, but the rushing attack was mainly spearheaded by the tandem of Howard and Vinson, who combined for 285 yards and three touchdowns against the Trojans.

The Blazers ran the ball on 55 of their 75 plays, and they’ll look to the run game to slow down the pace of play and swing time of possession in their favor. UAB knows how deep Mississippi State is, especially on defense, and it knows the key to winning this game will be a marathon-approach, not a sprint. If Howard and/or Vinson can get in a rhythm, it could neutralize Geoff Collins’ “psycho defense,” which had 29 different players record a tackle against Southern Miss last week.

Mississippi State’s No. 1 run-stopper this week will need to be middle linebacker Bernardrick McKinney, a savvy veteran with All-SEC abilities in the heart of the defense. Even if McKinney is not the man to make a tackle on Howard or Vinson, he must make sure all of MSU’s rotating pieces on defense are in place and on-time in on every play. With that said, McKinney is often the man to make plays in the run game himself, although he made just two tackles in last week’s 49-0 slaughter in which most of the MSU roster saw the field. If McKinney is needed for all four quarters, his tackle total should be close to, if not exceeding, double figures.

A couple of quick stops by the Bulldogs’ defense could be all MSU needs to wrap this game up early. If McKinney and company silence the Blazers’ running back duo and force the game into the arm of quarterback Cody Clements, the advantage immediately swings to Mississippi State, which is already favored heavily in this contest. Howard and Vinson will both need to have monster nights to keep this game close, and it will be up to McKinney to prevent that from happening.