Two weeks after Mark Stoops’ Kentucky Wildcats ended a 31-year drought against Florida, the Wildcats will prepare to take on a nemesis that seems like it has owned UK for at least as long — the mobile quarterback.
Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald is just the latest and perhaps best of a long line of SEC passers who confounded UK’s defense with their legs. If Kentucky can slow the Mississippi State star, it would be a win every bit as impressive as knocking off Florida.
Fitzgerald is only 1-1 against Kentucky, but that’s more of a tribute to Kentucky racking up 554 yards of total offense against State in 2016 than any success in slowing Fitzgerald. He rushed for 107 yards and 2 scores in 2016 and had 115 yards and 2 more touchdowns in 2017. Sure, he passed for only 236 combined yards, but his damage was done on the ground. State totaled 83 points in those two games, and that is both part of a lengthy trend and a bad sign for Kentucky.
As long as there’s been a Kentucky football, there has been a struggle to contain mobile QBs.
From 2007-present, Kentucky has given up 100 yards rushing to a quarterback 11 times. Fitzgerald has accounted for two of those.
And it’s not just the Tim Tebows or Cam Newtons or Dak Prescotts or Lamar Jacksons of the world who have consumed Kentucky’s defense (though they certainly had their moments; Jackson topped 150 yards rushing all three times he faced Kentucky).
In 2007, an undersized Kent State QB named Julian Edelman once played his team into a close game at the half with an especially talented UK team. Edelman ran for 135 yards. Yes, the same Julian Edelman who became an excellent NFL slot receiver shredded UK as an outmanned quarterback.
Tennessee passer Joshua Dobbs, in his four career wins over UK, looked like Tennessee had borrowed Newton from Auburn or the Carolina Panthers. Dobbs finished his career with almost 300 yards and 6 rushing TDs against the Wildcats.
Kentucky’s struggles with dual-threat QBs were so extreme and lasting that they defined explanation. Certainly, many of Kentucky’s most durable and talented QBs were the opposite of dual-threat players. QB Andre’ Woodson was a statue in the pocket and while Jared Lorenzen was nimble on his feet, given his size, he wasn’t used often in the ground game. In the earlier years of the Stoops era, Kentucky had planned to build around pocket passers Patrick Towles and Drew Barker. But first with Stephen Johnson and now with Terry Wilson, Kentucky has solid runners playing under center who surely can’t help but give the defense a better look in practice. Right?
There’s no way around it. Kentucky’s chances of slowing Mississippi State’s potent offense Saturday lie largely with forcing Fitzgerald to stay in the pocket and beat them with the pass.
Kentucky substantially outpassed State in 2016 and was outgained by only 14 yards passing in 2017. But in those games, giving up 281 yards rushing in 2016 and 282 yards in 2017 put UK between a rock and a hard place. The offense has virtually no room for error. Kentucky needed every one of 554 yards of offense to squeak by State in the Bulldogs’ last visit to Lexington.
Again, with Kentucky facing Wilson instead of a lead-legged passer in practice, maybe this Kentucky defense will break another streak by containing Fitzgerald.
There’s reason for optimism. Through three games, Kentucky has allowed 122.7 rushing yards per game and a reasonable 4.1 yards per carry.
But here comes Fitzgerald and State — who have racked up 312 rushing yards per game and done so with 7.6 yards per carry. That total ranks fifth in the county and the only Power 5 offense ahead of the Bulldogs is triple-option fueled Georgia Tech.
If this Kentucky team is indeed something different and special, then a great place to make a demonstration would be in showing the capacity to slow a running quarterback. Saturday’s game could well depend on it.