Normally, I would write up a pithy little post insulting Middle Tennessee’s manhood, calling them a joke, and predicting a large UK win. Granted, I’m sure that will be included, but to the victor goes the spoils, and with MTSU’s victory against Maryland, they get the actual team treatment here at OTP.
This Kentucky team is coming off a win over Norfolk State, another payday game for the Wildcats, who check in at 2-0. The defense, through two games, has yet to give up a touchdown, and has yielded only 3 points, a field goal that came after the offense turned the ball over deep in their own territory. It remains to be seen if the defensive prowess is because of the opponents played or if they really are that good, but MTSU won’t provide enough talent or firepower to truly find out.
Offensively the Cats have struggled, and have created a de facto QB controversy amidst the fans, causing starter Mike Hartline to be on the receiving end of some boo’s at Commonwealth Stadium last week as the fans voiced their support for Randall Cobb. The messageboards exploded, with fans saying they were booing the coaches, not the players, but no matter the reasons, it was a low-class thing to do for all involved. A new QB under center needs confidence and support, much like the new girlfriend with body issues. Support her and laud her and the benefits will come back to you tenfold.
Overall, on a look to Saturday, Kentucky lines up at home against a team that is reduced to just 74 scholarship players. They aren’t deep, they’re of average talent, and saying you’re a favorite in the Sun Belt conference is sort of like winning a gold medal at the Special Olympics. Kentucky isn’t Maryland, because, you know, Kentucky doesn’t suck, and quite frankly, this one shouldn’t even be a contest by halftime. But on to the cold hard facts…
Offense: MTSU is paced by QB Joe Craddock, who hung 256 yards and 2 TDs on the Terrapins last week. Phillip Tanner will get the carries out of the backfield, and their receiving corps is led by Malcolm Beyah, a 5-11 freshman who put up 94 yards on 4 catches with a TD against the Terps. The Blue Raiders focused their recruiting last year on recruiting speedy wide outs and they are quick, but we’re talking Sun Belt speed not SEC speed.
For the Cats, this is another opportunity for Joker Phillips to get his offense going under Mike Hartline. Will Randall Cobb play? Sure. Will he be the starter? No. The bottom line on the Kentucky offense is that we all expected this to happen. We have a first-year starter, all the receivers graduated save for Dicky Lyons, and Rafael Little left as well. Cobb gives the offense a nice breath of fresh air and opens up some things in the playbook a la Tebow/Leak in years past at Florida.
Advantage: Even with the sputtering productivity, talent always wins out.
Defense: MTSU’s defensive unit is severely undersized, though quick. But again, perspective. MTSU’s speedy is not SEC speedy. Though the defense got a boost emotionally by beating Maryland and shutting down the Terps, Maryland’s offense is worse than Kentucky’s.
When MTSU has the ball, they’ll be facing the best defense they’ll face all year. Kentucky’s defense has kept better offenses at bay the entire season, and are looking to make a statement that they are, indeed, for real. The front seven for UK is big AND quick, and the secondary is aware, talented, and athletic. When you combine good coverage with a front seven matched up against an inexperienced offensive line, MTSU QB Joe Craddock is in for a very, very, very long day.
Advantage: This one isn’t close. A great defense meeting a mediocre offense.
Coaching: Rick Stockstill is in his third year at MTSU and shares a lot with Kentucky head man Rich Brooks. Both came into a program reeling with sanctions. Brooks with NCAA recruiting violations hanging over the program and Stockstill with sanctions because of academic progress before his arrival. Both men are turning the corner, and Stockstill will be successful in Murfreesboro eventually, but he is not there yet, and has yet to turn as much of the corner as Brooks has. Stockstill won’t be at MTSU for long if he can continue to recruit, take advantage of a conference that he can compete in, and continue to beat teams from BCS conferences.
Brooks comes into this game fired up and feisty, as evidenced by his post-practice rant on Wednesday about a lack of effort, focus, and intensity. Some teams would overlook the Blue Raiders (paging Maryland… Maryland your upset is ready) but Papaw won’t let that happen. Brooks thinks practices without intensity are bullshit.
Intangibles: MTSU does have confidence coming off an upset, and this is the last opportunity they’ll have before conference play to make an announcement on a national level that they’re for real. This is the biggest game of the year for them in terms of quality of opponent, and if Stockstill and company want to continue to build the program this will go a long way. The pressure is alleviated to a certain extent since no one (including me) is giving them much of a chance.
The Cats come in looking to make a statement as well. Brooks was a bit peeved that his team wasn’t ranked this week. A stalwart defense and two wins without a ranking in the polls has left Brooks with a bit of a bitter taste. And no one, I repeat, no one, wants to run into an angry bitter old man. Trust me.
Overall: The bottom line in this game is that Kentucky is simply the better team on both sides of the ball. Most of MTSU’s starters wouldn’t start at Kentucky and nearly all the defensive starters for the Blue Raiders would struggle to make the two-deep in Lexington. This game is a great opportunity for the Cats to open up their playbook and let Hartline get some experience and confidence against a lesser opponent before opening up conference play in the next several weeks.