Chris Jones | Daily Enterprise

Kentucky junior wide receiver Garrett “Juice” Johnson did hand-to-hand combat with an Eastern Kentucky safety during action earlier this season. UK, sporting a 5-1 record and a second-place position in the Southeastern Conference East standings, will battle Mississippi State Saturday at 4 p.m. in Starkville. The game will be televised over the SEC Network.

Cats ready to make a push in SEC East

LEXINGTON (KT) — Mark Stoops can’t wait to get back on the field.

“It seems like it’s been a while,” the Kentucky coach said Thursday. “Obviously it has been. We’re anxious to get going, get on that plane (Friday) and head to Mississippi.”

The Wildcats (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference), haven’t played since a 40-34 win over Missouri nearly two weeks ago and spent the past two weeks bracing for the second half of the season, which begins at Mississippi State on Saturday.

Stoops said “it’s been a good two weeks” for Kentucky, which is one game away from becoming bowl eligible with six weeks remaining in the regular season. The Wildcats are healed up and refreshed for the final stretch of the season.

“It’s been a good two weeks of preparation,” Stoops said. “We feel like we’ve got some guys a bit healthier. We’re in good shape and looking forward to the challenge.”

In his team’s first two road games of the year, the Wildcats survived close calls at Southern Mississippi (24-17) and South Carolina (23-13) and have won two of their past three games by six points or less. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has been impressed with Kentucky’s performances this season, especially the ability to win close games.

“It looks a lot like how we built our program,” he said. “Getting guys to believe and they play really hard and then putting them in a system where they can be successful. They are flexible in what they do, both offensively and defensively. They play really hard and their guys believe that they are going to win. That’s a lot of how we’ve built our program here.

“There will be a lot of similarities between our two programs. I guess I had a couple of years head start on them, but you see they are starting to get that way. This year, being the No. 2 team in the East, and they haven’t played the No. 1 team. They still control their own destiny.”

Kentucky, currently in sole possession of second place in the SEC East, edged the Bulldogs 40-38 in a thriller a year ago in Lexington, ending a seven-game losing streak to Mullen’s squad. Going into Saturday’s showdown, Mississippi State has lost two of their past three games and were outscored 80-13 in conference losses at Georgia and Auburn. Following a bye week after the two league setbacks, the Bulldogs rolled to a 35-10 win over BYU last week in Starkville.

“You never can control how the schedule plays out,” Mullen said. “This year we ended up playing the two top teams in the SEC East. That rotates, so that just happens sometimes with scheduling. Obviously, it is a huge challenge against an excellent football team. They are a play away really from being undefeated and a Top 25 team easily nationally coming in here. It will be a great challenge for us. They have a lot of talent.”

Kentucky’s defense, which ranks 10th nationally and third in the league in rushing defense (97.2 yards per game), will have their hands full trying to contain Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. The junior signal caller ranks third in the SEC in passing yards per game with 245 per contest. Fitzgerald’s backfield sidekick, running back Aeris Williams has had three 10-yard rushing games this season. Stoops said the biggest task will be stopping Fitzgerald in the pocket.

“He’s a big, strong guy,” Stoops said. (He) can throw the ball, can certainly handle designed quarterback runs. So I think he’s a very tough runner and puts a lot of pressure on you.”

During the open week, Stoops and his staff spent more time on passing defense and improving play in the secondary, which has been hampered by injuries this season. Stoops said fundamental issues also have been the root cause of the team’s issues on defense.

“I’m looking at what happened, the structure of it,” Stoops said. “Depending on who you’re playing and the personnel that you’re playing against they’re going to put you in a bind, they’re going to put you in stressful situations you have to be able to win. It’s just fundamentally breakdowns, that’s what I mean by the easy fix. Maybe easy in theory and hard in application at times, right? That’s a cornerback’s life.”