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Stoops, Wildcats expecting a close encounter against struggling Mississippi Saturday

Benny Snell and the Wildcats take on Ole Miss at Kroger Field Saturday to open the November portion of the schedule. Kentucky is seeking its seventh win of the season. (Photo by UK Athletics)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Mark Stoops isn’t expecting an easy encounter against struggling Mississippi on Saturday.

“We expect a great game from Ole Miss,” he said. “They have very talented players (and) they have great pride within their program. Without a doubt, who can we take lightly? It’s no matter who we are playing. We have to play our best football or we’ll lose. So we have to play well. Have to prepare the right way. We need to build on some of the good things we did a week ago. I thought the players had great focus.”

The Wildcats (6-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) attained bowl eligibility with a 29-26 triumph over Tennessee last week and will be seeking their seventh regular-season victory for just the seventh time in the last 40 years. Kentucky won seven of their first nine games during the 1984 season under the late Jerry Claiborne.

Although the Volunteers are struggling this season, Stoops said he’s not taking the rare win over Tennessee for granted.

“You know it is difficult,” he said. “It’s just like people assume, well, maybe Tennessee is not having as good of a year as they’ve had so you’ll beat them. Well, you just don’t beat someone twice in 33 years just because. I mean you’re changing your culture, those things are very difficult. We’ve talked about it a lot but when you’re changing a mindset that goes very, very deep rooted. Like I said, with all the information they have you can’t (take) those things for granted.”

The task could be equally difficult against Ole Miss. The Rebels (3-5, 1-4) built a big lead against Arkansas last week before the Razorbacks stormed back and escaped with a 38-37 setback. It was the team’s fifth loss in the last six games, but Stoops said Ole Miss won’t be a pushover, even with backup quarterback Jordan Ta’amu calling the shots in the pocket.

“They have two great players so the narrative of ‘oh you’re playing a backup quarterback’ throw that out the window, because we’ve all seen backup quarterbacks go in and play better than the starters a lot of the times,” Stoops said. “And I’m not saying any knock on Shea, I think he’s one of the best players in the league, I just think what Jordan can do with his arms and his legs, there’s going to be absolutely zero drop-off.”

Kentucky’s running game is beginning to take shape with four games remaining in the regular season. Sophomore running back Benny Snell rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win over Tennessee. Stoops said the running game will be crucial for the remainder of the season.

“We need to run the football,” Stoops said. “You have to be able to do it. We all want to be able to throw the football effectively, and we will, but you have to be able to run the ball. That opens up a lot of options and it helped us and it was important for Benny to get on track and I think you saw that. Benny played his best game by far. He was much more detailed and much more accurate in what he was doing running the football and his protection from the offensive line was much more consistent and we had great play out of our tight ends.”

Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke was impressed by Snell’s outing against the Vols last week.

“Benny Snell is one of the better running backs that we’ll face all season,” he said. “They do a great job in the running game. It’s complimented by Stephen Johnson, their quarterback, he can run it and throw it. Defensively, they do a lot of moving around. They’re hard to get a bead on. So we’ll have our work cut out for us. Another big-time SEC road game.”

Kentucky and Ole Miss haven’t played since the 2011 season when the Wildcats defeated the Rebels 30-13 at Kroger Field and Luke said the Rebels are looking forward to making the trek to Lexington.

“That’s a challenge you enjoy, getting up to play a team you don’t play a whole bunch,” Luke said. “In my career, I’ve been in the SEC a long time and I’ve only played at Kentucky once, when I was with Tennessee in 2007. It’ll be a unique challenge and a fun challenge to go somewhere different. Obviously they’re doing a great job and have a really good team, so it’ll be a good challenge on the road.”

Gametracker: Ole Miss at Kentucky, 4 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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