LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky players know what they'll get Saturday from No. 20 Mississippi State — defensive pressure.
The Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) rank in the top 15 in several defensive categories, including first in turnover margin (plus 13). They are physical up front, and senior cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay (seven combined interceptions) lead a veteran secondary.
Mississippi State just doesn't know which Kentucky quarterback it'll be defending.
Freshmen QB Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles will rotate under center for the Wildcats (1-4, 0-2) with starter Maxwell Smith sidelined due to an ankle injury. Towles will make his debut while Whitlow makes his first start, and Kentucky coaches aren't sure how they'll respond to the unusual situation.
"It's going to be exciting," Bulldogs senior strong safety Corey Broomfield said. "The Kentucky coaches will do a good job of protecting them and making the game simple for them, so we've got to make sure we're always in the right place, making the right reads.
"Hopefully, they give us a lot of chances to make plays on the ball."
Both Kentucky quarterbacks were shielded from the media this week as they studied game film and the playbook just to master the basics of the Wildcats offense. The only certainty is that they will run no-huddle sets to avoid thinking too much while trying to end a three-game losing streak.
"It's really easier for them to operate in the no-huddle because a lot of times the hardest thing for a young guy is getting the play called right in the huddle," Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "Anything you can eliminate, make it easier for them, that's what you try to do."
Whitlow has a bit more experience after taking 65 snaps in relief of Smith, who was injured two plays into last week's loss to South Carolina. He led Kentucky to a 17-7 halftime lead before the Gamecocks adjusted to outgain the Wildcats 240-70 and intercept him twice during a 31-point second half.
Towles is considered more of a pocket passer but like Whitlow, he can and will run if necessary. Once headed for a redshirt season after losing a preseason competition to Whitlow, he's now set to alternate plays with him as the Wildcats search for ways to generate offense.
Bloomfield said the Bulldogs aren't fooled by the QB's youth, pointing out both received scholarships for a reason.
"You don't put anything past anybody," Bloomfield said. "You can put the freshman label on people ... Nobody comes into the SEC without playing ball before. It's nothing new to him and it's nothing new to us. So I don't really care what year he is, he's an SEC football player."
Nothing much has mattered to Mississippi State's defense. The Bulldog's defense is 13th in scoring (13.2 points per game), 18th in pass efficiency (99.6) and 40th overall (350 yards).
Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen is still looking for improvement in yardage allowed and increased sacks, but he's enjoying his team's knack for creating turnovers. Slay has four of the Bulldogs' nine interceptions and they've recovered six fumbles.
The offense is averaging nearly 400 yards a game with a fairly balanced attack. Junior quarterback Tyler Russell is averaging about 215 passing yards, just 30 more than Mississippi State is averaging with its ground game — which is anchored by junior LaDarius Perkins (395 yards, five TDs).
Kentucky defensive coordinator rick Minter knows the Bulldogs present a challenge, but he said they Wildcats are not going to sit back on their heels.
"On our side, we're trying to attack," Minter said. "They got a veteran quarterback who's throwing the ball perhaps better than they did this time a year ago. Mix that with the good, solid, tough, hard-nosed approach of the coach and the way they like to play. They'll bring it."
Playing their first SEC road game after a bye week, Mississippi State seeks its fourth straight victory in the series that Kentucky leads 21-18. The Bulldogs also are looking for their fourth consecutive win at Commonwealth Stadium.
Despite their recent success against the Wildcats, Mississippi State's average margin of victory the past four games is less than a touchdown. The Bulldogs will try to change that by taking advantage of Kentucky's young quarterbacks.
"We're going to come and try to attack from every angle," Mississippi State linebacker Cameron Lawrence said. "That's what we do to every quarterback, but (with) them being freshmen even more so."