Rich Brooks took a sip of water, cleared
his throat and tried to laugh when was asked if he was going to be
able to take the field Saturday when Kentucky hosts Mississippi
"Yeah, I'll play," the decidedly under-the-weather coach said
with a rasp.
The Wildcats can use any body they can throw out there now.
Cornerback Trevard Lindley, linebacker Micah Johnson,
quarterback Mike Hartline and running back Derrick Locke - all
starters - are dealing with injuries.
Brooks called this game the biggest of the season for Kentucky
(4-3, 1-3 Southeastern Conference). And the Wildcats will be far
from 100 percent when they face the Bulldogs (3-5, 1-3).
Lindley is likely to miss his fourth straight game with a high
ankle sprain. Hartline has been slow to heal from a torn ligament
in his left knee and Johnson - the team's leading tackler - is
"questionable to doubtful" according to Brooks after sustaining
an isolated tear in the medical collateral ligament in his knee.
The Wildcats have managed without Hartline, using a unique
three-headed attack at quarterback as Brooks splits time between
Will Fidler, Morgan Newton and wide receiver Randall Cobb. The
secondary has also survived in Lindley's absence, with sophomore
Randall Burden returning an interception for a touchdown in the
second half of last week's win over Louisiana-Monroe.
Getting by without Johnson, however, will be more difficult.
Ronnie Sneed will probably fill in if Johnson can't go. Brooks
believes Sneed can play. He's simply not sure if the 230-pound
sophomore will have the same impact as the 258-pound Johnson.
"He just doesn't bring that physical presence in that spot that
No. 4 does," Brooks said of Sneed.
The Wildcats will need all the size they can get against the
Bulldogs. Mississippi State boasts one of the top rushing attacks
in the SEC behind 235-pound senior Anthony Dixon, and the Bulldogs
will almost certainly attack Kentucky's lackluster rushing defense,
which ranks 90th in the country.
"We know they're going to just try and come right at us," said
defensive lineman Corey Peters. "They're a physical team and they
like to pound it. We've got to stay disciplined."
The Wildcats will probably have to be better than that against
the Bulldogs, who have three close defeats to ranked opponents,
including a 29-19 loss to Florida on Saturday.
A win on Saturday almost assures the Wildcats of a fourth
consecutive bowl berth for the first time in the program's history.
A loss and they'll probably have to beat either Georgia or
Tennessee - both of whom have dominated the Wildcats for years - to
extend their season.
"I think when you're in the lower half of the league
historically, to get to the upper half, you don't have to just
knock off some of those big boys, but you have to beat some of the
guys that are like you," Brooks said. "Mississippi State and
Kentucky have been like each other for quite awhile and whoever
wins has an edge up to climb that ladder a little bit."