Chris Leach, sports editor at The Kentucky Kernel, joins The Daily Mississippian sports editor Grayson Weir to discuss Saturday’s SEC matchup between Ole Miss and Kentucky.
Grayson Weir: After overcoming an injury to his left shoulder to lead Kentucky over Tennessee, quarterback Stephen Johnson left the game with his arm in a sling. He is expected to play this weekend. How big of a difference does Johnson make for the Wildcats’ offense?
Chris Leach: I’d say he’s super important to the offense. On the couple of drives he wasn’t on this season, the offense has looked completely lost. In his last game against Tennessee, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said Johnson made 100 percent of his reads, so without him, I’d expect the offense’s efficiency to go way down.
GW: Benny Snell has had the bulk of carries this season and is coming off a week as the SEC’s co-offensive player of the week. On the flipside, he has been held to under 100 yards on four occasions. What do you expect from him?
CL: I don’t expect him to have another crazy game like he did against Tennessee. It feels like Snell has struggled compared to last year’s breakout season, and the game against Tennessee was his only game where looked like the Snell fans saw last year. Considering some of Ole Miss’ best defensive players are on the defensive line, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Snell swallowed up on Saturday, forcing Johnson to throw more.
GW: Snell is obviously the primary catalyst in Eddie Gran’s offense. Is there a player outside of No. 26 that may play a larger role?
CL: Stephen Johnson plays a large role on the offense, but besides those two, there really isn’t anyone who majorly sticks out. Garrett Johnson is the team’s best receiver, but Johnson likes to spread the ball around to his receivers more than just focusing on one guy. Freshman Lynn Bowden is the team’s most dynamic playmaker, but he hasn’t gone over 49 receiving yards in a game, or hasn’t scored a touchdown yet.
GW: Ole Miss’ offense, now with Jordan Ta’amu in the driver’s seat, thrives on tempo. How has Kentucky’s defense been preparing for the constant pace?
CL: I would believe that their doing the same thing they always do in practice, worry about themselves. The defense as a whole usually says they just worry about themselves when faced with a task. However, they have struggled in the past when an offense finds a good tempo, and I don’t see any reason why that would change on Saturday.
GW: The Wildcat defense struggled against dual threat quarterback from Mississippi State, Nick Fitzgerald. Though he’s only played one full game, people are saying Ta’amu may be a better rusher and passer than his in-state counterpart. How does the defense fair against the Hawaiian native this weekend?
CL: I would expect them to struggle some. As you mentioned they were exposed against Nick Fitzgerald, and they didn’t fare to well against other dual threat quarterbacks before him. I also think the lack of film will help Ta’amu, as he still has yet to show what he can truly do. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ta’amu cause the Cats trouble on Saturday.
GW: For Kentucky to keep their quest for a New Year’s Day bowl in tact, what needs to happen? Prediction?
CL: I think it’s a long-stretch for the Wildcats to make a New Year’s Day bowl but to keep their chances alive, it starts with a long-methodical win this weekend.
Chris Leach: What did you see from quarterback Jordan Ta’amu in his first start? How do you think he’ll play against Kentucky?
Grayson Weir: At one point between the games against LSU and Arkansas, Ta’amu led seven consecutive scoring drives and outside of a costly botched read toward the end of last weekend’s heartbreaker and a few under-thrown balls, he’s looked great. I expect the Mariota-esque talent to slice and dice a defense that has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks and the option.
CL: As of Monday evening, Kentucky was a 3.5-point favorite. Do you feel like that’s fair?
GW: More than. I don’t think anyone really knows which way this game will fold and the 3.5 points is simply a matter of someone having to win.
CL: Kentucky’s offense usually thrives best when they use short yardage plays to get down the field and take time off the clock. How do you think Ole Miss’ defense matches up against that style of offense?
GW: To this point, not well. In each of Ole Miss’ five losses, the opponent has dominated time of possession. While some of that comes from the offense’s explosiveness, it certainly isn’t a good sign. In an ideal world the big uglies win the matchup in the trenches, the second level fills the gaps and the defense gets off the field on third down. In reality, Kentucky will have the ball a whole lot.
CL: Benny Snell was just named the SEC’s co-offensive player of the week after his 180-yard and three touchdown rushing performance. What will Ole Miss need to do in order to stop Snell?
GW: I don’t mean to come off snooty or sarcastic when I say this, but the defense just needs to stop him. No matter the game plan defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff has cooked up, the execution has lacked and opposing backs have run up and down and up and down and up and down … and up and down. Seeing Snell on the horizon brings a chance for redemption, but it won’t come.
GW: Honestly Chris, I don’t have a definitive answer. My head says that, in typical Ole Miss fashion, it’s close through the first half but silly errors allow Kentucky to pull away in the second half behind a magnificent day from Snell. That being said, my gut (and heart) says that Ta’amu and the offense comes out firing on all cylinders and never flounders, the defense does juuuuust enough to control Snell and the Rebels leave Lexington with a high-scoring victory.