New Mexico State has regularly struggled in its attempt to play Division I-caliber football.
By Matt Zemek
Many will struggle to find a reason why NMSU should pursue this sport, given its immense success in men’s basketball. The Aggies have made two bowl games Over the past 62 years, and those two games were in 1960 and 2017. This is a game that Kentucky should win and win big. Alabama played New Mexico State last week and the score was 59-3. Bryce Young had 270 yards passing and five touchdowns before he was taken out of the game because it served no purpose risking an injury. While Kentucky isn’t quite on the level of Alabama, the Wildcats possess considerable talent, which was on display in an easy win over Vanderbilt last week. Their resources should be more than enough to give NMSU problems all day long. New Mexico State is 101st in the nation in total offense, so this should be a great chance for Will Levis to shine.
1 – Will Levis needs to work on solving problems before the Louisville game
In the category of interceptions, Will Levis is tied for 124th in the nation among FBS quarterbacks. That’s not good. Making matters worse, Kentucky is tied for 104th in the nation in total turnovers. Will Levis’ 11 interceptions in 2021 are a jarring problem for a team that is turning the ball over quite a bit. Consider how many turnovers Kentucky and Levis would have to commit in order to give New Mexico State a chance at actually winning this game. Because New Mexico State is so feeble, Levis can frankly get away with a few mistakes, but that’s where coaching comes in. This is a game in which the staff needs to drill deep and make Levis go back to basics on avoiding turnovers. NMSU is not going to apply maximum defensive pressure. Levis should be able to see the field and go through his progressions in ways which don’t lead to bad mistakes. Levis doesn’t need to test his limits here; he needs to test his patience and start fresh.
2 – Kentucky has one of the nation’s best rushing defenses, so throttle Juwan Price
The Wildcats have the nation’s 21st-best rushing defense. They’ve allowed 1,169 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the year. That’s an average of 3.72 yards per touch and only 116.9 yards per game. New Mexico State is 126th in the nation in total rushing offense. The Aggies have only managed 901 yards on the year. That’s 2.93 yards per touch and a game average of 90.1 yards. They’re not “Mississippi State” bad, given Mike Leach’s aversion to the ground game, but they’re pretty bad. Knowing that the run should be easy to shut down, Kentucky’s defense should target Aggies running back Juwan Price and quarterback Jonah Johnson. They’re the engine that powers the Aggie run game. If Kentucky can shut them down, Johnson really doesn’t have the skill level to beat the Wildcats over the top. He’s only a 58% passer who has barely more than a 1:1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions.
3 – Get the frontline players some rest
Kentucky is on the cusp of a potential 10-win season, including a bowl victory. A win against NMSU and archrival Louisville would put the Wildcats at nine wins headed into a bowl. This would give Mark Stoops his second 10-win season since taking over at Kentucky. Prior to Stoops, the last time Kentucky won 10 games was in 1977. The Wildcats have never had another coach win 10 games twice under his leadership. Bear Bryant came close by winning nine games in 1949 and 11 games in 1950. Fran Curci won nine games in 1976 (later changed by forfeit, but that’s off the field) and then won 10 games in 1977. The point here is that getting double-digit wins is a hard task at Kentucky, but Stoops seems to be up to it.
All of that said, the Wildcats do not need to risk too much in what will likely be a blowout game. Play the starters as long as necessary, but no longer. Everyone needs to be fresh for the Louisville game.