"It's a critical game," agreed Ballard. "For us to get to a bowl game it is a must-win game."
Coach Dan Mullen echoes this outlook on Saturday's 7:00et meeting in Commonwealth Stadium. "Obviously it's a huge game. It could be a turning point for both of us, and jump start the rest of the season for us to get in a bowl-game."
Both sides are indeed hanging much of their post-season possibility on the inter-Division matchup. If any other incentive were needed, each seeks the first SEC victory as well. Unkind first-half scheduling has hurt both; all four Bulldog losses are to opponents who were or have been ranked, while Kentucky's three SEC setbacks have been to top-20 teams.
So State and UK alike hang all hopes on season second-halves that seem somewhat more promising, though the Bulldogs do have a couple of top-ten foes still ahead. Which makes this week all the more important if Mullen's squad is to score another holiday date. And even if the Wildcats have had a grueling season so far the Bulldog boss assumes nothing for granted.
Well, other than this should be another typical Dog-Kat fight. "We've battled very close my two years here, it's come down to the wire." True enough as while Mullen is 2-0 against Kentucky in this job the final scores were just a touchdown apart. For that matter five of the last six meetings have been decided by seven or fewer points.
No wonder that literally mere minutes after State left Scott Field following a 14-12 loss to South Carolina, their coach was turning attention ahead. "Like Coach Mullen said in the locker room, this game is probably going to come down to the fourth quarter," Ballard reported. "So that's what we're preparing ourselves for."
The best bye-week preparation though was more about fixing some of Mississippi State's own issues. Most notably the ground game. The Bulldogs stand a respectable 5th-best in SEC rushing stats this week, but that is for the season as a whole. In league-only play State drops a couple of notches as output falls from 180 yards per game to 143. The average gain, from 4.3 to 3.4.
The radical difference of course can be found in rushing results against LSU (52 yards) and Georgia (56). Otherwise the Bulldogs have had some solid performances this season, and at Auburn they rolled up 333 running yards. Fact remains, an offense built around pounding the ground hasn't produced as expected and certainly not as it did in 2010's run, so to speak, to nine wins.
Obviously disruptions to an already semi-rebuilt offensive line have been a factor. Yet lead Dog Ballard finds no scheme or personnel groupings at fault for the fall-off. Nor, he said, was there any single aspect addressed during open-date drills. "Nothing. Just try to execute better. Because when it comes down to it, that's what it is. So we're just working on our execution."
That simple. Now, State fans—for that matter most football fans—have come to loathe hearing ‘execution' blamed because it isn't something exciting or easy to judge. And blame. But it's the fact and not just in Ballard's opinion. Guess who promotes this most strongly?
"Everything is a matter of execution," Mullen reminded this week. "We just have to finish and make plays."
On the ground especially. It's been a frustrating fall for Ballard there, as he has managed just one touchdown in four SEC outings. This from the tailback who as a junior smashed State records for both rushing and overall touchdowns scored. Ballard is still netting 85 yards per weekend and 5.7 per touch, he just isn't making it across the goal line nearly so often as last fall. Reasons?
"I don't know, I hadn't really put much thought into it. I just try to do my job when my number is called," said Ballard. As for suggestions defenses now focus on him, or scheme differently, "Not that I know of, just everything is pretty much the same. And it really doesn't matter what they do. We can control what we do, and that's executing."
There it is again, execution. Thing is, Mullen believes his Bulldogs are closer to achieving it than the stat sheet shows. Though, Ballard notes, against South Carolina the offense rushed for 131 yards or more than the LSU/Georgia games combined. "Yeah, I felt really good about the production last game. Now we need to build off that and continue to get better." Not to mention more consistent.
Mullen sets the standard of four yards per rush, no matter if Ballard or LaDarius Perkins or Chris Relf or Tyler Russell does the toting. Punch out a fast four and suddenly second and third downs are much more makeable. It isn't as if Mullen disdains what he calls ‘explosive' plays of double-digit gains, but he is not building the gameplan around expecting such. Four, four, and four more mean moving the chains and starting another sequence.
The hold-up has come with first down failures, even losses, or pre-snap penalties that put the ground game "behind the chains" as Mullen calls it. There has been improvement in the passing game of late with soph QB Tyler Russell coming to the fore since UAB. So maybe such situations can be better handled in the future. Still Mullen wants to get it all started on the ground with that four yard goal.
Ballard understands, and says practice week emphasis has been on basic execution with an added point of ball security. State and Kentucky share something else in common besides their records; it's proven over two years that both win the games when they come out ahead on turnovers.
The senior tailback knows he has a job in store. Kentucky may be at the bottom of SEC rushing defenses but the Wildcats are doing everything possible to shore up the front based on what Ballard sees in scouting. "They like to walk their linebackers up, and they use one guy outside the end and the other one they replace at the end." Not just any linebackers either, as Kentucky has the top two tacklers in the SEC as of this week.
And Mississippi State must take it right at ‘em anyway.
"It's very important," said Ballard, "because I know if we can get the run game going we'll get the passing game going, too. When everything gets to clicking, that's when we start scoring points. It takes most of the stress off the defense, then we can start winning games."
That, says Mullen, is a game plan. "We're both 3-4 right now, we both need that win to get back to .500. As the season is getting towards the second half it puts you in position to have a winning season and get yourself to a bowl game. So it's a huge game for us."
The kind of game that can really spring State forward to a winning fall after all.