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By DAVID BRANDT
AP Sports Writer
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Ã¢â‚¬â€ Mississippi StateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s recent success has been built on defense, but during last weekÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 29-24 victory over Alabama-Birmingham, that defense showed some holes.
The Bulldogs (6-2, 2-2 SEC) say that canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t happen again when they host Kentucky (4-4, 1-4) tonight. The Wildcats are second in the conference in scoring, averaging nearly 35 points, thanks to rapidly improving quarterback Mike Hartline and versatile playmaker Randall Cobb.
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said his unitÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s poor performance wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t a reason to panic, but it certainly gave the defense more reason to focus over the past week.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We were playing with a dull blade,Ã¢â‚¬Â Diaz said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We just lacked cutting edge. Our tackling was poor Ã¢â‚¬â€ we regressed there. I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think we covered very well, and we didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t play the run very well.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The good news for the Bulldogs is theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve certainly played well before Ã¢â‚¬â€ especially in a 10-7 win two weeks ago at then-No. 22 Florida. For the season, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re allowing 17 points per game.
Holding Kentucky to that total will be a challenge, considering the Wildcats have scored at least 31 each of their last four games. But linebacker Chris White said its important that the defense doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t fall into the trap of saying itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s OK to give up a few points.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Our goal is stop them completely,Ã¢â‚¬Â said White, who has 25 tackles over the past two games. Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not arrogant to say they ainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t going to get a point, but my goal is we canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t just say, Ã¢â‚¬â„¢Hey, letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s give them seven points here and try to stop them next time,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ because they might get more points than we want them to.Ã¢â‚¬Â
KentuckyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s offense is expected to miss running back Derrick Locke, who has a shoulder injury. But the Wildcats still have plenty of offense between Hartline and Cobb.
Hartline has quietly become one of the SECÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most prolific quarterbacks, throwing for 2,144 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions this season. Cobb is the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s leading receiver with 47 catches for 511 yards and five touchdowns. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s second-leading rusher and a threat to throw, completing 4 of 6 passes for 51 yards and three touchdowns.
Diaz said Cobb presents a Ã¢â‚¬Å“unique challengeÃ¢â‚¬Â thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s different than facing AuburnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Cameron Newton, who is a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“In a way, (Cobb) presents a more dynamic element than Newton even, because he can be lined up anywhere,Ã¢â‚¬Â Diaz said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Cam Newton is tough to deal with, but they snap it to him every play for the most part. But with Cobb, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no telling.Ã¢â‚¬Â