Kentucky will roll into Starkville on Saturday minus starting tailback Derrick Locke, who's out with a shoulder stinger. And while he will be missed, the Wildcats can make up for his absence with a big game from Randall Cobb, the junior receiver who does so much more than catch passes.
No. 23 Mississippi State (6-2, 2-2 SEC) must find a way to keep Cobb in check, because he alone makes Kentucky (4-4, 1-4) a team to be reckoned with.
"He's the head of the snake," MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "He's the first guy you have to be aware of, but at the same time they do a great job in their scheme where they'll run him on a fake reverse and hand the ball off to the back. They'll use him as eye candy as well to distract you.
"Just because he's the head of the snake, they're more than a one-man show."
Cobb is third in the SEC in all-purpose yardage, averaging 165.9 per game. He leads the team in receiving (511 yards, five touchdowns), is second in rushing (195 yards, three TDs), and is 4 of 6 passing for 51 yards and three scores.
He'll often run or throw out of the wildcat formation. He also returns kicks and punts, with one punt return for touchdown this season.
MSU held Cobb to 49 yards of offense and one touchdown in last season's meeting.
"Randall is a special player, definitely a special player for us here at Kentucky," UK coach Joker Phillips said, "and he's a guy that we've got to try to get it in his hands as much as we possibly can, whether it be as a pass receiver, snapping it to him some in the wildcat, handing it to him some on the reverses, and also catching punts and the kickoff returns."
Not having Locke might put a little more on Cobb's shoulders, but the Wildcats have gotten strong quarterback play this year from senior Mike Hartline. He's been in and out of the lineup since his sophomore season, but in fall camp Hartline beat out sophomore Morgan Newton for the starting job.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Hartline has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 2,144 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions. In a 31-28 upset of then-No. 10 South Carolina two weeks ago, he was 32 of 42 for 349 yards and four touchdowns as the Wildcats rallied from a 28-10 deficit.
"They can score in a hurry," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "With all those great athletes, they can put points up on the board, so they're never really out of a game."
Playing the role of Cobb on MSU's scout team this week has been freshman Jameon Lewis. Tailback LaDarius Perkins explains why.
"He has great hands, can catch the ball. He's pretty fast, too. And he's real shifty."
That pretty well describes Cobb, but Mullen and Diaz know that you can't get a true feel for the real thing from a scout team player, even one as talented as Lewis.
"If we had a guy that could simulate Randall Cobb, we'd be doing that every Saturday on offense," Diaz said. "There's not a lot of guys in this league like Cobb. But Jameon provides great quickness, a change of direction. He's a hard guy to tackle, one of the hardest guys to tackle on our football team."
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571