Unbeaten and No. 17 Kentucky savoring best start since 2008

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Benny Snell Jr. has answered every challenge with a punishing rushing performance that further stokes the Kentucky running back’s confidence.

The junior is getting plenty of chances thanks to the Wildcats’ relentless defense, a strong combination that has the unbeaten program off to its best start in a decade.

Saturday night yielded a second Top 25 upset in three games for Kentucky (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference), which is No. 17 in The Associated Press poll after pushing No. 14 Mississippi State up and down the field in a soggy 28-7 victory . The Wildcats also beat then-No. 25 Florida 27-16 on Sept. 8. Snell rushed for four touchdowns against MSU to silence another opponent determined to make him eat his words after declaring himself the SEC’s best back this summer.

Snell is now halfway toward his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, after his 25-carry, 165-yard effort gave him 540 for the season. He is 872 away from breaking Sonny Collins’ career mark of 3,835 and doesn’t seem inclined to stop talking because his performance backs him up.

“I don’t want to say I love it, because this is an every-week thing,” said Snell, who broke Randall Cobb’s previous career record of 37 total touchdowns and tied the school single-game mark for the second time.

“This has happened three weeks in a row, another player, they feel like they’re being targeted, so they want to say something. I’m proud and happy about this offense; we can go against anybody and I’m just speaking facts.”

Kentucky’s veteran defense feels pretty good about itself as well.

The Wildcats held an MSU offense that entered the game with the SEC’s top rushing game (311.7 yards) and No. 3 offense (587.7) to just 56 yards rushing and 201 overall. Other than allowing a second-quarter rushing TD by mobile Bulldogs QB Nick Fitzgerald, they gave little ground to a school considered one of the conference’s most physical on both sides of the ball.

Kentucky isn’t giving up much on the scoreboard in general after shutting out its fourth straight opponent in the third quarter. The Wildcats have been stingy in the first quarter as well, allowing only a field goal to Central Michigan in the opener.

Though they expected results from a unit experienced from front to back, the 35-yard interception return by redshirt freshman safety Tyrell Ajian demonstrated how everyone is contributing. And it led to Snell’s 36-yard TD run on the next play for a 21-7 lead.

“You look all around,” linebacker Kash Daniel said, “you got (defensive end/linebacker) Josh (Allen), our whole D-line, Jordan (Jones), everybody in the secondary — they came in and did their job. That’s what we’ve preached from Day 1, come in and don’t do anything extra and just be the best version of you and play in and play out.”

Kentucky is now curious to see where it can go over the final two-thirds of the season.

The Wildcats host South Carolina (2-1, 1-1) on Saturday night in search of their fifth consecutive series win before traveling the following week to Texas A&M, which just exited the rankings. Their remaining SEC schedule includes home games against Vanderbilt and No. 2 Georgia and road contests at Missouri and Tennessee.

Their hot start is nothing new under sixth-year coach Mark Stoops, who began 5-1 in 2014 and 4-1 the next season before finishing 5-7 both times. On the other hand, Kentucky’s pursuit of its third straight bowl berth symbolizes the subsequent turnaround, and the coach continues to stress that winning attitude.

“You have to learn to win, you have to have confidence,” he said. “I’ve seen a difference in practicing to get better instead of just putting them in a situation of trying to learn plays. Just taking it to another level.”

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