It’s hard to really say how Missouri got here. They’re not an exceptionally talented team, but they’re not bad. They don’t have a hall of fame coach, but Gary Pinkel isn’t a bad coach either. Their schedule isn’t brutal, but they’ve played their share of good teams. Somehow, some way, Missouri is sitting at 8-1 on the year and is squarely in first place in the SEC East. On the other hand, Kentucky limps into this game with a 2-6 record and has yet to win a single SEC game this season.
When Kentucky has the ball:
The UK offense was effective against Alabama State last week and showed some explosiveness through the running game. This week the challenge will be much tougher as the Missouri defense is eons better than Alabama State’s. The Tigers are just downright nasty and have managed to pile up some astounding numbers with their aggressive play including 27 sacks, 17 interceptions, and 7 fumble recoveries. They employ a heavy dose of the nickel package and use the extra defensive backs to blitz the passer as well as cover the receivers. While the defense’s aggressiveness pays off frequently, it also makes them vulnerable as well. The Tigers are allowing almost 280 yards a game through the air and have allowed some teams to hang around and make games closer than they should have been. Kentucky’s offense will be trying to figure out how to operate a passing attack with injuries piling up at receiver. Junior Javess Blue missed the last game with an eye injury, and Alex Montgomery and Ryan Timmons both left the field with leg injuries. Those three account for over 50% of Kentucky’s receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns this season. It appears that the Wildcats will once again count on Ray Sanders, Jojo Kemp, and Jalen Whitlow to carry the team by running the ball. The only problem is that Missouri is only allowing opponents 3.5 yards a carry this season.
When Missouri has the ball:
The Kentucky defense had some good moments against Alabama State, but didn’t necessarily dominate their opponent despite the Hornets being a FCS school. The Wildcat defense is allowing opposing teams almost 200 yards a game on the ground and also allowing 223 yards a game through the air. On the other side of the field, Missouri is averaging 237 yards a game on the ground and 262 yards a game through the air. Kentucky will have to focus on shutting down a three headed rushing attack of Josey, Hansbrough, and Murphy to get any type of momentum against the offense. The Tigers like to spread the field and stretch defenses from sideline to sideline, so many of the Wildcats’ packages may be defensive back heavy, effectively putting standout freshmen Marcus McWilson and Blake McClain on the field more often, which could help OR hurt depending on how well they play. The biggest factor in this game though, could be the overall team experience of the Tigers’ offense.
Players to know for Missouri:
#20 – Henry Josey – RB
None of the Missouri backs are overly large, with all three weighing in between 190-195, but Josey in particular, plays much bigger than his size would indicate. As a runner, he averages 5.7 yards per carry and is a more than cable receiver out of the backfield. Josey has big-play potential and can easily take a simple off tackle play for 50+ yards if the defense doesn’t play sound techniques.
#2 – L’Damian Washington – WR
Washington is a nightmare for defensive backs. He’s 6’4 and has speed to burn at that size. So far this season, he has managed to haul in 36 catches for 680 yards and a ridiculous 9 touchdowns. Marcus Lucas is the team’s possession guy, Dorial Green-Beckham is the developmental guy, and Washington is the go-to guy when the team needs a big play.
#52 – Michael Sam– DE
He’s certainly undersized as a defensive lineman and teammate Kony Ealy is getting most of the NFL attention, but 6’2 255 pound Michael Sam has been electrifying for the Missouri defense this season. He has 16 tackles-for-a-loss this year and ten of those have been quarterback sacks. Slowing down the pass rush should be priority number one for the Kentucky offensive line.
Potential breakout players:
#2 – Jalen Whitlow – QB
Well, it appears that the staff has pegged Whitlow as their guy for the rest of the season and his play has supported that…at times. A staunch Missouri defense will come to Lexington looking to make Whitlow’s life a living hell this weekend and it will be up to him to protect the football. Put simply, if Whitlow does not turn the ball over, Missouri’s aggressiveness can be their Achilles Heel. If he can avoid sacks, fumbles, and interceptions, Whitlow could be in for a career day.
#13 – Jeff Badet – WR
Injuries to Blue, Montgomery, and Timmons make the receiver position cloudy heading into Saturday. Badet stepped up against Alabama State and provided Whitlow with a consistent option in the passing game and looked good catching the ball. After lying in the shadows of the other three and junior Demarco Robinson for much of the year, Badet could be in a fantastic position to break out in this game against an overly aggressive group of defensive backs.
#50 – Mike Douglas – DT
Douglas has been an afterthought for much of his career at Kentucky but has managed to consistently improve as this season has progressed. As his playing time has increased, so has his productivity. Against a spread offense this week, Douglas’ superior athleticism should put him on the field over the more stationary Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble, and against an offensive line that has been suspect against inside pressure this year.
#3 – Fred Tiller – CB
In the past few games, Tiller has really stepped up as a run supporter and has continued to improve in pass defense. He will be important again this week for a couple of reasons. First, the spread offense that Missouri plays lends itself to a lot of outside sweep/jet/stretch type runs and cornerback run support can be the difference when playing a team like this. Secondly, Missouri has one of the tallest receiving corps in the country. Actually, every receiver that has caught more than one pass this year is at least 6’0 tall. Tiller will have an opportunity to use his size to man up these bigger wide outs.
I actually felt better about this game last week than I do now. Kentucky’s inability to effectively execute a consistent passing attack could make the Wildcat offense a serious liability against Missouri. With the Tiger’s blitz-happy defense that forces opponents into mistakes, Kentucky cannot afford to get behind early or they will risk letting their competition open the floodgates on them. The Wildcats look like they will be forced to try and run the ball with heavy doses of Sanders, Kemp, and Whitlow against a defense that knows exactly what is coming. On defense, Kentucky will be playing a surprisingly balanced offense that is equally comfortable running and throwing. Despite this, Missouri has been somewhat mistake prone at times and their offensive line is not as good as their 671 yards per game stat might indicate. If Kentucky can keep the running game in check it makes this a much easier game to coach for Eliot and his staff. Ultimately, this game is likely to come down to turnovers and quarterback play. Missouri is one of the top defenses in the country at forcing turnovers and Kentucky’s quarterback play has just not been good enough to think that the Cats will be able to hold out for a win. Playing in Lexington helps, but not enough.
Missouri 38 – Kentucky 27