On Saturday (11:00 A.M., ESPNU), the Missouri Tigers (3-4, 0-4) play host to the Kentucky Wildcats (1-7, 0-5) in Southeastern Conference action. Missouri is coming off of their bye week, after having played one of the strongest schedules in the country through seven games. Kentucky is coming in off of a 24-29 loss at home to #10 Georgia. The Wildcats have been competitive in their homes games, but have been blown out in their three road games, losing by the cumulative score of 21-119.
Because of a lack of depth, and a spate of injuries, Kentucky Head Coach Joker Phillips has been forced to play quite a number of young players, including several true freshmen. It appears that Kentucky may get some of their injured players back for the Missouri game, but they're still going to be playing short-handed, and playing a lot of young players.
The most significant injury to a Kentucky player this year has been the season-ending injury to the Wildcats' starting QB, Maxwell Smith. In his stead, a pair of true freshmen have taken over at the QB position for the Wildcats. Jalen Whitlow 6'2" 202 has played the most of the two. On the season, Whitlow is 34-73-2 (47%) for 368 yards and 1 TD passing. His passer efficiency rating is 87.96, and he's rushed the football 39 times for a net of 78 yards and 2 TDs. Whitlow appears to be the better runner of the two freshmen QBs, and he's more of a dual threat than is fellow freshman, Patrick Towles 6'5" 242. Coach Phillips had planned to red-shirt Towles, but after Smith went down for the season, Coach Phillips pulled Towles' red-shirt. On his first drive, Towles was 5-5 for 71 yards and a TD. Shortly after that, Towles sprained an ankle, and has been out of the line-up. He's practiced this week, and Coach Phillips said that Whitlow will start, but that both freshmen QBs will play at Missouri.
With the Wildcats relying on freshmen QBs, it's been especially important that they've had some success running the football. Kentucky was especially encouraged that they were able to rush for a season-high 206 yards and 2 TDs against Georgia last week. On the season, Kentucky has run the football an average of 30 times /game, and have averaged 4.0 yards/carry. An interesting statistic for the Wildcats is that they have rushed for at least one touchdown in each of their homes games, but they do not have a rushing TD on the road this season. Of course, in their three road losses, the Wildcats have been blown out, so they haven't been able to stick with their running game. At home, the Wildcats have been in games longer, and have been able to continue to run the football.
When the ‘Cats do run the football, it's usually one of their junior tailbacks toting the rock. Jonathan George 5'10" 223 averages 7.5 carries/game and 4.8 yards/carry , and Raymond Sanders 5'8" 197 averages 9.5 carries/game and 5.2 yards/carry. And between them, George and Sanders have also averaged almost 3 receptions/game.
Before he was injured, Smith was getting a lot of mileage out of the Wildcats' receiving corps, which is led by senior La'Rod King 6'4" 222. The talented King leads Kentucky with 35 receptions, 396 receiving yards, and 4 receiving TDs. Sophomore WR Demarco Robinson 5'10" 158 has 22 receptions and 194 receiving yards on the season. He's also the Wildcats' primary punt returner. Senior receiver Aaron Boyd 6'4" 214 has 19 receptions for 172 receiving yards, including 2 receptions for TDs. Red-shirt freshman Daryl Collins 5'11" 196 has 15 receptions for 156 yards on the season.
Starting left guard Zack West was listed as day-to-day, but he didn't get on the practice field until Thursday. It sounds like he'll be a game day decision.
On the defensive side of the football, Kentucky has been better against the run than against the pass. The Wildcats are giving up 4.2 yards/carry on the ground, and 8.2 yards/pass attempt.
Earlier this week, Coach Phillips said that his Wildcats will have to "do a good job of playing in space".
Injuries have plagued Kentucky in the secondary, which has left Coach Phillips relying heavily on freshmen for the back end of his defense. But the Wildcats expect to get one veteran DB back on the field this week. Coach Phillips said on Thursday that senior safety Mikie Benton 5'11" 195 "will play" at Missouri. Benton has 11 tackles and 1 forced fumble on the season. His experience is especially needed back on the field because it appears that senior safety Martavius Neloms 6'1" 186 may not be able to play. He's tried to get on the field this week, but he has been limited in practice. It appears that senior corner Cartier Rice 5'10" 187 will be a game day decision on whether or not he'll be able to play. The Wildcats start a true freshman at one corner, in Cody Quinn 5'10" 163. Quinn has performed well, with 19 tackles and a team-leading 3 pass-break-ups. His back-up, as well as the back-ups at the three other spots in the secondary, are true freshmen, as well. Freshman corner Fred Tiller 6'0" 180 has 21 tackles and 2 PBUs on the season. So, the Wildcats secondary is either inexperienced or of questionable health.
"At times, they're getting worked over," said Coach Phillips, talking about his young secondary. "But, they're also getting a lot of work."
Coach Phillips went on to say that his young DBs have done a good job of tackling.
"You don't see them missing a lot of tackles," said Coach Phillips. "We did a good job of tackling."
The guys up front on the defensive side of the football have done a good job for Kentucky. Junior DT Donte Rumph 6'3" 315 is a productive player with 27 tackles, including 3 sacks. Fellow starter, junior DT Tristian Johnson 6'1" 272, has 20 tackles, as well. Kentucky's defensive ends, senior Collins Ukwu 6'5" 258 (34 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 QBHs, 1 forced fumble, and 1 blocked kick), and senior Taylor Wyndham 6'4" 243 (24 tackles, 6 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 QBHs, 1 fumble recovery) are very productive players, as well.
The Wildcats utilize a base 4-3-4 defense, but they will likely look more like a 4-2-5 against Missouri. Coach Phillips has a LB/DE hybrid-type guy at the WLB position in sophomore Alvin Dupree 6'4" 247. Dupree is one of the Wildcats' most productive defensive players, with 57 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, and 3.5 sacks on the season. He might move over some of the time and take Wyndham's place at DE.
Junior MLB Avery Williamson 6'1" 254 is Kentucky's best defensive player. He leads the Wildcats with 81 tackles, and has 1 of Kentucky's 2 interceptions on the season. He's all over the field, and he doesn't leave the field when Kentucky is on defense.