On Saturday (11:00 A.M., ESPNU), the #8 Missouri Tigers (8-1, 4-1) travel to Lexington to take on the Kentucky Wildcats (2-6, 0-4) in SEC action. Missouri comes in off of a decisive 31-3 home win over Tennessee, while Kentucky is coming off of 48-14 shellacking of Alabama State.
The Wildcats are looking for their first conference win of the season, and would like nothing better than to upset the East Division-leading Tigers.
Kentucky averages 24.0 points/game and has surrendered an average of 27.2 points/game. The Wildcats rank in the lower echelon of the conference in most statistical categories, including rushing defense, as first-year Head Coach Mark Stoops' Wildcats are surrendering an average of 197.6 rushing yards/game.
Yet, in the SEC, even the lower-echelon teams are competitive.
"One thing that is I think really different in this league than other leagues that I've been associated with, and I've been associated with most of the leagues in the country, is that in my short time in the SEC is that there's so little drop off in the teams in this league," said Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel. "Every team we play is good. They've got good personnel. And, some have better years than other years. But certainly, I think this applies to Kentucky. So, they're a good football team."While Kentucky has utilized a two-quarterback system for much of the season, in recent weeks, 6'2" 220-pound sophomore Jalen Whitlow has laid claim to the starting job. On the season, Whitlow is 67-103-1 (65%) for 690 yards and 5 TDs passing for a passer efficiency rating of 135. 40. He's also rushed for 351 yards and 5 TDs on 63 carries (5.6 yards/carry). Whitlow's back-up is 6'4" 218-pound sophomore Maxwell Smith, who has made three starts this season, and has appeared in all but one game for the Wildcats. On the season, Smith is 70-129-1 (54%) for 873 yards and 6 TDs passing, for a passer efficiency rating of 124.91. He's not nearly the rushing threat that Whitlow is. "(Kentucky's two quarterbacks) are (each) a little bit different," said Coach Pinkel. "I think, in terms of preparation, it's significant……………………………… We've got to be prepared for both (of them)." The Wildcats rely on a pair of running backs, in 5'8" 187-pound senior Raymond Sanders (77 carries, 370 yards, 2 TDs) (4.8 yards/carry), and 5'10" 190-pound freshman JoJo Kemp (72 carries, 390 yards, 2 TDs) (5.4 yards/carry). Sanders also has 11 receptions for 65 yards, and he may figure in prominently in the passing game against Missouri, who has at times been vulnerable to screens and dump offs. Kentucky will be without two of their top three receivers, both of whom are out with injuries. That leaves the Wildcats with their leading receiver, in 6'0" 190-pound junior college transfer Javess Blue (28 receptions, 345 yards, 2 TDs), along with 5'10" 158-pound junior Demarco Robinson (12 receptions, 140 yards, 2 TDs), and 6'1' 189-pound sophomore A.J. Legree (4 receptions, 36 yards), as their likely starters. With two of their top three receivers sidelined, look for the Wildcats to incorporate more use of their tight ends. Thus far this season, three of Kentucky's tight ends have garnered receptions, including 6'4" 232-pound senior Jordan Aumiller (8 receptions, 70 yards), 6'3' 233-pound senior Anthony Kendrick (7 receptions, 120 yards), and 6'3" 237-pound junior Steven Borden (3 receptions, 63 yards, 1 TD). Up front, Kentucky's offensive line averages over 6'5" and 291 pounds. They're a relatively young group, with just one senior starter.
Whitlow runs very well, and he's very athletic, and he's most dangerous when he's scrambling out of the pocket. He's very effective as a runner in the open field. Kentucky runs a multiple offense, which includes spread looks, as well as power sets featuring a fullback. Look for Kentucky to utilize a variety of screens and draws in an attempt to offset Missouri's ferocious pass rush.
At mid-week, Coach Stoops provided some insight into what he thinks his offense will need to do to handle Missouri's defensive pressure.
"We'll have our hands full," explained Coach Stoops. "If you watch us, we try to get rid of the ball relatively quick at times, and pick our spots in the drop-back passing game. But we'll have to be very conscious of (their rush) at all times, you know, and get rid of the football, and screen them, and dump the ball down, and try to have good balance within our offense."
Kentucky utilizes a base 4-3 defense. The Wildcats have a pair of very good defensive ends, in 6'4" 252-pound junior Alvin Dupree and 6'6" 254-pound junior college transfer Z'Darius Smith. They are each among Kentucky's most productive defensive players, as Dupree has amassed a team-leading 7.5 tackles-for-loss among his 45 total tackles, and he is tied with Smith for the team lead in sacks (5.5). Dupree has also been credited with a pass-break-up, 2 QB hurries, and 2 forced fumbles. Smith has 37 total tackles on the season, to go along with his 5.5 sacks, 5 QBHs, and a PBU.
Kentucky's most-productive defender is 6'1" 238-pound senior MLB Avery Williamson, whose team-leading 76 total tackles is tied for second-most in the conference. Williamson has also been credited with 1.5 TFLs, and 2 QBHs, and he's recovered a pair of fumbles.
Another very productive player for the Wildcats is 5'11" 182-pound junior safety Eric Dixon, who has 42 total tackles on the season, including 0.5 sacks, and 1 forced fumble.
Kentucky's special teams have been very competitive.
"I feel like our team has been working hard and improving," explained Coach Stoops. "I think we're getting better in certain areas. We scored a few more points (last week). Our defense is getting better each week. Special teams came up with another blocked punt, and some good plays. Overall, we're getting better, but we understand that we have a lot of work ahead of us still."
"We're looking forward to playing Missouri this week," said Coach Stoops. "So, we're looking forward to another great challenge."
(NCAA Ranking in Parentheses)
MIZZOU______ CATEGORY______ KENTUCKY
500.0 (15)______Total Offense_______ 357.6 (98)
237.2 (16)_____ Rushing Offense_____ 162.3 (69)
262.8 (41)_____ Passing Offense______ 195.4 (95)
149.71 (28)____ Pass Efficiency _____ 129.57 (69)
40.6 (13)______Scoring Offense_______24.0 (91)
388.8 (56)______Total Defense_______ 421.0 (82)
109.4 (17)_____ Rushing Defense______197.6 (95)
279.3 (113)__ Passing Yds. Allowed____223.4 (49)
119.18 (40)__Pass Efficiency Defense __145.32 (100)
20.6 (T-23)____ Scoring Defense______27.3 (T-70)
1.7 (3)_______ Turnover Margin_______0.4 (T-41)
0.468 (27)___ 3rd Down Conv. Pct_____0.286 (116)
0.667 (T-10)__4th Down Conv. Pct_____0.714 (6)
0.355 (34)____ 3rd Conv. Pct.Def. ____ 0.450 (103)
0.844 (54)_____Red Zone Offense____ 0.808 (T-79)
0.833 (T-68)___Red Zone Defense____ 0.806 (T-48)
35.60 (93)_______Net Punting_________37.07 (67)
4.29 (101)_______Punt Returns_________5.94 (90)
22.12 (52)______Kickoff Returns_______23.57 (29)
229 (10)______First Downs Offense_____145 (108)
185 (86)______First Downs Defense_____168 (60)
5.33 (T-46)___Fewest Penalties/Game ___5.50 (T-54)
30:33 (48)_____Time of Possession_____ 26:51 (113)