Tiger Opponent Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

On Saturday, the Missouri Tigers play host to the Kentucky Wildcats in SEC action.

On Saturday (3:00 P.M. SECN), the Missouri Tigers (6-2, 3-1) play host to the Kentucky Wildcats (5-3, 2-3) in SEC action.

Kentucky is coming in off of a 31-45 home loss to undefeated Mississippi State, while Missouri is coming off of a 24-14 home win over Vanderbilt.

“Kentucky is really a good football team,” said Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel. “They’re playing really well. Their quarterback is very, very impressive! (He’s) a sophomore. (He) does a lot of great things. And, they’re playing good defense. If you play good defense and your quarterback is playing well, you can have a lot of success. And that’s what they’re having right now.”

The Wildcats are a much-improved team this season under Head Coach Mark Stoops. They’re more athletic all over the field, and they are also faster and more physical. One more win this season, and Kentucky will be bowl-eligible for the first time in 4 years.

“We’re a more physical team this year than we were last year,” said Coach Stoops. “And, we’re going to be a more physical team next year than we are this year………………………………………… We’re working on that.”

In 6’5” 238-pound sophomore dual-threat QB Patrick Towles, Missouri will be facing one of the SEC’s best, and a likely future pro. On the season, Towles is 163-271-4 for 2077 yards and 12 TDs passing, and he’s rushed for a net of 204 yards and 4 TDs on 90 carries. He’s coming off of a career game against Mississippi State, in which he was 24-43-0 for 390 yards and 2 TDs passing, and in which he rushed for 76 yards and 2 TDs on 23 carries.

“I was very pleased with Patrick (Towles),” said Coach Stoops, following his sophomore QB’s career game. “Once he settled in, he really did some very good things. It was great to see him throw some big time passes. I thought he really threw the ball well. (He) threw the deep ball well. He put it in some tough spots. And, I thought he was extremely tough running the ball, as well…………………………………… It was great to see him make those big time throws, and to see our receivers step up and compete and make some plays for him, as well.”

Towles and Kentucky are improving. The Wildcats run an up-tempo multiple offense, with a lot of spread elements. And, with Towles as their trigger man, they’ve been able to put points on the board and rack up yardage through the air and on the ground. Kentucky is averaging 31.6 points/game and 426.5 yards/game. And, the Wildcats have surrendered 24.8 points/game and 378.2 yards/game.

However, in each of their three losses, the Wildcats have been out-rushed by a decisive margin. At Florida, Kentucky rushed for 81 yards on 33 carries, and gave up 237 yards and 1 TD on 50 carries. At LSU, the Wildcats ran for 71 yards on 27 carries, and gave up 303 rushing yards and 3 rushing TDs on 51 carries. Kentucky did better on the ground at home against Mississippi State, as they ran for 103 yards and 2 TDs on 32 carries, but the Bulldogs dominated on the ground, rushing for 326 yards and 4 TDs on 51 carries at Kentucky.

The Wildcats would like to be balanced offensively, and on the season, they’ve actually run the football more than they’ve thrown it. But, for all of their passing prowess, in order for Kentucky to be successful, they have to run the ball more effectively, or at least nearly as effectively, as their opponent.

On Tuesday, Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown said that the Wildcats had practiced well on Tuesday, and that improving their running game is a major emphasis for Kentucky this week.

“We’ve got to be able to run the ball,” said Coach Brown, citing Missouri’s outstanding ability to rush the passer. “We’ve got to feed the running backs and get them in a rhythm.”

Kentucky boasts a strong stable of running options, including 5’11” 189-pound junior Braylon Heard, 5’10” 194-pound sophomore JoJo Kemp, 6’1” 230-pound freshman Mikel Horton and 5’9” 200-pound freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams.

Heard has typically been the starter, and he’s third on the team in rushing attempts. He’s rushed for 299 yards and 3 TDs on 46 carries. Kemp is sometimes featured in the wildcat for the Wildcats, and he’s rushed for 314 yards and 4 TDs on 63 carries. Williams has been their most-effective running back, with 224 yards and 2 TDs on 30 carries. He’s also been their leading kick returner. He’s been cleared for this week to return from a concussion. Horton has rushed for 201 yards and 2 TDs on 39 carries. So as you see, Kentucky is rotating all four of their backs. And they do throw to them out of the backfield. Collectively, including the full back, their backs have accounted for 28 receptions. They’ve also been prone to laying the ball on the ground.

But Kentucky’ number one option in their run game has been Towles. He has 90 carries, and except for lost yardage, primarily due to sacks, he’d be their leading ground gainer. He’s a big guy, and although as a pro prospect, he projects as more of a pro-style pocket passer than a true dual threat, he’s athletic enough to be very effective as a runner in the Wildcats’ spread attack. The Wildcats utilize him on designed runs, and he’s almost unstoppable in short yardage situations, much like Missouri’s James Franklin was in recent years.

“A big guy who can run like he does is unusual,” said Coach Pinkel, speaking about Towles. “You’ve got to watch him, you know, because he goes well for a guy that weighs 235 pounds.”

The Wildcats typically line up with 1 or 2 running backs on the field. And, they usually have a tight end on the field. The two TEs who play for the Wildcats each have 3 receptions on the season. Their passing game is more about their WRs and their RBs.

The starters at wide-receiver are 5’10” 195-pound sophomore Ryan Timmons (36 receptions, 453 yards, 2 TDs), 5’10” 158-pound senior Demarco Robinson (24 receptions, 392 yards, 1 TD), and 6’0” 191-pound senior Javess Blue (15 receptions, 317 yards, 3 TDs). Nine different Kentucky WRs have caught at least 1 pass this year.

Interestingly, Kentucky lists 13 offensive positions on their Depth Chart, including a fourth WR and a FB. That’s somewhat indicative of just how many different personnel packages they utilize. So, their frequent substitution of various personnel, and the different ways that they utilize them in a variety of formations, combines with their up-tempo pace of play to put some pressure on the defense just to get lined up.

“We want to be a team that’s balanced,” said Coach Stoops. “You have to be able to run the ball some…………………………………………….. As you know, we’re not very good behind the chains. So, when we don’t convert on first down. When we get going, you know, get our tempo going, and get a good rhythm about us, we play extremely well. If we’re in predictable situations, not so well.”

Defensively, Kentucky typically lines up in a 4-3, although their Depth Chart lists a pair of DE/LBs in addition to their 3 DLs. Listed as a DE, 6’6” 263-pound senior Za’Darius Smith has been very productive (45 total tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks). He plays the run very well, and he can get after the QB, as well. Lining up over the nose is 6’4” 320-pound junior Melvin Lewis. And, 6’4” 264-pound DE/LB Alvin “Bud” Dupree really gets after the QB (5 QB hurries, (4 sacks). He’s the Wildcats’ second-leading tackler (45 total tackles), as well as their leading sack man.

The Wildcats’ MLB, 6’3” 236-pound junior Josh Forrest, is a sideline to sideline presence. He leads Kentucky in tackles with 65 total tackles. Kentucky has also gotten good production at the LB position from 6’1” 228-pound junior Khalid Henderson (45 total tackles, 2 fumble recoveries). He’s around the football a lot.

After that, it’s a trio of defensive backs for the Wildcats, in 6’0” 170-pound junior corner Fred Tiller (32 total tackles, 7 PBUs, 1 INT), 6’1” 220-pound senior safety Ashley Lowery (33 total tackles, 2 INTs), and 6’0” 199-pound junior safety A.J. Stamps (38 total tackles, 3 PBUs, 3 INTs).

Coach Stoops said that Kentucky, much like Missouri, has not played their best football game. He said that his team needs to improve their fundamentals.

“As we continue to push forward and develop this program, we need to be a better fundamental football team,” said Coach Stoops. “The errors in execution, missed assignments, technique, they’re all rooted in discipline. So, we need to continue to work, get better, and push forward.”

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