Missouri kicked off its second season under head coach Eli Drinkwitz with a 34-24 win over Central Michigan on Saturday. Now comes a tougher test. The Tigers will travel to Kentucky to face a Wildcat team that eviscerated Louisiana-Monroe 45-10 in Week One.
Not only did the Kentucky passing game show signs of life with Penn State transfer Will Levis at quarterback, but the Wildcat defense currently ranks No. 1 in the country after surrendering just 87 total yards to the Warhawks. Throw in the fact that a sellout crowd is expected at Kroger Field for Missouri’s first road test and first SEC matchup of the season, and it becomes clear why Drinkwitz has sought to downplay expectations a bit in advance of his team’s trip to Lexington.
“There’s a lot of stuff we really gotta work on,” Drinkwitz said on Wednesday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference. “We’re nowhere near ready to play such a good team on the road right now.”
Every year since Missouri joined the SEC in 2012, the winner of the game between the Tigers and Wildcats has gone on to finish higher in the SEC East standings. Here is everything you need to know to get set for the pivotal matchup.
Missouri ended a five-year losing streak against Kentucky last season. (Mizzou Athletics)
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Location: Kroger Field, Lexington, KY
TV: SEC Network (Taylor Zarzour, Matt Stinchcomb, Alyssa Lang)
Radio: Tiger Radio Network (Mike Kelly, Howard Richards, Chris Gervino)
Spread: Kentucky -5
Series history: Kentucky leads 7-4
Last matchup: Missouri won 20-10 in 2020
By the Numbers
2021 Offensive Statistics
2021 Defensive Statistics
Mizzou Injury Report
OL Case Cooke
WR Mookie Cooper
WR Boo Smith
CB Kris Abrams-Draine
WR Barrett Banister
DL Ben Key
WR Jay Maclin
DL Cannon York
Inside the Matchups
When Missouri has the ball:
The Missouri offense had its ups and downs against Central Michigan. In the positive column, running back Tyler Badie looked just as explosive as in years past while taking on a far larger workload. Filling in for the departed Larry Rountree III as Missouri’s feature back, Badie rushed for 203 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries and turned three catches into 40 yards and another score. Quarterback Connor Bazelak hit on a 63-yard bomb to Boo Smith on the first play and turned in a solid QBR of 157.3. However, the Tiger offense struggled on third downs, largely a result of falling behind the chains. Missouri converted just one of 11 third down opportunities. The one conversion came on the only time the offense had less than five yards to go to convert; the average length of the Tigers’ third down attempts was 11.1 yards. Drinkwitz stressed this week that his team needs to cut down on the negative plays that resulted in so many third-and-long situations.
Doing so will be easier said than done against a stout Kentucky defense. The Wildcats have typically been strong on that side of the ball under Mark Stoops, finishing each of the past three seasons among the top 50 nationally in total defense, and through one week, this year’s unit is no exception. Kentucky allowed just 87 total yards to Louisiana-Monroe, including just 17 yards on the ground.
The Wildcat defense is led by defensive end Josh Paschal, who was picked to the preseason all-SEC second team. He’s joined along the defensive line by Marquan McCall and Jordan Wright, both of whom earned praise from Drinkwitz this week. The Kentucky defensive front will likely pose a challenge for a Missouri offensive line that was up and down in Week One. DeAndre Square and Jacquez Johnson lead the way at linebacker, while the secondary includes returning starters Yusuf Corker and Cedrick Dort Jr. Kentucky was a bit susceptible on the ground last season, as six of the Wildcat’s 10 opponents ran for at least 175 yards (including Missouri). This will be the first real opportunity to gauge whether the Wildcats have taken a step forward there.
When Kentucky has the ball:
The past few years, the game plan to stop Kentucky’s offense has been simple: stop the run. But with Levis behind center and former Los Angeles Rams assistant Liam Coen calling the plays, Kentucky looks to have found a passing game, which greatly complicates the task of Missouri defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.
Levis completed 18 of 26 passes for 367 yards and four touchdowns last week. By far his two favorite targets were Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali. The two wideouts combined to receive 15 targets on Kentucky’s 32 pass attempts and caught 10 passes for 261 total yards and three touchdowns. Both players look like downfield threats; according to Pro Football Focus, Robinson’s average depth of target was 15.3 yards, while Ali’s was 15.8.
Yet the Missouri defense can’t ignore the Kentucky running game, either. Fourth-year tailback Chris Rodriguez Jr. averaged 6.6 yards per rush and gained 125 yards on the ground last week. The biggest key for the Tigers will likely be getting better play out of its defensive line. Central Michigan was able to open up some big holes on the ground against the Tigers, with nine rushing plays that went for 10 yards or more, and most of Missouri’s pressure came via blitz rather than its front four. The Tigers likely won’t be able to send extra rushers as often against Kentucky unless Wilks is comfortable with putting his corners on islands against Ali and Robinson. The issue for Missouri, however, is that Kentucky’s offensive line is regarded as one of the best in the SEC, particularly at the two tackle spots.
The kicking game loomed large for Missouri last week, with Harrison Mevis making two clutch field goals, including a 53-yarder that gave the Tigers the lead right before halftime, and punter Grant McKinniss placing three punts inside the Chippewa 12-yard line. The Tigers should have a slight advantage in those areas again this week. Matt Ruffolo has been a reliable kicker for Kentucky, but perhaps not quite as strong as Mevis. Last seaosn, he made 12 of 14 field goal attempts and 22 of 23 extra points. However, he’s never made a kick from beyond 50 yards. Freshman Wilson Berry has drawn the unenviable task of replacing Max Duffy (who, ironically enough, beat out McKinniss for the starting job, prompting McKinniss to transfer) at punter. Berry averaged 35 yards on two boots last week.
Missouri will hope to get another big game out of Tyler Badie against Kentucky. (Denny Medley/USA Today)
Missouri’s keys to the game
1. Contain Kentucky’s run game. …
Yes, Levis has gotten all the headlines this week (and really dating back to his bizarre decision to film himself eating an unpeeled banana), but to slow down Kentucky, the top priority still has to be stopping the run. Rodriguez and the Wildcat offensive line have proven a potent combination. Across his entire Kentucky career — 211 carries — Rodriguez is averaging 7.0 yards per rush. If Kentucky is able to get him going, Missouri will likely have to bring extra defenders into the box, which will set up Coen to use play-action to get receivers open. Key to improving against the run will be tackling. According to PFF, Missouri missed 16 tackles against Central Michigan.
2. … But don’t give up the big play.
All that said, Missouri can’t devote eight or nine guys to stopping the Kentucky ground game like it might have been able to do in years past. Both Robinson and Ali are true home run threats who can both make catches down the field or turn a short completion into a big gain. Ali caught a 58-yard touchdown last week while Robinson grabbed a 62-yard score. Missouri’s secondary looked solid last week, but the Tigers need to avoid letting the duo of Robinson and Ali get free for a big, momentum-changing play. Missouri can probably afford to give up some intermediate routes and force Levis to beat it by consistently completing passes and sustaining drives, but it can’t get beat over the top. Having free safety Jaylon Carlies available for the full game should help.
3. Don’t fall behind the chains.
The Missouri offense had 13 plays go for negative yardage against Central Michigan. That’s cause for concern as the Tigers prepare to face an even more talented defensive line that racked up 14 tackles for loss of its own in Week One. Drinkwitz isn’t likely to ask his offensive line to consistently overpower Kentucky like it did last season, but Missouri needs to avoid falling behind the chains and putting Bazelak outside of his comfort zone, in obvious passing situations on third and long. Improving the third down conversion rate is a must if Missouri harbors hopes of returning from Lexington with a win.
Numbers to Know
2,513: Days since Kentucky had a quarterback throw for more yards than Levis’ 376 against Louisiana-Monroe. Patrick Towles threw for 390 against Mississippi State on Oct. 25, 2014.
12.6: Levis’ average depth of target on all passes last week. For comparison, Bazelak’s mark against Central Michigan was 8.2.
1.38: Yards per play allowed by the Kentucky defense against Louisiana-Monroe.
15: Sacks Missouri and Kentucky combined to record in Week One. Missouri’s nine sacks tied for the most in the country, while Kentucky had six sacks against Louisiana-Monroe.
276: Discrepancy in total yardage between Missouri and Kentucky in last year’s matchup. Missouri ran 92 plays compared to 36 for Kentucky and held the ball for 43:10.
Mitchell Forde: I do want to point out that Kentucky’s Week One opponent, Louisiana-Monroe, is absolutely dreadful, and I think a lot of people have been making too much of the Wildcats’ performance. I can absolutely see scenarios in which Missouri wins this game, particularly if Levis struggles against a better defense and in a more high-pressure environment. That said, I think Missouri is out-manned along both lines of scrimmage, which is typically not a recipe for success in the SEC. Add in the first real road environment for a team that struggled on the road last season and I can’t pick Mizzou. I think the Tigers keep it close but Kentucky wins 28-23.
Gabe DeArmond: Let me just say off the top, it won’t shock me if Missouri wins. It’s a winnable game. But I think Kentucky has more talent and probably more experience. They’re at home at night looking for revenge from a year ago. From the outside, most of the factors we would normally look at here favor Kentucky. If this game was played six weeks from now, my pick might be different. As it is, Kentucky wins 35-26.
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