Mizzou runs out of lives, falls at Kentucky

So many times, Kentucky looked to have Missouri on the ropes, poised to deliver a knockout blow in the first SEC matchup for both teams. The Tigers staggered, particularly on defense, but continually found unlikely ways to stay upright — until Connor Bazelak’s pass fell incomplete on fourth down and 13 with less than two minutes to play. Missouri fell to Kentucky 35-28.

As Wildcat tailback Chris Rodriguez barrelled toward the end zone late in the second quarter, Kentucky was a yard away from taking a commanding 28-7 lead. Instead, Rodriguez fumbled into the end zone and Missouri recovered, then scored to make its deficit a single score at the break. A couple possessions later, the Wildcats seized back momentum from Missouri when linebacker Jacquez Johnson intercepted Bazelak and Rodriguez scored three plays later. Yet Missouri’s offense answered with a touchdown of its own and its defense then forced a rare three-and-out.

Perhaps the most unlikely escape act came when Kentucky had the ball and a seven-point lead inside the Missouri 20-yard line. A field goal would have given the Wildcats a 10-point lead with 2:07 to play. But linebacker Blaze Alldredge charged through the line and blocked Matt Ruffolo’s 37-yard attempt, and Kris Abrams-Draine fell on the ball around midfield.

That gave a Missouri offense that had already pulled off one successful two-minute drill a chance to force overtime. But Kentucky outside linebacker J.J. Weaver derailed the comeback attempt when he came untouched around the right end and sacked Bazelak. That left Missouri with one last desperate down, and Bazelak’s pass for Dominic Lovett was broken up by Carrington Valentine, sealing a Wildcat win.

“We fought our butt off, we played hard, we had an opportunity,” Eli Drinkwitz said after the game. “We didn’t get it done.”

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Kentucky tailback Chris Rodriguez ran for more than 200 yards as Kentucky racked up 342 yards on the ground against Missouri. (Jeff Drummond/Cats Illustrated)

While the game essentially ended when the Missouri offense came up short of the end zone, the root of the Tigers’ struggles came on the defensive side of the ball. Kentucky’s remade offense, with Penn State transfer Will Levis behind center and former Los Angeles Rams assistant Liam Coen calling plays, lived up to the hype it had generated after a 45-10 blowout of Louisiana-Monroe, and Missouri didn’t have an answer.

Kentucky generated 520 yards of total offense, including 341 yards on the ground. The Wildcats averaged 7.4 yards per play. They never punted during the first half and did so only twice all game.

Safety Martez Manuel said Kentucky didn’t do anything unexpected; it simply overpowered and out-executed Missouri. Drinkwitz said the Tigers “got our butt whooped up front.”

“People just not executing, people not in their right gaps,” Manuel said when asked what caused the defensive struggles. ” thought we did pretty well tackling today, it’s just execution and gap integrity wasn’t there.”

Regardless of who carried the ball for Kentucky, the team’s talented offensive line, bookended by a pair of NFL prospects at tackle, created huge gaps in Missouri’s defensive front. On the second snap of the game, Nebraska transfer receiver Wan’Dale Robinson took a jet sweep and cut upfield for a 64-yard gain. For most of the night, it was Rodriguez who enjoyed plenty of room to run. Rodriguez finished with 207 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. As a team, Kentucky had 10 runs gain more than 10 yards.

Drinkwitz said the Wildcats did most of its damage on inside zone handoffs. Missouri tried to stunt its defensive ends toward the middle of the line of scrimmage to combat those plays, but the defensive linemen simply couldn’t shed their blockers.

“They got out on a jet sweep in the first half, then they were running inside zone,” Drinkwitz said. “We weren’t able to pound the A gap. We were trying to spike the end across the tight end’s face, we weren’t getting it done. So we had all kinds of issues.”

When Missouri did sell out to stop the run, Kentucky made it pay — the new dynamic added to the team by Levis and Robinson. The two transfers connected for a 49-yard completion off play action in the second quarter, which set up a touchdown a few plays later. Later, Levis delivered what looked like it might be the back-breaking blow when he dropped a perfect spiral into Robinson’s hands. The 33-yard completion moved the chains on third and 12 and put Kentucky on the edge of field goal range, though Missouri blocked Ruffolo’s eventual attempt.

Levis finished the game 10-18 for 179 yards and a touchdown through the air in addition to 25 yards and another touchdown as a rusher. Wilks showed off more of the zone coverage he pledged to implement during the offseason, with largely underwhelming results. Kentucky was able to move the chains several times when a receiver found a hole in the middle of the Tiger secondary.

“Didn’t play zone coverage very well when we mixed it in,” Drinkwitz said. “They hit the in cut, which is their number one pass concept on third down. I mean, we didn’t do much of anything right.”

While Drinkwitz’s review of his defense might sound harsh, he did express some optimism about Missouri’s performance. He praised his team for its fight, for not caving when Kentucky continually looked to have the game in hand. He also stressed that this loss won’t define Missouri’s season.

“I’m proud of my football team,” Drinkwitz said. “They fought their butt off in a hostile crowd. Down, didn’t start the way we wanted to. The second half didn’t start the way we wanted it to. They freakin’ fought their butt off, blocked a field goal and gave us a chance to win the game. We didn’t get it done, but there’s no reason to hang our heads, there’s no reason to panic. Nobody needs to panic or jump on Twitter and go crazy. Like, relax. It’s Week Two, on the road, night SEC football game versus a good opponent. We had a chance to win, we didn’t get it done. We’ll go back to work tomorrow and we’ll go to fixing it, and that’s what we’re going to do. Lot of football season left. Whole heck of a lot of football season left.”

Bazelak battles through pain

With Missouri playing catch-up for most of the game, Bazelak had to attempt a career-high 52 passes. By the end of the night, it was clear that the totality of the dropbacks had taken a toll.

Bazelak walked gingerly during Missouri’s final possession, holding his left hip. After Weaver dropped him in the backfield, he laid on the turf for a few seconds before getting up. However, both Bazelak and Drinkwitz said there’s no concern about the quarterback being injured.

“I’m fine,” Bazelak said. “Took a little hit in the first quarter, but it’s fine. Just kind of started nagging me in the fourth. But I’ll be all good for next week.”

Connor Bazelak threw for four touchdowns but it wasn’t enough as Missouri fell at Kentucky. (USA Today)

Prior to Missouri’s final possession, Bazelak performed solidly, throwing for 294 yards and four touchdowns. He also added 28 yards as a rusher, picking up a couple key first downs with his feet.

Drinkwitz said the team knew going into the game that it would have to work methodically to move the ball against a Kentucky defense that rarely allows explosive plays. Bazelak helped make that happen, often checking down when nothing was available deep or keeping plays alive until a receiver came open. Missouri put together five drives of nine plays or more. A week after converting just one of 11 third down opportunities, the Tigers moved the chains on eight of 15 third downs.

No matter what numbers he put up, however, Drinkwitz assured that his quarterback will be “pissed off tomorrow because we lost.”

“He did enough to keep us in the game,” Drinkwitz said of Bazelak. “Obviously I wish we had the interception back. It was a bad play call. I thought he did a nice job managing some of the aggressiveness we took down the field. He took check-downs and he did a nice job managing with the feet. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t good enough.”

Carlies keeps Tigers afloat

The one bright spot on the Missouri defense, and one of the major reasons Missouri had a chance to tie the game at the end, was redshirt freshman safety Jaylon Carlies. Carlies forced both of Kentucky’s turnovers, without which the score may well have been out of reach by halftime.

Carlies’ first takeaway came with an assist from Kentucky wideout Izayah Cummings. Cummings had found a hole in Missouri’s zone coverage, but Levis’ pass bounced off his shoulder pads and into the air. Carlies caught it for his second interception in as many games while playing his new free safety position.

The second came when Rodriguez looked like he was about to extend Kentucky’s lead to three touchdowns. Carlies, the lone white jersey between Rodriguez and the end zone, lowered his shoulder and met Rodriguez around the two-yard line. He jarred the ball free and linebacker Chad Bailey fell on it, giving Missouri the ball at its own 20 yard line.

The Tigers would take advantage of the turnover by running a successful two-minute drill, capped when Bazelak found Keke Chism for a 17-yard touchdown with four seconds left in the first half.

“He’s really stepping into his role and he’s becoming a great player for our defense,” Manuel said of Carlies. “… Nothing but positive things to say about JC.”

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