Notebook: Mizzou defense prepares to face new-look Kentucky

After a blowout of Louisiana-Monroe to open the season, Kentucky finds itself leading the nation in total defense. The Wildcats allowed just 87 total yards in a 45-10 drubbing of the Warhawks.

Yet it’s the other side of the ball generating most of the headlines — and most of the praise from the Missouri coaching staff — as the Tigers prepare to open SEC play in Lexington. The Kentucky offense has done most of its damage on the ground in recent seasons, but with Penn State transfer quarterback Will Levis at the helm and former Los Angeles Rams assistant Liam Coen calling the plays, the Wildcats look to have found an equally dynamic air attack.

Last week, Kentucky threw for 419 yards — including 367 for Levis — and four touchdowns. The last time a Wildcat quarterback threw for that many yards in a single game came nearly seven years ago, when Patrick Towles threw for 390 against Mississippi State in October of 2014. During his weekly press conference Tuesday, Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz said it feels like Kentucky added three NFL players and an NFL coordinator to its offense during the offseason, with wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and left tackle Dare Rosenthal also joining the Wildcats via the transfer portal in addition to Levis.

“Totally different style, totally different feel,” Drinkwitz said of Kentucky. “Execute it at a high level, shifts, motions formation. Vertical shots, intermediate, middle-field throws, quick game, got the whole package.

“The only thing that’s a surprise to me is how quickly they’ve gotten to where they’re at. … They’re humming on all cylinders right now.”

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Led by new quarterback Will Levis, the Kentucky offense threw for 419 yards in Week One. (Jeff Drummond/Cats Illustrated)

While Louisiana-Monroe isn’t exactly a defensive juggernaut (the Warhawks ranked No. 122 out of 127 FBS teams in scoring defense last season), Kentucky’s improved offense will pose a significant test for a Missouri defense that struggled at times during Steve Wilks’ debut as coordinator. Drinkwitz said he saw “a lot of red flags” when watching film of the unit against Central Michigan. He specifically pointed to missed tackles and blown assignments, both of which resulted in explosive plays.

Speaking to the media later Tuesday afternoon, Wilks agreed. He noted that Missouri needs to do a better job of finishing tackles and fitting gaps on run plays. The good news, however, is that he believes the issues are fixable. In fact, Missouri settled in as the game progressed, allowing 183 total yards in the second half compared to 292 during the first two quarters.

“It was really one guy at one point in time not executing, not doing their job,” Wilks said. “So we gotta do a much better job of really being disciplined, still working our fundamentals and technique and really just staying in our gaps.”

That will be easier said than done against a talented and experienced Kentucky offensive line. The Wildcat front five is anchored by its two tackles. Rosenthal joined Kentucky after starting eight games across the past two seasons for LSU and immediately found a starting spot for the Wildcats. Darian Kinnard has now started 27 straight games at right tackle and earned second-team all-American honors last season.

Wilks called Kentucky’s offensive line one of the best, if not the best, in the SEC. Drinkwitz went even further with his praise for the group, saying it could be one of the best lines in the country.

“We got our hands full up front,” Wilks said. “Very massive, they come off the ball, do a great job, and they do an outstanding job as far as protecting the quarterback, as well.”

While Kentucky’s newfound passing game has generated quite a bit of buzz, Wilks said the priority against the Wildcats will still be stopping the run. Tailback Chris Rodriguez averaged 6.6 yards per rush last week. Plus, both Wilks and Drinkwitz noted that, like his mentor Sean McVay, Coen does an excellent job of using the running game to set up play-action passes, so if Missouri can’t contain the run, it could make for a long day.

“Definitely one of the things that we gotta make sure that we shore up is our run fits,” Wilks said. “We gotta stop the run. Kentucky does a great job of running the football, I think Rodriguez had probably 120 yards of running the football last week.”

The Tiger defense can’t ignore Levis’ passing ability, however. That wasn’t always the case in seasons past. In 2019, Kentucky threw the ball just eight times against Missouri, compared to 48 rushing attempts. Last year’s matchup wasn’t quite as lopsided in terms of attempts, but the Wildcats only mustered 50 yards through the air.

In Levis’ first start, he showed an ability to air the ball out. Kentucky ran the ball 34 times and threw it 33 against Louisiana-Monroe. And when the Wildcats threw the ball, they weren’t afraid to throw downfield. Levis averaged 12.6 air yards per attempt. He completed four of six passes that traveled 20 yards or more downfield. Most of those downfield looks went to either Robinson or returning wideout Josh Ali. Robinson and Ali combined for 261 yards and three touchdowns on 10 catches in Week One.

Wilks said it will take both the defensive line and secondary stepping up to limit Kentucky’s vertical passing game. He called for the front four to generate more pressure than it did last week. Missouri recorded nine sacks as a team against Central Michigan, but most of those came as a result of extra pressure dialed up by Wilks. Cornerback Akayleb Evans also said it will be important for the Tiger secondary to get physical with Robinson and Ali, to make them uncomfortable and disrupt their timing.

“We’re just going to have to be physical with them,” Evans said. “At the end of the day, anybody that you go against, if you can be more physical than them, it slows them down and it gives you an advantage.”

Wingo impresses in first action

During the offseason, much was made about Missouri’s experience on the defensive line. The Tigers brought back three “super seniors” along the defensive front to go along with upperclassmen like Darius Robinson, Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat.

But at defensive tackle, it wasn’t any of those upperclassmen who played the most snaps against Central Michigan. That distinction went to true freshman Mekhi Wingo. The De Smet product played 44 of Missouri’s 88 defensive snaps. He recorded two tackles, including his first career sack.

It’s rare for true freshmen to see meaningful playing time on either line of scrimmage at the SEC level, much less lead his position group in playing time. Drinkwitz said the staff didn’t necessarily plan to play Wingo so much on Saturday, but he made the most of his snaps and they decided to ride the hot hand.

“You stick with the guys that are performing,” Drinkwitz said. “And he performed really well. He’s gonna continue to get opportunities as he seizes the opportunities in front of him.”

Wilks said he wasn’t surprised to see Wingo rise to the occasion during his first college game. Wilks said Wingo, who was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri last season, didn’t show anything during the game that he hadn’t put on display during fall camp.

“I’ve been impressed with him since day one, just really his approach and how he practices,” Wilks said of Wingo. “I always like to use the phrase, particularly talking about young guys, it’s not too big for him, and he stepped up, and the same way he plays is the same way he practices. So I’m hoping he can continue to progress and get better each and every week.”

Rotation likely to continue at left guard

Missouri wasn’t afraid to mix and match personnel during its season opener. Forty-three Tiger players were on the field for at least five snaps against Central Michigan — and that doesn’t include special teams. Drinkwitz said the coaching staff will likely continue to rotate players that often, saying “it’s still really early in the season to limit reps.”

One position group that represented an exception was the offensive line. Four of Missouri’s five starters along the line played every offensive snap. The only spot where that wasn’t the case was left guard, where Xavier Delgado started but Connor Wood eventually replaced him and played most of the second half. Delgado played 47 snaps compared to 27 for Wood.

Montana State transfer Connor Wood will likely continue to split reps with Xavier Delgado at Missouri’s left guard spot. (Cheyenne Thurman)

Drinkwitz said the coaching staff will likely continue to rotate the two players this week. In fact, he didn’t discount the possibility that other reserves could see some playing time on the offensive line, as well. He specifically mentioned backup left tackle Zeke Powell and guard Luke Griffin, who is listed alongside Wood as the co-backup to Delgado at left guard.

“I thought both of (Wood and Delgado) had good plays and bad plays that we’ve got to learn from,” Drinkwitz said. “I think both of them play again. I like being fresh on the offensive line. I think Luke Griffin’s done some really good things. I think he could see himself rotating in. I think Zeke Powell is right there ready to go, too, when we need him. I think there could be all kinds of rotations. Coach (Marcus) Johnson runs that thing like a basketball team. You look up and there’s guys rotating in and out, and you never know who your five’s gonna be, so it’s good.”

Asked about the performance of the offensive line as a whole against Central Michigan, Drinkwitz credited the group for paving the way for Tyler Badie’s 203-yard rushing performance, but said it needs to cut back on the number of negative plays. Central Michigan recorded 13 tackles for loss. The group will need to get that cleaned up quickly before facing a talented and experienced Kentucky defensive line. The Wildcats recorded 14 tackles for loss while holding Louisiana-Monroe to 87 total yards in Week One.

“When you go on the road, it’s a trench football game, and if you got any shot at winning football games in the SEC, you got to win in the line of scrimmage,” Drinkwitz saidss. “Especially on the road, you got to be able to run the ball when you want to, not when you have to. And so we’ve got a big challenge ahead of us.”

A new travel test

Traveling to Lexington will force Drinkwitz and Missouri to face a couple unique challenges. Drinkwitz noted Tuesday that a sellout crowd is expected at Kroger Field, and it will mark the first time since he took over at Missouri that the team plays a road game in front of full stands. The Tigers never played in front of more than 21,159 people a season ago. Drinkwitz said last year the coaching staff could communicate vocally from the sideline to players on the field, but the team will have to find other ways to convey signals on Saturday.

“Obviously it’s the first time for me to getting to experience, with these guys, on the road with a raucous crowd, and that’s a huge concern for us, just handling the mechanics of that communication and handling the nerves and not letting the crowd dictate how we play,” Drinkwitz said.

In addition to the hostile atmosphere, Missouri will have to overcome a new hurdle just to make it to Lexington. With Columbia Regional Airport operating with a shortened runway due to the construction of a new terminal, the entire Tiger team won’t be able to fly on the same plane to Kentucky. In fact, Drinkwitz said, some personnel will likely have to fly out of St. Louis. Missouri is still expected to travel to Kentucky on Friday, as it normally would for a road game.

“We’ve got a little bit of a snafu because of the Columbia airport being under construction right now, so we’re having to change our travel a lot relative to what it’s been,” Drinkwitz explained. “That’s going to be interesting to see how we adjust to that adversity.

“It’s just a long story. Half the team or half the travel party’s got to go out of St. Louis. Some of us got to go out of Columbia. Potentially none of us can fly back to Columbia depending on the weather and the weight limit on the plane.”

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