After the 6-1 start, Kentucky will hit the road for the third time this season on Saturday. The Big Blue will make the trip to CoMo to take on Barry Odom’s Tigers at Faurot Field. Mizzou is off to a slow start in SEC play but with an NFL quarterback, a strong rushing attack, and an up-tempo offense they should present many challenges to Kentucky’s defense.
To set the table for a monster week in the Bluegrass, Kentucky needs to pick up the road win to secure their first winning season in the SEC since 1977.
Nuts and Bolts
Barry Odom is in his third year as the head coach at his alma mater. Under him Mizzou quickly returned to their Big XII roots. After winning with defense in the last couple years under Gary Pinkel, the Tigers have become very offensive oriented with quarterback Drew Lock setting all kinds of records.
Odom has made multiple coordinator changes in his short time in Columbia. The former linebacker and defensive coordinator under Justin Fuente at Memphis fired his defensive coordinator at the beginning of last season and called the defense the rest of the year before promoting Ryan Walters. On the other side, Josh Heupel left the program to be the head coach at UCF. Odom made an interesting move by brining in former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley. The son of historic Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley had never been a play-caller before. Under Dooley, Mizzou is blending NFL concepts with the up-tempo offense installed by Heupel.
This is a program that is in their seventh year in the SEC and they’ve had quite a run. The Tigers have won two SEC East titles but have also finished with three losing seasons. After winning three straight against the Wildcats, they have now lost the last three and Kentucky leads the overall series by a count of 5-3.
Out in the desert, Mizzou is currently a 7-point favorite with a total of 56.5. That’s a projected final score of around 31.5-24.5. This season, Kentucky is 3-4 against the spread with each cover coming as an underdog. The Wildcats are undefeated in SEC road games when Benny Snell rushes for over 100 yards.
In their first season under Derek Dooley, the Mizzou offense has been very productive through seven games. The Tigers are averaging 38.6 points per game and 6.3 yards per play. Both of these numbers land in the top 30 nationally. Under Dooley, the Tigers aren’t going quite as fast but they still like to push the tempo. Mizzou is currently second in the SEC in total plays. It has been a very balanced offense and when their future NFL quarterback plays well they are very difficult to stop.
Drew Lock received his first real playing time against Kentucky in September 2015 and the big righty has been starting ever since. Shown above, he has one of the biggest arms in college football and can literally put the ball anywhere he wants on the field. He’s had his struggles in SEC play but his numbers are still staggering. The Mizzou native is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt and is completing over 60% of his throws. He’s averaging 282.7 yards per game and he’s headed to an NFL roster near you in the very new future.
The offense is centered around the quarterback and for the Tigers to be at their best they need the pocket passer to play well. But the best and most dangerous part of the offense isn’t in the passing game.
After last season’s horrific 1-5 start, the Tigers made a dedicated move to get the ground game going. The Tigers ran for at least 180 yards in each of their final six regular season games with Mizzou ending the season on a very long winning streak. With the emergence of a new scheme, not much has changed.
Mizzou is putting up over 200 yards per game on the ground with three rushers having recorded over 300 yards. The Tigers are averaging 4.8 yards per carry and have scored 15 touchdowns. Their ability to establish the run creates advantageous passing situations for Drew Lock and it is what truly makes this offense dangerous.
The scary part is that all these backs are will be back next season. Sophomore Larry Rountree III leads the team with 549 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Junior Damarea Crockett ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman and is a great blend of power and speed. True freshman Tyler Badie is the smallest of the trio (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) but has significant big play potential. Each player brings a little something different to the table.
When you think of high flying offenses that push tempo you don’t necessarily think of the utilization of the tight end position. However, for the third consecutive week this UK defense will be facing another excellent pass catcher from that position.
Redshirt sophomore Albert Okwuegbunam leads the team in targets, receptions, and touchdowns. Kentucky has allowed tight ends to get loose in the last couple games and Albert O could present the most difficult challenge yet. He is a chain mover and a very dependable red zone threat. He will really challenge UK’s secondary.
It doesn’t stop with him, however, with Jonathan Johnson being a very dependable possession receiver and Mizzou will get Nate Brown back from injury this week. On the outside, true freshman Jalen Knox has emerged as a big play threat in the last few games.
The most dangerous player on the offense may be on the sideline in street clothes. In the first three games, Emanuel Hall recorded 18 grabs, 430 yards, and three touchdowns. He’s been hampered by hamstring issues since, but is back practicing this week. However, redshirting was brought up at Barry Odom’s press conference this week so it is unlikely that he will go on Saturday.
With an offense like this, it’s easy to pay attention to all of the skill talent due to the points Mizzou is putting up. But this offensive line is one of the best in the SEC. The Tigers have the size to create running room and are very skilled in pass protection. Mizzou has one of the lowest sack rates in the country and this could be the best offensive line UK faces all season.
In this third year running the show, Barry Odom is on his third defensive play-caller. After taking over the defense early last season, Odom promoted secondary coach Ryan Walters to defensive coordinator for 2018. However, not much has changed.
Opponents are still putting up over 30 points per game against Mizzou and are lighting up this secondary in the pass game. This is a team that cannot produce a pass rush and their corners are getting roasted on the back end. This group does have one really good strength and this could be a problem for Kentucky on Saturday.
The Tigers are only allowing just 3.7 yards per carry with only six rushing touchdowns on the season. This is a significant step forward from the past couple seasons and it will present some unique challenges. Per S&P+, this unit ranks fourth in rushing defense efficiency and it all starts in the middle. Cale Garrett and Terez Hall are both excellent linebackers who Ryan Walters will bring on blitzes quite often. Inside, the Tigers have an impressive group of defensive tackles led by Terry Beckner, Jr.
For UK to have success, they are going to have to get the passing game going. On the season, Mizzou is giving up 8.4 yards per attempt. This ranks last in the SEC and 116th in the FBS. The Tigers have allowed 22 passes of over 25+ yards. If UK can’t get the passing game going this week I’m not sure it will happen in 2018.
Special Teams Breakdown
One of Mizzou’s biggest inefficiencies on offense happens to be in the red zone. It’s a good thing they have a reliable kicker. Tucker McCann has hit 15 field goals this season at a 71% clip. He’s had some struggles with consistentcy but has the leg strength to hit from 50+ yards. It doesn’t take much for Mizzou to get inside his range.
At punter, Corey Fatony has been starting since he was a freshman and is very reliable. The senior is averaging over 45 yards per attempt and has seen eight of his punts downed inside the 20. In the return department, Tyler Badie has boom or bust potential. On kickoffs, UK could gain some excellent hidden yardage.
Keys to Victory
- All season, UK has been one of the best backed up defenses in the country and that must continue on Saturday. The Wildcats are only allowing 2.93 points per possession when opponents cross UK’s 40. This is the best rate in the country. On the flip side, Mizzou is only scoring touchdowns at a 57% clip in the red zone. The Wildcats must find a way to force kicks instead of touchdowns.
- Somehow, some way UK has to manufacture some big plays in the passing game. The ground attack will have some success but it’s going to be hard to create explosive plays against this Mizzou front. Whether it’s in the wildcat formation or some other gadget play, Eddie Gran and his offense must find a way to hurt Missouri where they’re weakest. We’ve heard talk of a potential quarterback shuffle but I’m not sure how much I buy into that. Getting Terry Wilson off to a fast start should be the football team’s top goal.
- Mizzou is 0-3 in conference play and has been beaten by Kentucky in three consecutive seasons. It’s a back against the wall moment for them so expect a very spirited effort early. UK must survive the early flurry from the offense and expect their defense to come out aggressive. If UK was to ever take the ball first and score a touchdown on the opening drive this would be the time.
- It will be essential for UK to dominate situational football on Saturday. Kentucky must eat clock on offense and get off the field on third down on defense. With a quarterback the caliber of Drew Lock, the end of the half scenario will be dangerous. UK must make Mizzou earn all of their scores. Punting can be a huge field position win. The Wildcats must get touchdowns when they’re in the red zone.
As our own Tyler Thompson pointed out earlier this week, the Tigers have a lot of weird traditions. From the rocks painted white in the endzone to a petting zoo in the parking lot, CoMo is a weird place. But hey, weird is fun. Just watch out for that pesky Tiger named after former POTUS Harry Truman.