[caption id="attachment_320314" align="alignnone" width="1470"] (Photo: © Denny Medley | USA TODAY Sports)
Kentucky is fresh off one of the biggest victories in the Mark Stoops era as the Wildcats crushed Jeremy Pruitt's Tennessee club in Neyland Stadium and that has made many of us very happy. The UK defense has found its mojo while the offense's ball control identity helped ice the game for the good guys in the second half. UK is now looking like the team that most of us thought we'd see in the preseason, but now they'll need to keep backing it up against a program they've had a lot of success against.
Missouri is 3-5 against UK since joining the SEC and the Wildcats have won five straight in this series. The Tigers are now on their third head coach since Stoops came to Lexington and this one brings a unique offensive identity to a program that has had plenty of high scoring offenses. After shocking LSU, Mizzou had a surprising bye week last Saturday and they'll be looking to catch Kentucky off guard.
With another spread that is less than a touchdown, there is never time to take a deep breath in the SEC only slate of 2020 and UK must again bring it when they face Mizzou at Faurot Field on Saturday afternoon.
Nuts and Bolts
Missouri moved to the Southeastern Conference in 2012 and Gary Pinkel had the program swinging with heavy hands early. The Tigers won 23 games from 2013-14 with two SEC East titles in their trophy case. Many believed that Pinkel was one of the best coaches in the country, but things can change quickly in this league.
Since that 2014 season, Mizzou is just 31-34 with a 15-28 mark in SEC play. Despite having Drew Lock playing quarterback for four of those seasons, the Tigers just could not keep it leveled up under Barry Odom after he was promoted from his defensive coordinator position when Pinkel surprisingly retired following at the end of 2015. The administration felt like they needed a spark and in rolls Eli Drinkwitz.
The 36-year-old from Arkansas served as the offensive coordinator at both Boise State and NC State from 2015-18 and in that time he had three of these units finish in the top-30 in offensive efficiency. Drinkwitz crafted a sometimes tempo led offense that is heavy outside zone mixed with plenty of misdirection. There will be a plethora of eye candy for opposing defenses to deal with and he loves to use gadget plays.
Appalachian State replaced departed Scott Satterfield with Drinkwitz and he took the Mountaineers to their highest level in his only season. The Mountaineers had a top-30 finish in SP+ with both their offense and defense ranking in the top-50 as they would go 11-1 with wins on the road against both North Carolina and South Carolina. Missouri would come calling following a Sun Belt title after a long search
. Drinkwitz would get a hefty salary bump to $4 million per year and Mizzou supporters are liking the early returns.
Drinkwitz is putting together a solid recruiting haul
in 2021 as the Tigers currently rank 9th in the SEC in average star rating and are fresh off a home upset win. They appear to have found their quarterback of the future and it feels like some exciting things are happening in CoMo.
This will be the 11th meeting between the two programs and UK currently holds a 7-3 series lead. The Wildcats have won five in a row with three of those victories decided by one-possession. The most memorable was the comeback in 2018 when Terry Wilson hit C.J. Conrad for a walk-off touchdown on an untimed down to setup the de facto SEC East title game against Georgia.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 5.5 point favorite with a total of 47. That's a projected final score around 26-21. In their five-game win streak, UK is 4-1 ATS and the only non-cover occurred in the 40-34 shootout win in 2017. Kentucky is currently in the midst of a 13-4 ATS run and they are 7-3 in this period when favored. Meanwhile, Mizzou is 2-8 ATS in their last 10 but Drinkwitz has gotten the Tigers two covers at home to start the season.
When taking over, Eli Drinkwitz decided not to hire an offensive coordinator as he would serve as the team's primary play-caller. Under his watch, Mizzou currently sits at sixth in the SEC in yards per play, ninth in yards per carry, fourth in both yards per attempt and quarterback rating, plus ninth in red zone touchdown rate. The new head coach inherited an offense with a bit of a talent problem so he hit the transfer portal.
Both of Mizzou's starting outside receivers were grad transfers with Damon Hazleton (No. 7) coming from Virginia Tech and Keke Chism (No. 6) moving up from Division II Angelo State. At center, Michael Maietti (No. 55) started 33 games at Rutgers and makes the calls for this offensive line. They were obviously hunting for depth, but there are three very quality skill position players back.
Larry Rountree III (No. 34) is one of the better running backs in the SEC with 3,018 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. The senior from North Carolina has outplayed his low three-star ranking and should leave the program as the No. 2 rusher in school history. In the slot, Jalen Knox (No. 9) has been a starter since his true freshman season and the junior paces the offense with 14 receptions on a 52.63% success rate. However, junior third down back Tyler Badie (No. 1) is the most dangerous player on this offense with three touchdowns in 21 touches (15 rushes, 6 catches). Each one of the scores has come from 20-plus yards out.
However, the straw that stirs the drink is the only offensive player that will receive snaps who was a former blue-chip prospect. Missouri beat out Kentucky in the recruitment of Connor Bazelak (No. 8) thanks to Derek Dooley
and the Ohio native has looked like a potential star in a small sample size. Bazelak is completing 71% of his throws, ranks third in the SEC in yards per attempt (10.0) and trails only Matt Corral, Mac Jones and Kyle Trask in QB rating. He currently has a success rate of 55.07% with over 25% of his attempts resulting in a big play. Bazelak is taking care of the football and is avoiding sacks. He was outstanding in his first career start against LSU and led Mizzou to one of their biggest SEC wins. He has some arm talent.
As far as scheme, UK likely won't see another offense as creative for the rest of the year. Drinkwitz will mix in tempo, use a ton of pre-snap movement, utilize misdirection with nearly every look and will throw out multiple gadget plays. They want to get a defense moving east-west so they can attack north-south. Gap integrity in run support and eye discipline in coverage will be vital for UK this week. Mizzou scored four touchdowns directly because of coverage busts from LSU on their way to the big win.
In the trenches, Case Cook (No. 59) is one of the better guards in the SEC while Larry Borom (No. 79) is a mountain of a man at right tackle (6-6, 332 pounds). The Tigers ranks fourth in the SEC in sack rate allowed while they've led the way for Rountree to have a rushing success rate of 54%. Despite two transfers and not much returning starting experience, this group has been serviceable.
The Tigers have not been good when scoring opportunities arrive posting just 3.93 points per trip and ranking just ninth in the SEC in red zone touchdown rate. They are dependent on splash plays and have scored three touchdowns that covered 40-plus yards. If you can limit the big play you can give this offense fits.
Eli Drinkwitz retained defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and the Colorado alum is in his third season calling plays for this defense. It made sense after the Tigers finished top-five in the SEC in both scoring and yards per play defense in addition to ranking 17th in defensive efficiency. However, things have not been great this year with seven returning starters.
The Tigers are sitting at 10th in yards per play allowed in the SEC and have been really bad in the pass coverage ranking 12th in the league in yards per pass allowed. Mizzou ranks dead last in red zone touchdown rate and is allowing 5.10 points per scoring opportunity which would rank in the triple-digits nationally in a normal season. They have only produced one takeaway, rank 13th in the SEC in tackles for loss and rank ninth in sack rate. This has been a bad defense through 12 quarters.
Mizzou uses a 4-2-5 scheme that asks their safeties to do a lot. Martez Manuel (No. 3) played sparingly as a true freshman last year, but is turning into a playmaker this year. The hometown native easily leads the team with 3.5 non-sack tackles for loss and will be an important cog in run support from his nickel spot. At corner, Mizzou starts true freshman Ennis Rakestraw Jr. (No. 2) and expectations are high for Drinkwitz's first big recruiting win
. Seniors Joshuah Bledsoe (No. 1) and Tyree Gillespie (No. 9) are very important on the back end and the duo combined for 17 pass break-ups last season.
In the trenches, Trajan Jeffcoat (No. 18) has produced three sacks this year from a hybrid linebacker/defensive end spot while defensive tackle Markell Utsey (No. 90) has been active with 10 tackles. However, the second level is where you will find the best player on this football team and it is a guy that will hear his name called very early in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Nick Bolton (No. 32) came out of nowhere last year to record 107 tackles with a staggering 74 solo stops, 6.5 non-sack tackles for loss and eight pass break-ups. He's picked right back up where he left off with 36 tackles and three pass break-ups through just three games. He's one of the best linebackers in college football and will be a guy Kentucky must get blocked in the run game.
Missouri has allowed over 30 points in each game they've played this season and really haven't presented much resistance to opposing offenses. They've been able to hang in there when it comes to stopping the run, but starting tailbacks have a 50% rushing success rate while they haven't had to faced a true quarterback run element yet. Teams have been able to do what they want against this group.
Special Teams Breakdown
True freshman Harrison Mevis has been of the biggest special teams surprises in the SEC as the young kicker is 5 of 6 on the year with two makes from 50-plus. He has a big foot, but is not used on kickoffs. Reserve punter Sean Koetting has produced touchbacks in 15 of his 16 attempts and is a major field position weapon. Meanwhile, UK grad transfer Grant McKinniss handles the punting and is averaging just 40.86 yards per attempt if you take out his one mammoth 66-yarder.
In the return game, Mizzou has used a handful of different players on punt return and doesn't really feel like they have an answer there. Tyler Badie is a dangerous skill position player, but he has been pretty pedestrian when it comes to kickoff returns.
This is a very solid special teams group with a solid placekicking advantage over Kentucky. Once again, the Wildcats will have an edge in the punting game and should hope Max Duffy can help them pick up some hidden yardage.
Keys to Victory
- Pre-snap communication is going to be critical for Brad White's defense this Saturday afternoon due to the opponent. Eli Drinkwitz uses a bunch of different formations, dials up a motion constantly and likes to get the defense flowing horizontally so he can attack vertically. Mizzou will use some tempo and UK has struggled with this. The defense cannot let eye candy lead to busts.
- Mizzou enters this contest ranked 11th in the SEC in yards per play allowed and in the bottom 10 nationally in scoring defense. The Tigers have some issues at the line of scrimmage and a secondary with a lot of experience has not made very many plays on the football. All signs point to this being a get right game for Eddie Gran's offense. After really getting it rolling in the second half against Tennessee, a hot start would be a very promising sign in Columbia.
- Over the last three seasons, Kentucky has been one of the best big play pass defenses in college football and we've seen that continue in 2020. Outside of Ole Miss, everyone else has struggled to get vertical and it is something that Mizzou relies heavily on. Bazelak has gone over 25 yards for 7 of his 49 completions and he's at his best when he can drive the ball down the field. However, most of those throws were against LSU and there were many coverage busts for a defense that prefers to play press man. Kentucky must maintain their zone drop discipline and make Bazelak dink-and-dunk his way down the field. Accomplish this on top of tackling in space and it should be a good night for the road team.
- This is a bad passing defense UK is set to go against. Mizzou has yet to produce an interception and has been lit up by each quarterback they've faced. Terry Wilson should be able to complete some throws and UK's wide receivers will have chances to make plays. Get ahead of the chains early on a few first downs and it will open up running lanes going against an inferior front.
- If you can take away the big play, things should play into your hands. Missouri is very bad at finishing drives and can struggle to score in the red zone. In the last two games, Kentucky has had the best defense in the country when it comes to getting stops deep in their own territory. Make Mizzou go on 10-plus play drives and you should be in good shape.
- Oh, Mizzou was really bad when facing the quarterback run element last season. They have yet to see it this year. This one sets up to be a very big game for Terry Wilson.