Missouri football: Let's hope Tigers benefitted from unplanned week off before facing surging Kentucky
Okay, let’s try this again. For a third time.
Per the SEC, Mizzou will be hosting Kentucky on Saturday instead of traveling to The Swamp to play Florida; that game will now happen on Oct. 31. None of this schedule scrambling should be surprising anymore. Not in the 2020 COVID-19 version of college football.
What does the change mean for Mizzou? Let’s dive in.
The last time we saw the Tigers, they were lighting up the Faurot Field scoreboard to the tune of 45 points on a very leaky Bo Pelini-led LSU defense. Playing an equally gash-able Florida D had to have fans excited, but Mizzou’s day on offense became exponentially more challenging now that they’ll be playing Kentucky, which beat No. 18 Tennessee 34-7 on Saturday and picked off Jarrett Guarantano twice for touchdowns.
There’s no doubt about it — the Wildcats are no pushovers on defense, or offense for that matter. Kentucky is allowing 20 points per game and only 9 total in its past two. Compare that to the defenses Mizzou would have been going up against before the schedule changes in Vanderbilt (33 ppg) and Florida (33.3 ppg).
The Florida game would have been a great opportunity for the Mizzou offense to show that it can replicate what it did against LSU. Yes, quarterback Connor Bazelak completed 29 of 34 passes for 406 yards and 4 touchdowns without an interception. It was a breakout game for him, head coach Eli Drinkwitz and the passing attack.
But it’s important to remember the quality of defense Bazelak was going against. LSU’s D was mistake-riddled, with several coverage busts.
Bazelak’s first scoring pass was a 58-yard flea-flicker to Tauskie Dove that took advantage of a super-aggressive defensive backfield. On his second touchdown throw — the 41-yarder to Micah Wilson that tied the score at 31 — not a single LSU defender was on the TV screen.
— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) October 10, 2020
In the SEC, Kentucky is middle of the pack in pass defense while it excels at stopping the run, at least through 4 games. The Wildcats have held 2 of their 4 opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards — but, for a bit of context, one of those was Mike Leach’s Mississippi State, and we know he’s allergic to running the ball, so take that one with a grain of salt.
Mizzou is catching Kentucky at a bad time. The Wildcats are riding a 2-game winning streak, and their defense has given up just 1 touchdown in the past 8 quarters. That unit is better than the ones LSU and Florida trot out, so if Bazelak sees similar results against the Wildcats, any Mizzou fans who are still on the fence about him — and there shouldn’t be many — should hop off quickly.
Defensively, Mizzou’s front — Kobie Whiteside, Tre Williams, Markell Utsey, Chris Turner and others — will need to play its best game of the season. It can’t have a repeat performance of the Tennessee game, where the Vols’ massive offensive line imposed its will on the Tigers’ front and paved the way for 232 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns.
Kentucky’ ground-and-pound style is tough to stop. The Wildcats have the top rushing attack in the SEC at 206 yards per game.
Linebackers Nick Bolton and Devin Nicholson, as well as box safeties Martez Manuel and Joshuah Bledsoe, will be busy trying to sift through the traffic while trying to bring down hard-running ball carriers in Asim Rose (6-1, 214 pounds) and Chris Rodriguez Jr. (5-11, 224), as well as crafty dual-threat quarterback Terry Wilson.
Kentucky controlled the ball for nearly 34 minutes against the Volunteers. To help out its defense, Mizzou’s offense will need to sustain drives, and getting its rushing game going is a great way to accomplish that.
After rushing for just 69 yards against Alabama in the season opener, the Tigers have steadily gotten better, going for 126 against Tennessee and 180 against LSU. Can they continue to improve against Kentucky?
Gear up, Mizzou fans. This is a measuring-stick game.