Position-by-position edge: Missouri at Kentucky
Taking a position-by-position look at No. 25 Missouri vs. Kentucky, here’s what to watch for in Saturday’s showdown between the Tigers and the Wildcats:
QUARTERBACK — Missouri: The Tigers get the edge here, but it’s based more on what Maty Mauk has done earlier in his career than what he’s accomplished this year — which, frankly, isn’t much. The junior quarterback is completing just 52 percent of his passes through three games and yielded more time to freshman Drew Lock during Missouri’s 9-6 win over Connecticut last week. The good news is that the Tigers remain 3-0 and Mauk has proven he can be better. While he’s never been a high-percentage passer, he’s a credible threat with his legs and holds a 17-4 career record as a starter.
Kentucky’s Patrick Towles hasn’t been as reliable as the Wildcats need him to be. He’s completed more than half his passes in just one game this season, while throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions. Last week against Florida, he finished 8 of 24 for 126 yards and two interceptions.
RUNNING BACKS — Kentucky: The Wildcats have dynamic threat in Stanley “Boom” Williams, who’s run for 322 yards on 40 carries this season, and his backup, Jojo Kemp, was the team’s leading rusher in 2013. But if Missouri’s Russell Hansbrough returns to full health, the Tigers could have the edge here. The senior, who ran for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, has been hampered by an ankle injury this year, but is listed atop the depth chart for this week.
WIDE RECEIVERS, TIGHT END — Kentucky: Sophomores Dorian Baker, Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet have supplanted last year’s leading receiver — Ryan Timmons — in the Wildcats’ pecking order and each have just more than 140 receiving yards on the season. Timmons, who had 32 receptions as a freshman and 45 last year, has just three catches through three games.
Missouri lost its top three targets from last year’s team and haven’t fully found replacements yet — though the quarterbacks bear some of the blame for that. J’Mon More and Nate Brown are the top options at receiver, while Sean Culkin is steady at tight end.
OFFENSIVE LINE — Push: Both team have shown a real weakness in at least one facet here. Missouri ranks last in the SEC in both rushing yards per game (107.7) and yards per carry (3.2). Meanwhile, Kentucky has struggled mightily at preventing pressure, giving up 10 sacks, which ties them for the league worst. Both units return plenty of experience from last season, and improvement is both expected and necessary.
DEFENSIVE LINE — Missouri: Sophomore defensive end Charles Harris appears ready to carry on the recent Tigers tradition of great defensive line play; through three games he has three sacks and ranks second nationally with eight tackles for loss. And keep an eye on true freshman interior lineman Terry Beckner Jr. He’s already taken over a starting spot and is flashing big-time potential for the Tigers, who are giving up just 105 rushing yards per game and 2.6 yards per carry. Another freshman, Walter Brady, is also listed as a starter this week after notching a pair of sacks against Connecticut.
Kentucky, which is giving up 4.8 yards per carry on the season, will be missing sophomore defensive tackle Reggie Meant, who was injured last week and is not on the depth chart for Saturday.
LINEBACKERS — Missouri: Kentrell Brothers has been Missouri’s best player this year, and one of the best linebackers in the SEC. He’s leading the nation in tackles, and has two interceptions and two blocked kicks. He’s perhaps the primary reason the Tigers are leading conference in total defense, giving up just 217 yards of total offense per game. No other Missouri player has more than 15 tackles.
Kentucky is led by Josh Forrest, a 255-pound senior who had 110 tackles in 2014. He has 30 through three games this year, as well as an interception and three pass break-ups. Khalid Henderson, listed as a co-starter at weakside linebacker with Ryan Flannigan, is second on the team with 27 tackles. Flannigan had 57 tackles last year and is set to return to the field for the first time in 2015 after suffering an offseason shoulder injury.
SECONDARY — Missouri: Though the Wildcats’ defensive backs have also performed well this season, it’s hard to go against the Tigers here. With three starters back from last year’s solid group, Missouri is leading the conference in pass defense, giving up just 112 yards per game and intercepting four passes through three games. Cornerbacks Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton form a formidable duo, and sophomore Anthony Sherrils has solidified the back end in his first year as a starer.
A.J. Stamps is the standout in the Kentucky secondary. The cornerback-turned-safety has 15 tackles and three passes defended this season. The Wildcats may also have an up-and-coming star in 6-foot-4 true freshman Chris Westry. He earned a starting spot prior to the season and is holding his own thus far. He was named SEC Freshman of the Week after notching a sack and a game-clinching interception in Kentucky’s win over South Carolina.