The Kentucky Wildcats (1-7, 0-5), for the first time since 1965, travel west to Columbia, MO to take on the Missouri Tigers (3-4, 0-4) in a clash of win-less SEC teams. The 'Cats, coming off a 29-24 home loss to No. 13 Georgia, will look to build on their best league performance of the year against a Missouri team that lost to No. 1 ranked Alabama 42-10 last time out.
Missouri's key offensive components
The Tigers, who enjoyed a bye last week, are playing without dual-threat quarterback James Franklin who suffered an MCL injury two games ago against Vanderbilt, a contest the Tigers lost 19-15. Before being hurt, Franklin, in just over five games, completed 73-119 passes (61.3 percent) for 805 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Replacing Franklin at the quarterback spot is redshirt frosh Corbin Berkstresser, who was rated the No. 16 pro-style quarterback coming out of high school in 2011. Since taking over for Franklin, Berkstresser has completed 21-59 passes (35.6 percent) for 315 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown. Two weeks ago versus Bama's stout defense, Berkstresser threw for 126 yards on 12-29 passing, with two picks.
On the season, Berkstresser has completed 54-113 passes (47.8 percent) for 627 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Perhaps allowing his rookie signal caller to find his sea legs, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel (88-58 in 12 seasons at UM) has had an extra week to prep his quarterback, and with UK's secondary ailing to a ridiculous degree, Berkstresser may see the offense open up for him, with down-field opportunities more prevalent.
As is true with any opposing QB, the 'Cats need to do something they haven't done consistently all season: pressure the signal caller. If left un-accosted, Berkstresser is capable of picking apart the Wildcat secondary, as he threw for nearly 3,400 yards and 36 touchdowns his senior year in high school.
UK's front seven, after getting little-to-no pressure on Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson two weeks ago, last week sacked Georgia QB Aaron Murray three times and pressured the Bulldog quarterback numerous other times (but Murray still threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns). A repeat (pressure) performance will be needed this afternoon if the 'Cats have any hope of winning their first SEC game of the year.
Minus Franklin, Mizzou's most dangerous offensive weapons are 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior running back Kendial Lawrence, and 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore tailback Marcus Murphy.
This season, Lawrence has rushed for 524 yards on 95 carries (5.5 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. He will also catch the ball out of the backfield, as Lawrence has snagged 12 passes for 92 yards (7.7 yards per reception). Murphy, Missouri's primary big-play threat, has not only rushed for 119 yards on 20 carries (5.9 ypc), he's a punt returner extraordinaire, averaging an SEC-best 18.9 yards per return on 16 attempts, with a league leading three touchdowns. Murphy has also returned six kickoffs, and averages an outstanding 33.2 yards per return, with one touchdown.
To sum-up the importance of UK's special team's play today; on 22 kick return touches, Murphy has taken it to the house four times. Not bad at all, and plenty of motivation for the 'Cats to kick away from the speedy Murphy.
When attacking the Wildcats through the air, Missouri will rely on a quartet of receivers, led by 6-foot-5, 215-pound junior wide out Marcus Lucas, who leads the Tigers with 32 receptions for 327 yards (10.2 ypr), and two touchdowns; six-foot senior receiver T.J. Moe has corralled 26 passes for 250 yards (9.1 ypr) and one touchdown; Gahn McGaffie, a 5-foot-10 possession receiver, has snagged 18 passes for 124 yards (6.9 ypr), and L'Damian Washington, another lanky (6-foot-4) wide out with speed, has recorded 13 catches for, get this, 239 yards (18.4 ypr), but only one touchdown.
While Mizzou averages a semi-respectable 23.1 points per game (and 323.7 yards of offense), in SEC play the Tigers have struggled to find the end zone, putting up only 13.8 points per contest (compared to UK's 12.4 points per game in conference play).
The Kentucky offense, led by freshman quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles (with a Morgan Newton red zone sighting always a possibility), will face a Missouri defensive unit fond of finding itself in the backfield. Led by 6-foot-4, 295-pound junior tackle Sheldon Richardson, who leads the squad with 52 tackles, 4.0 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss, the Tiger defense doesn't possess the sheer size of many SEC defenses, but they make up for their lack of size with quickness and relentless pursuit.
Will Ebner, a 6-foot-0, 230-pound senior linebacker, is second on the team in tackles with 49, and has also produced 7.5 tackles for loss. The other two Tiger linebackers, 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior Andrew Wilson and 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior Donovan Bonner, have combined to force seven fumbles on the season, with Wilson also recording 45 total tackles.
Missouri boasts three productive ends: 6-foot-5, 265-pound sophomore Kony Ealy, 6-foot-3, 260-pound Michael Sam, and 6-foot-4, 265-pound Brad Madison. The three Tigers have combined for 10.0 sacks and 18.0 tackles for loss.
The gifted Tiger linebacker corps, along with the physical play of the defensive ends, have combined to allow only 3.7 yards per carry to opposing running backs. After the 'Cats rushing combo of Jonathan George and Raymond Sanders gashed Georgia for 159 yards on 30 carries last week (5.3 ypc), and with UK boasting two inexperienced quarterbacks, one can rest assured attacking the Wildcats' running game will be priority No. 1 for the Mizzou defense.
On the more Wildcat-positive flip-side, the Tigers have allowed 14 rushing TDs on the season.
When the 'Cats do put the ball in the air, they must contend with the stunting, physical play of 5-foot-10, 195-pound junior corner back E.J. Gaines and his 42 tackles (to go along with 7.0 tackles for loss). Strong safety Kenronte Walker is second in the secondary in tackles with 38.
While the Missouri secondary enjoys and invites contact, the unit is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 66 percent of their passes, for an average of 212 yards per game. Good news for a UK team getting the talented but young Towles back from a nasty high-ankle sprain.
Today's high noon, Homecoming showdown with the Tigers represents the first of four straight, season-ending contests best described as a chance for Wildcat redemption after an injury-filled nightmare of a season for the football 'Cats. Winning on the road is always tough, regardless of opponent, but now is the time for Kentucky to put the demons behind them and win one for the Gipper ... so to speak.
Finally, for those Kentucky football fans searching for additional reasons to root for the 'Cats today -- Missouri is the beloved Alma mater of one Pat Forde, the Blue Mist's favorite sports scribe.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!