Saturday's matchup between UK and Missouri favors the visiting team for various reasons, but one of the main reasons is due to Missouri's legion of extremely talented wide receivers. Mizzou's leading wide receivers are L'Damian Washington (75.6 yards/game), Marcus Lucas (58,0 yards/game), and the Class of 2012 number one overall recruit Dorial Green-Beckham (53 yards/game). They all measure between 6'4'' and 6'6'' in height. Additionally, the fourth leading receiver, Jaleel Clark, is also 6'4''. Not only do none of UK's starting secondary stand taller than 6' feet, but they've yet to face a group that are as big and talented as this one.
There will be little margin for error. The first task for the secondary is eliminating the basic mental and fundamental techniques errors that the UK secondary has made on occasion this season. Below are some glaring mistakes that UK cannot afford to make against Mizzou.
This is pre-snap to MSU's 60 yard touchdown pass against UK. MSU's running back motions to the sideline drawing Avery Williamson from his linebacker slot confirming for MSU that UK is in man coverage and setting up trips to the top of the screen. Ashley Lowery plays the lone safety while the other safety Eric Dixon is matched-up at the bottom of the screen. Blake McClain is matched up with tight end Malcom Johnson who is third from the top of the screen and will run a simple seam route. If an opposing team wants to match their TE on UK's nickelback the coaches will take it all day. I'm honestly surprised that after the MSU running back went into motion to the sideline that McClain and Williamson would've swapped receivers.
At this point McClain, circled in yellow, is in good shape with Johnson but Dixon, circled in red, has slipped leaving his man wide open in the middle of the field. It would be a tough throw to the newly open receiver with two of our defenders hovering around the 47 yard line. A QB scramble might be problematic as well as Za'Darius Smith is regaining ground on his recently missed sack, and Bud Dupree has his right inside shoulder free and could threaten to make a play on the escaping QB. At this point, UK is in decent shape despite just missing a sack and Dixon losing his feet.
But then McClain leaves Johnson, circled in red, to cover the open man, and so does Lowery making the fundamental mistake that a safety should never let an offensive player get behind him if he's playing back. Touchdown MSU.
Later in the first half UK appears to be matched up in man coverage again. It is 1st and 10 so this is a likely run or bubble screen scenario with MSU's field position and man coverage is an understandable call. UK is in their nickel package as well. At the snap, Bud Dupree, located at the top of the defensive line, rushes the QB but makes sure to bump the tight end off the line of scrimmage after he reads it's a pass in order to slow him down. Lowery will cover the tight end from here. Williamson meanwhile will blitz up the middle from the top lineback position here, and Khalid Henderson will match up with the running back out of the backfield from the bottom linebacker position here. Everyone looks to be doing well so far.
Unfortunately, McClain loses his match-up on the slot receiver who is circled in red. McClain has outside leverage on his man who will be cutting to the inside. Typically in man coverage a defensive back will take inside leverage to prevent slants daring the QB to throw a tougher pass to an Out pattern or a loftier fade pattern. I'm not sure if McLain took outside leverage out of design or his own mistake. I think it was probably the latter, especially with Lowery moving up from his safety position to cover the tight end who is running a short hitch route. Another mistake was made and MSU made UK pay.
Here's the last example, and I think it's the worst. Late in the 3rd quarter with UK leading 48-7, Alabama State scored a 68 yard touchdown pass. Circled above is the wide receiver who will score the touchdown. UK is playing a base 4-3 and a cover 2 defense. At this point UK's defense has started playing vanilla with the game's outcome decided.
UK's cornerback rolls up to fill his zone against the wheel route coming from the slot receiver, while #8 for Alabama State. (still circled in red) fakes an inside post route and cuts towards the sideline. It's hard to tell with the camera angle, but the receiver's fake likely juked Eric Dixon, and then he was off to the races. Safeties lined up 20 yards off the ball should simply never let anyone get behind them in Cover 2. It's mistake that a player 8 games into his senior season shouldn't be making.
UK can't afford to make these mistakes against Mizzou. It's one thing to be in position to make the play and just get beat by a better player (think UofL's Devante Parker making a TD catch against decent double coverage), but it's something else entirely to make mental errors or fundamental mistakes. It wouldn't be surprising to see Mizzou try to manipulate their formations in order to get a match-up between McClain or Dixon against one of their thoroughbreds. Isolation fades and go routes are also probable. If UK makes the same errors against Mizzou they made in the examples above then Mizzou won't have to go to those lengths.
UK's secondary has made strides this year under the helm of head coach (and former secondary coach himself) Mark Stoops, cornerback coach Derrick Ainsley, and safety coach Dale Peveto. According to Football Outsiders advanced statistical models, the defense's rank against the pass improved from 67th in 2012 to 49th in 2013. UK will need every bit of this improvement on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how UK attempts to match up with Mizzou's receivers. All season UK's secondary has run a combination of man, zone, or hybrid coverages. I'm anxious to see how UK adjusts to hide their secondary's weaknesses, and perhaps gain tactical advantages. Coach Stoops mentioned after the Alabama St. game that they have installed a package that plays three corners, one safety, and one nickel back out of a three man front in order to get more speed on the field and play tighter coverages. Coincidence they installed that package a game before Mizzou so they could refine it in a real game scenario? I doubt it.