The Missouri Tigers came out of nowhere to rule the SEC East for two straight years but those days are nothing but a memory. As quickly as the Tigers rose to power, they have fallen from grace and are the worst team in the East. Kentucky has won the last two games in the series and pasted the Tigers 35-21 on the road.
The Tigers started out the season on fire with a 72-43 win over Missouri State, but have lost three in a row to South Carolina, Purdue, and Auburn. It has not been pretty as the Tigers have been outscored 117-30. You can argue that aside from EKU, Missouri is the worst team that Kentucky has faced this year.
With that said, this should be a game that Kentucky wins and wins rather easily, right? We have been there before this year as the Wildcats have played down to the level of their opponent. Will this be a similar game or will Kentucky break out and smash the Tigers?
Let's meet the Tigers.
Coming into the season, the offense was supposed to be the strong part of this team. After scoring 72 points against Missouri State, it appeared that this was going to be one of the top offenses in the SEC. That seemed to be a mirage as the Tigers have scored just 30 points in the three games since. Because of the difference in the quality of opponents, it is necessary to look at what the offense did against Missouri State and how they did in the three games versus South Carolina, Purdue, and Auburn.
QB Drew Lock was on fire against Missouri State with 521 yards passing and 7 TDs and looked to be on his way to the Heisman. Against the other three teams, not so much. In the other three games, he has 594 yards passing and 3 TDs and 5 INTs. Lock completed 61.8% of his passes versus Missouri State but hits just 52.6% for the season. Lock has never been a really accurate passer as he completed 54.6% last year and 49% his freshman season. He is not a running quarterback but has only been sacked four times on the year.
RB Damarea Crockett has a great year as a true freshman, rushing for 1,062 yards and 10 TDs. He averaged 11.2 yards per carry in his first game this year and had 202 yards and 2 TDs. He is still having a solid year against the other opponents with 173 yards for 4.22 yards a carry and no touchdowns. He has never been much of a receiving threat with just seven catches for his career and two this season.
Ish Winter is a solid backup, and he has 160 yards and 4.7 yards a carry. He had a solid game versus South Carolina averaging 6.0 yards on 12 carries. Of the 13 touchdowns the Tigers have on the season, just three have been on the ground. Larry Rountree has the other rushing touchdown, and all of this team's rushing touchdowns came in week one versus Missouri State.
J'Mon Moore emerged as a favorite target of Lock last season, and he has played well this year, with 12 catches for 312 yards and 3 TDs. That translates to a dazzling 26 yard per reception average. Moore's stats were bloated by Missouri State in which he had four catches for 187 yards and 2 TDs. Johnathan Johnson is a nice complement to Moore and gives Lock another solid target. He has only played in three games but has 18 catches for 233 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He is coming off a 10 catch, 85-yard effort versus Auburn.
Sophomore Demetrius Mason has seen his role increase over the course of the season, and he is another solid target with 13 catches for 119 yards. TE Jason Reese has just four catches on the year, but two of those were for touchdowns, and he averages 26.8 yards a catch. 61 of those came on a touchdown versus South Carolina.
In short, the Missouri defense has been a disaster. Opponents are averaging 40 points a game on them, and even Missouri State torched them for 43. Teams are running for 194.8 yards a game and have 14 rushing TDs versus just 3 for the Tigers. The passing defense is porous as well, allowing 258 yards a game and intercepting just two passes. This is a defense that allows 452 yards total and 6.0 yards a play.
The Tigers have done a decent job of getting after the quarterback, and they have nine sacks and 27 TFLs on the season. Marcel Frazier finished last season on a tear with 6.5 sacks in his last three games. He's has not kept up that pact but has played well this year with 1.5 sacks and 2.5 TFLs. A healthy Terry Beckner also has 1.5 sacks. Big JUCO transfer Rashad Brandon (6'3, 300) has stepped in nicely to the line with 16 tackles, 2.5 of which were for a loss.
Cale Garrett is just a sophomore and already the leader of the linebacking corps. He has a good nose for the ball and leads the team with 30 tackles. Terez Hall has already surpassed his tackle total of 20 from last year with 24 so far in 2017, and he leads the team with 4 TFL. Eric Beisel started slowly this year but is coming off an eight-tackle performance against Auburn.
Teams have been able to pass on the Tigers with ease, and the Missouri defensive secondary has intercepted just two passes and has broken up just two passes on the year. Senior Anthony Sherrils provides the experience and leadership in this young unit, and he leads the secondary with 24 tackles. Sophomore Demarcus Acy has looked solid with 16 tackles and 2.5 for a loss. Kaleb Prewitt sat out last year due to transfer rules, and he has been a welcome addition with 22 tackles. Don Cheadle's cousin, Logan, has one of the interceptions and 15 tackles. Four games in, this unit is not playing well and still trying to fill the void left by losing their two starting cornerbacks from last year.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
On paper, this is a game that Kentucky should win and win easily. Alas, we have been here before as you can say the same about the EKU game and the Eastern Michigan game. I'm not going to complain about a 4-1 record, but I will say that the coaching staff has been the main thing that has been holding this team back.
The offense has to open up, and the playcalling has to be more aggressive. I will argue that it is the conservative play calling on offense that led to the Florida defeat. And this playcalling almost cost them the game against Eastern Michigan.
It's time to take the shackles off and cut Lynn Bowden and the rest of the offense loose. This could very well be a shootout or a low scoring scrum. It's weird that five games in, I still don't feel like I have a grasp of which Kentucky team will show up on a week to week or even quarterly basis.
That said, I still have faith in Stoops and company but am a little frustrated. This is the week it comes together, and the frustration ends. Let's call it 34-17 Kentucky.