Coming off a big opening week win over UL-Monroe, the real challenge begins this week as the Kentucky Wildcats take on the Missouri Tigers in the SEC opener at Kroger Field.
As the Wildcats look to jump out to a 2-0 start and pick up an early SEC win, the Cats will need to start off strong against a Missouri squad that defeated Kentucky last year and figures to compete for third place in the East.
As we near kickoff Saturday night, here are five players to keep an eye on as the Cats and Tigers go head-to-head under the lights in Lexington.
#1. Chris Rodriguez
Kentucky’s top running back got off to a bit of a slow start Saturday, but gained his footing as the game went on, finishing with 125 yards on 19 carries (6.6 yards per carry) with a touchdown.
Rodriguez figures to play a key role in the offense against Missouri, who struggled to contain Central Michigan on the ground in their opening week game. While Missouri came away with a 34-24 win, CMU’s top three rushers combined for 241 yards rushing on 27 carries, nearly 9 yards per carry.
The Tigers did rack up several tackles for loss against the Chippewas, but this seems like a game where Rodriguez should be able to rack up some yards and make the play action pass a very effective weapon for Will Levis and the Wildcats passing attack.
#2. JJ Weaver
Coming off of a season-ending injury last season, there were some questions about JJ Weaver going into the season. We all knew his talent but the question was how quickly he would get back into the game and how much he would play.
Well, Weaver came out on Saturday and was great at rushing the quarterback, racking up two sacks on the day.
Kentucky’s going to need to be able to get after Connor Bazelak on Saturday and avoid letting him have time in the pocket. Bazelak is a talented quarterback who can pick apart a secondary with ease when he has time.
We saw Bazelak do it last year against Kentucky. He didn’t have monster stats, but completed 21-30 passes for 201 yards and kept the Missouri offense on the field. Kentucky finished with only one sack against the Tigers last year.
There has to be a better pass rush this time around, and Weaver figures to be a significant factor.
#3. DeAndre Square
DeAndre Square is one of the defensive leaders of this team, and on Saturday, he was among the best defenders on the field.
Square finished with six tackles on the day, including 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
His job gets much tougher in Week 2 going up against a Missouri offense that put up 468 yards in Week 1.
Square was regularly making plays in the backfield on Saturday, and he’ll need to do the same against the Tigers and running back Tyler Badie, who rushed for 203 yards on 25 carries against Central Michigan.
Badie carried the Tigers on his back Saturday, but he should face a more significant challenge against Kentucky.
If Square and the Kentucky defense can hold Badie in check, Kentucky’s chances of coming away victorious increase substantially.
#4. The Big Blue Wall
So this is more than one player, but the offensive line will play a crucial role on Saturday.
The Missouri pass rush looked strong yesterday, picking up nine sacks against Central Michigan. Granted, that’s an SEC defense against a MAC offense, but Missouri showed some creativity with blitz packages that could present problems for Kentucky.
The defensive line for Missouri didn’t look dominant against Central Michigan, but defensive coordinator Steve Wilks drew up some blitz packages which allowed linebacker Blaze Alldredge to pick up 3.5 sacks on the day.
The Big Blue Wall will have to be on their A-game Saturday recognizing defenders blitzing from different spots on the field to keep Will Levis upright. When CMU QB Jacob Sirmon wasn’t being hit on Saturday, there were some holes in the Missouri secondary to take advantage of. Those opportunities were few and far between.
It’ll be up to the Big Blue Wall to make sure Will Levis has those opportunities on Saturday.
#5. Isaiah Epps
Epps made this list last week as Kentucky needed a third receiver to step up.
Epps played pretty well against UL-Monroe, picking up three catches for 83 yards, including a 57-yard catch.
Hopefully we see a strong follow-up performance from Epps against Missouri on Saturday. Missouri’s defensive game-plan will certainly key in on Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali, which could leave Epps with some opportunities to make some plays on Saturday.
Epps has been around the program for a while, and hasn’t had a ton of opportunities to breakout in the program, but Saturday should be a prime opportunity to follow up a solid Week One performance.