Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — While Missouri was busy closing out a 24-14 defeat of Vanderbilt last Saturday, the conclusion of a different game was shown on the Faurot Field jumbotron. Kentucky was hanging tight with the No. 1 team in the country, Mississippi State, which went on to win 45-31.
It was a sneak preview of the Tigers’ next opponent, the Wildcats, and a reminder for Missouri to not overlook a team that failed to win a conference game during Missouri’s first two years in the Southeastern Conference.
“Really, we didn’t think about the score,” senior receiver Bud Sasser said. “Those were some nice jerseys they’ve got on.”
Missouri will get up close and personal with Kentucky’s uniforms today when the Tigers (6-2) host the Wildcats (5-3) for an SEC East divisional matchup.
Though Kentucky was unable to pull off the upset, the Wildcats have been much-improved in their second year under coach Mark Stoops.
Quarterback Patrick Towles currently ranks third in the SEC with 2,077 passing yards, and Kentucky’s pass defense is 15th-best in the nation, allowing just 185.6 yards per game.
“If your defense starts playing better, and you’ve got a quarterback (that is) producing … then you’re going to play better,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That’s what you see, and Mark Stoops has done a really good job.”
Left tackle Mitch Morse said he thought Kentucky was a better team than the Wildcats realized when Missouri defeated them 48-17 last year, and he wasn’t surprised they were able to hang with Mississippi State.
“Kentucky’s mentality this year, every game you watch them play, they play ferociously,” Morse said. “Yeah, I definitely wasn’t going to take this game lightly (anyway), but of course it gives you a little more of a ‘Whoa, man, this team’s really rearing to play,’ and it’s really finding its stride at the best part of the season.”
That part of the season has become a mantra for the Tigers, as instilled by Pinkel.
“This is November,” he said. “For November, from the day I got here, I told players, ‘Those that win in November will be remembered.’ I tell players that all the time, and this is the time when it’s about championships, and it’s about bowl games. It’s about finishing. It’s about how good you want to be. I don’t care where you are at this point, but how are you going to finish?”
Missouri went 4-0 in November last season on its way to an SEC East championship and a Cotton Bowl win.
“That’s what’s going to carry on to what we’re going to do after, whether it’s an SEC championship game or what bowl we’re going to go to,” said quarterback Maty Mauk, who cited Pinkel’s November adage. “But I mean, the main thing for us is we’re focused on Kentucky right now, and we’re just going to get better, and throughout this next month is really what’s going to define our team.”
The Tigers could certainly use some November improvement. In October, the Tigers went 2-1 but managed just 651 combined yards of offense — only 258 of which came through the air. For comparison, Missouri averaged 264 passing yards per game last October.
The Tigers’ offense improved in the win against Vanderbilt, but given the Commodores’ defensive struggles this season, today’s matchup with Kentucky could reveal how much progress Mauk et al. truly made last Saturday.
Missouri relied heavily on the run against Vanderbilt, compiling 244 yards on the ground and running twice as frequently as passing.
This approach might be an appealing one against the Wildcats. Missouri’s air game has struggled since the beginning of conference play, and wide receiver Darius White will most likely miss the game with his second strained groin of the season. His replacement, Wesley Leftwich, has three career receptions.
Throw in the Wildcats’ staunch pass defense — which is tied for second in the SEC with 13 interceptions; Missouri has thrown nine — and Tigers tailbacks Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy might look like attractive options for offensive coordinator Josh Henson.
“They’re a little bit unique in what they do,” Henson said of the Wildcats’ defense. “Some of the things they do in the secondary. They’re pretty aggressive. They’re going to play tight coverage on you and get up in your face and try to stop you from getting in your routes.”
A Missouri win would further establish Missouri as the second-best team in its division. The Tigers enter today one game behind No. 9 Georgia, while Kentucky shares the No. 3 spot with Florida, which is also 2-3 in SEC play. The Wildcats have not won a conference game since Oct. 4 when they beat South Carolina 45-38, one week after Missouri came back to defeat the Gamecocks in Columbia, S.C.
Notes: Pinkel said it is not likely injured backup tailback Morgan Steward (hip) will play this season. … Missouri and Kentucky are 2-2 all-time. Kentucky won the first two games with a 7-0 win in 1965 and a 12-6 win in 1968. The Tigers have won both since joining the SEC, 33-10 in 2012 and 48-17 last season. … A win would be Missouri’s seventh of the season, a mark the Tigers have reached nine times in Pinkel’s first 13 years at Missouri.