Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri football team has been anything but convincing the past two weeks, pulling out consecutive nailbiters against non-conference opponents Arkansas State and Connecticut. It showed Sunday, when the Tigers dropped three spots in both the coaches’ and Associated Press polls.
And yet, with as many question marks as the Tigers are dragging into the beginning of Southeastern Conference play today at Kentucky (6:30, SECN), there is one thing they aren’t bringing with them: a loss.
“Guys, we’re 3-0,” center Evan Boehm said. “It’s not a pretty 3-0, but we’re 3-0. I don’t think you’re giving the teams that we’ve played enough credit. Arkansas State’s a very good home team. UConn had a pretty good defense and they had an offense — I mean they moved the ball — and our defense has done a great job these past three games and they’re only getting better.”
The Tigers seem to have found a winning formula thus far. It starts and ends with defense. Like last week, for example, when the Tigers scored the first points of the game against Connecticut on a safety and ended the game with an interception.
Missouri’s defense currently ranks fourth in the nation in yards per game allowed (217) and third in passing yards per game allowed (112). The Tigers have given up just 9.7 points per game, fifth best in the country.
Now the question is whether that formula can translate to a conference opponent.
“We’ve been playing B, C games,” quarterback Maty Mauk said. “In the SEC you have to be prepared week in and week out. Kentucky’s a great football team. Their defense is by far the best we’ve played so far, and probably one of the better ones we’re going to play, so we can’t take these guys light. We’ve got to come out and be focused on what we’re doing and be consistent.”
Unfortunately for Mauk and the Tigers, Missouri’s offense has been consistent. Just not in the good way. The Tigers’ offensive stats are almost as bad as the defense’s are good. Missouri’s 107.7 rushing yards per game are 118th in the Football Bowl Subdivision — out of 127 teams. Missouri’s 23.3 points per game are 108th in the country, despite having played teams from the Ohio Valley, Sun Belt, and American Athletic conferences.
Missouri has been in the red zone just six times this season. Only three teams have been there fewer: Tulane, Central Florida and North Texas. Those teams’ combined record? One win, seven losses.
Kentucky (2-1), meanwhile, already has two SEC games under its belt — a 26-22 win at South Carolina and a 14-9 loss to Florida.
The Wildcats are in their third season under head coach Mark Stoops.
“He’s got a plan, a system in place. He’s putting it in, you can see it working,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “They played a really good Florida team and had a great chance to win that game and a great win against South Carolina at their place, so he’s doing good, and I knew he would.”
Pinkel flew with Stoops from SEC meetings to Pinkel’s Mid-America Athletic Conference Hall of Fame induction in May, and he said he knows Stoops well.
“That’s the extent of our happiness,” Pinkel joked.
The Wildcats are led on offense by junior quarterback Patrick Towles — who threw for 2,718 yards last season — and running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, who is currently averaging 8.1 yards per carry this year. In Kentucky’s loss against Florida last week, however, the Wildcats totaled just 241 yards of offense.
Missouri hasn’t lost to Kentucky since joining the SEC in 2012, and the Wildcats are the only divisional rival besides Tennessee not to beat Missouri in that time. The Tigers enter SEC play with consecutive East Division championships behind them, a streak Kentucky and the rest of the division wouldn’t mind ending.
“Everybody wants Mizzou,” defensive tackle Terry Beckner said.
But Pinkel said his team is not worried about last year, and he doesn’t even mention defending the title to his players.
“I think winning breeds confidence, there’s no question about that,” he said. “… But if you’re focused on the past and you spend too much time there, that’s not good. That’s not going to help you get back to where you need to go.”
And if the Tigers hope to go anywhere this season, they’ll need improvement on offense. Pinkel insists the Tigers aren’t “naive” about their struggles thus far, and said the important thing now is to simply break the chain of offensive struggles.
“It kind of multiplies after a while,” Pinkel said. “You have anxiety over what happened during that game because of what happened the game before. And I have to do a good job just of getting our kids to trust it and believe in it. If we make a mistake, we make a mistake. We keep battling.”
Notes: Tailback Russell Hansbrough was listed as the starter once again, though Pinkel said early in the week it remained to be seen whether he would play. Hansbrough sprained his ankle on his first run of the season and missed last week’s game against Connecticut. … Kentucky hasn’t beat a ranked team in its last 18 tries. … The Tigers haven’t lost a true road game since its first season in the SEC, a loss at Texas A&M in 2012.