Missouri at Kentucky: Beyond the box score preview

Kevin C. Cox

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Missouri at Kentucky

Record BCS
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
Missouri 8-1 8 11 18 9 94
Kentucky 2-6
91 46 115 56

Projected Score: Mizzou 44, Kentucky 21

We'll start with our weekly look at win projections.

Mizzou's win probability
at Kentucky: 96% (66% when conference play began)
Texas A&M: 69% (60%)
at Ole Miss: 58% (43%)


So basically, Mizzou beats Kentucky 24 of 25 times, and against Ole Miss and A&M, the Tigers sweep 40 percent of the time, get swept 23 percent of the time, and split 37 percent of the time. The numbers like Mizzou in both of the final two games, but there's still a 60 percent chance of a loss in one of the two games. Not fun. So basically, it would still help tremendously if Georgia were to beat Auburn next Saturday and win out so that Mizzou's in good shape in a three-way East tie.

But before any odds come into play, really, the Tigers must -- MUST -- take care of business in Lexington. A slip-up technically wouldn't end Missouri's East title chances, but it would critically wound them. And besides that, it would cast a pall on a mostly pall-free (sans one quarter against South Carolina) year. We combed over the Kentucky two-deep yesterday; what can the numbers tell us about the Wildcats?

(By the way, read my Vanderbilt preview again. It's great. The thought of five conference wins made me light-headed. Mizzou is going for its fifth tomorrow.)

When Kentucky Has The Ball…

Dink and dunk, dink and dunk. Teams with patience and consistency can do some damage to Missouri (and most other defenses) with this approach, and it's basically the approach Kentucky wants to take.

Standard Downs
UK
Offense
Missouri
Defense
SD % Run 55.2%
(94th)

S&P+ Rk 30th 16th
Success Rate 51.2% 47.3%
PPP 0.57 0.45
S&P 1.084 0.921
Rushing S&P 1.113 0.812
Passing S&P 1.050 1.025

No matter who the quarterback is, Kentucky is going to attempt a lot of short passes to stay on schedule and avoid falling into passing downs. Assuming Jalen Whitlow gets either most or all of the snaps on Saturday, there will certainly be more zone reads and basic run plays worked into the mix. Though Mizzou hasn't encountered a zone-read quarterback in quite a while, I have to figure that more running by Kentucky is still a good thing for Missouri; for all the attention the Mizzou pass rush has gotten this year, the run defense has been far more consistent than the pass defense overall.

(Then again, I'm much more scared of running backs Raymond Sanders and Jojo Kemp than I am of any of UK's receivers, so perhaps scratch that.)

Targets & Catches
Ryan Timmons: 25 targets, 18 catches (72%), 219 yards (8.8 per target)
Javess Blue: 24 targets, 17 catches (71%), 125 yards (5.2)
Alexander Montgomery: 11 targets, 7 catches (64%), 62 yards (5.6)
Raymond Sanders III: 10 targets, 6 catches (60%), 19 yards (1.9)
Jordan Aumiller: 8 targets, 6 catches (75%), 52 yards (6.5)
Jeff Badet: 7 targets, 6 catches (86%), 68 yards (9.7)
Demarco Robinson: 6 targets, 4 catches (67%), 76 yards (12.7)

Kentucky will be without Alexander Montgomery and will probably be without Ryan Timmons as well. This hurts the distribution more on standard downs than passing downs. Timmons was the most high-efficiency regular in the rotation, the most likely player to see those short, early-down passes. Players like Jeff Badet and A.J. Legree (1-for-2 for 9 yards on standard downs) will likely see more action in the absence of Timmons and Montgomery. The good news for Kentucky is that neither Timmons nor Montgomery are particularly amazing; they're replaceable, in other words (Montgomery more than Timmons).

Passing Downs
UK
Offense
Missouri
Defense
PD % Run 42.2%
(21st)

S&P+ Rk 59th 47th
Success Rate 25.0% 31.6%
PPP 0.48 0.46
S&P 0.727 0.772
Rushing S&P 0.730 0.858
Passing S&P 0.725 0.744

Like I said yesterday, it is certainly conceivable that, like Tennessee, Kentucky moves into Missouri territory quite a few times over the course of 60 minutes. The question will be what happens when Mizzou gets more aggressive and assertive and begins to force a few more passing downs. Though solid competition plays a role in the poor numbers above, those numbers above are indeed pretty poor. If Mizzou can keep Kentucky's Passing Downs success rate under 30%, I don't see how Kentucky sustains enough drives to win this game.

Targets & Catches
Blue: 13 targets, 6 catches (46%), 157 yards (12.1 per target)
Robinson: 9 targets, 4 catches (44%), 26 yards (2.9)
Montgomery: 8 targets, 4 catches (50%), 41 yards (5.1)
Timmons: 7 targets, 4 catches (57%), 26 yards (3.7)

Blue, a 6'0, 190-pound junior, has shown some explosiveness, but it's unlikely he burns Missouri more than about once on passing downs. Kentucky's options are limited here, and hopefully they will become even more limited when the Tiger pass rush starts to hone in a bit.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Kentucky's defense grades out terribly overall, but the Wildcats are pretty decent at holding up on standard downs. (Decent, not great.) The problem for the Wildcats is, despite a decent pass rush, second- or third-and-long aren't particularly problematic for opponents.

Standard Downs
Missouri
Offense
UK
Defense
SD % Run 55.0%
(95th)

S&P+ Rk 26th 63rd
Success Rate 51.5% 52.2%
PPP 0.63 0.57
S&P 1.141 1.091
Rushing S&P 1.091 1.052
Passing S&P 1.202 1.160

Kentucky is certainly well-schooled at defending a pass-first offense on standard downs; the Wildcats do so every day in practice. Still, they don't do so against this offense. Missouri should be able to establish a pretty good play-calling rhythm here, as the run defense isn't great and the pass defense isn't particularly aggressive. If Maty Mauk is making the right reads, the right reads should gain quite a few yards.

Targets & Catches
Marcus Lucas: 39 targets, 22 catches (56%), 249 yards (6.4 per target)
L'Damian Washington: 38 targets, 23 catches (61%), 419 yards (11.0)
Dorial Green-Beckham: 34 targets, 18 catches (53%), 269 yards (7.9)
Bud Sasser: 18 targets, 10 catches (56%), 127 yards (7.1)
Jimmie Hunt: 13 targets, 11 catches (85%), 152 yards (11.7)
Jaleel Clark: 7 targets, 6 catches (86%), 50 yards (7.1)
Darius White: 6 targets, 4 catches (67%), 50 yards (8.3)

As mentioned in the Trib yesterday, Marcus Lucas, already a frequent target, has been perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Maty Mauk's insertion into the starting lineup. (He's also benefited from simply playing really well of late, whether that has anything to do with Mauk or not.) But as a fan of balanced ball distribution, I'm excited about what should transpire in tomorrow's game -- Mizzou has a chance to very much keep Kentucky off-balance, moving from target to target to target.

Passing Downs
Missouri
Offense
UK
Defense
PD % Run 40.8%
(23rd)

S&P+ Rk 13th 103rd
Success Rate 40.8% 43.8%
PPP 0.73 0.59
S&P 1.141 1.030
Rushing S&P 1.115 0.891
Passing S&P 1.159 1.121

Kentucky falls apart on passing downs, almost allowing the same S&P on second-and-long as on second-and-short. It's not supposed to work that way. Like I've said a couple of times, the pass rush is decent, but the pass coverage is very much risk-averse and will leave receivers open in the name of preventing the big play. Meanwhile, catch rates for each of Missouri's big three targets (Lucas, DGB, Washington) all go up on passing downs.

Targets & Catches
Lucas: 25 targets, 20 catches (80%), 263 yards (10.5 per target)
DGB: 17 targets, 13 catches (77%), 194 yards (11.4)
Washington: 16 targets, 11 catches (69%), 243 yards (15.2)
Sasser: 7 targets, 4 catches (57%), 35 yards (5.0)

We've heard a lot about how Josh Henson made a goal of simplifying things with his philosophy; I think that plays out the most on passing downs. Mizzou was never very good on passing downs under David Yost, but we've seen an abundance of easy pitches-and-catches, partially because, as I've also mentioned before, Missouri treats third-and-5 as almost a run-first situation. Missouri is not afraid to run the ball to catch back up on schedule, and because of that, defenses aren't allowed to simply send the house. The play-calling is very quarterback-friendly, and Missouri has good quarterbacks. That typically works out pretty well.

Summary

So here are the key factors, then:

1. Maty Mauk. I assumed until about Tuesday that James Franklin would be starting this game; but it appears that might not be the case. (At least, we haven't heard that it is the case.) We could always be in for a surprise when the game starts, but for now we'll assume that Mauk gets his fourth start. It will be his first on the road, and there's alway a chance that the road throws him off his rhythm a bit. Granted, "early Saturday in Lexington" means his first road start won't be in front of a particularly hostile crowd, but this is still a hurdle he needs to clear.

If Mauk is making the right decisions, taking care of the ball, and stepping up into the pocket, Missouri's offense should hum, and Kentucky's offense will need to score in the 30s or 40s to keep up. But if he's making some mistakes and Missouri's either turning the ball over or going three-and-out (almost as bad as a turnover), this could be a game for quite a while. I'm confident in Mauk, but this is still a factor worth mentioning.

2. Second-and-long. On both offense and defense, Kentucky struggles mightily on passing downs. The Wildcats' offense could very well average solid yardage on first down in this game, but if Missouri is, as I expect, better at making up ground after a setback, it will be very difficult for Kentucky to keep up.

3. The first quarter. Kentucky has only once lost by more than 17 points. This isn't a good team yet, but it can at the very least hang around a while. The longer this one stays close -- and you should mentally prepare yourself for it to still be close at halftime, just in case -- the more confident the Wildcats could become, and the more the whole "Mauk's first start on the road" factor could rear its ugly head. Build some distance early and cruise. If Kentucky's ahead after one, Missouri is still a reasonably heavy favorite, but at the very least our collective stomachs will remain nervous for a while.

There's a reason the numbers like Missouri big in this one. Remember that if it stays close for a while. But if the team wanted to go ahead and put this away early, nobody would complain.

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