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Kentucky at Missouri: Wildcats' defense is experienced and a little too bendy

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Kentucky plays a decent bend-don't-break defense, but if Missouri can run the ball well, the Tigers might be able to avoid passing downs and awkward down-and-distance situations.

Andy Lyons

While the Kentucky offense gets more of the attention, the defense has been a lot more consistent in 2014. It can't do much with good offenses (LSU and Mississippi State: 43 points per game, 6.4 yards per play), but it does pretty well against bad ones.

And while I won't specifically say that Mizzou has a bad offense ... well ... at best, it's closer to bad than good.

DE
Za'Darius Smth (6'6, 263, Sr.) (31.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 QB hurries)
Farrington Huguenin (6'4, 275, Jr.) (9.5 tackles, 1 TFL)

DT
Melvin Lewis (6'4, 320, Jr.) (20.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 FF)
Matt Elam (6'7, 375, Fr.) (5.0 tackles, 2 PBU)

DT
Mike Douglas (6'4, 288, Sr.) (15.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 PBU, 2 QB hurries)
Cory Johnson (6'3, 299, Jr.) (5.5 tackles, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 3 QB hurries)
Regie Meant (6'4, 286, RSFr.) (8.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR)

Through either intent or happenstance, Kentucky plays a pretty fast, bend-don't-break style of defense. The Wildcats' efficiency numbers aren't great, but they do a nice job of preventing big plays and coming after you when you fall behind schedule. Bud Dupree (listed below as a DE/LB hybrid type) and Za'Darius Smith have combined for 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, and while that's not exactly in Shane Ray's territory, it's pretty good.

Missouri has turned into one of the nation's worst passing downs offenses, and Kentucky will likely be more than capable of forcing mistakes/turnovers on passing downs. Either via run or short pass, Mizzou will need to stay ahead of schedule if the Tigers want to move the ball. Since UK doesn't have the best run defense in the world (and since accurate short passing isn't exactly an offensive strength for Mizzou), I assume I know which way the Tigers will lean.

DE/LB
Jabari Johnson (6'1, 276, Jr.) (7.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FR)
Jason Hatcher (6'3, 242, So.) (18.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry)

DE/LB
Alvin "Bud" Dupree (6'4, 264, Sr.) (35.0 tackles, 6 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 5 QB hurries)

MLB
Josh Forrest (6'3, 236, Jr.) (50.0 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QB hurries)
TraVaughn Paschal (6'4, 257, Sr.) (14.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU)

WLB
Ryan Flannigan (6'2, 225, Jr.) (17.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks)
Khalid Henderson (6'1, 228, Jr.) (33.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 FR)

Kentucky basically tries to keep the ball-carrier in front of the defense and leverage him toward Josh Forrest, who easily leads the team in tackles. In Dupree and Jason Hatcher, UK has a decent play-making threat on the corners of the linebacking corps, but the most noteworthy thing about this unit is simply that they're around to make the tackle. Again, the Wildcats maybe don't make a ton of disruptive plays, but they prevent you from getting too explosive, too.

CB
Fred Tiller (6'0, 170, Jr.) (27.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PBU)
J.D. Harmon (6'2, 201, So.) (21.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 FF, 3 QB hurries)

S
Ashely Lowery (6'1, 220, Sr.) (23.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 2 INT)
Marcus McWilson (6'0, 210, So.) (12.5 tackles, 3 INT)

S
A.J. Stamps (6'0, 199, Jr.) (31.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 3 INT, 3 PBU, 1 QB hurry)
Eric Dixon (5'11, 193, Sr.) (4.0 tackles)

CB
Cody Quinn (5'10, 172, Jr.) (20.0 tackles, 5 PBU)
Nate Willis (6'0, 168, Sr.) (11.5 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU)

NICKEL
Blake McClain (5'11, 194, So.) (15.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 6 PBU, 3 QB hurries)
Kendall Randolph (6'0, 168, Fr.) (8.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 QB hurries)

The secondary does have quite a bit of play-making ability. Two years ago, UK's defensive backfield was just about the youngest you'll ever see, but now it features juniors like Fred Tiller, Cody Quinn, and A.J. Stamps, and seniors like Ashely Lowery and Nate Willis. There are still some important youngsters here, but this is an infinitely more prepared secondary than the one Mizzou faced in Columbia in 2012.

So yeah, Mizzou might need to run the ball pretty well.

Special Teams

K
Austin MacGinnis (5'10, 168, RSFr.) (31-31 PAT, 8-10 FG under 40, 4-8 FG over 40)

P
Landon Foster (6'1, 198, Jr.) (40 punts, 42.2 average, 15 fair catches, 20 inside 20)

KR
Stanley "Boom" Williams (5'9, 200, Fr.) (8 KR, 30.0 average)
J.D. Harmon (6'2, 201, So.) (2 KR, 26.5 average)
Braylon Heard (5'11, 189, Jr.) (1 KR, 13.0 average)
Demarco Robinson (5'10, 158, Sr.) (5 KR, 19.4 average)

PR
Demarco Robinson (5'10, 158, Sr.) (20 PR, 7.4 average)
Ryan Timmons (5'10, 195, So.) (1 PR, 13.0 average)

Yeah, so Kentucky doesn't really do the special teams thing well. Austin MacGinnis is a solid place-kicker, kick returns are a relative strength, and Landon Foster's punts go pretty far. But opponents are averaging 12.0 yards per punt return (112th) and 21.6 yards per kick return (81st), and punt returns are mostly nonexistant for UK. Special teams are an obvious strength for Missouri, and it would be disappointing if the Tigers don't derive a pretty significant advantage here.