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Kentucky at Missouri preview: Tigers must run well and prevent the big play to move to 7-2

Like a lot of young teams, Kentucky has been pretty inconsistent in 2014. But if the Wildcats can prevent Missouri's ground game from getting traction and win on passing downs, they'll have a chance of pulling off their first road win. I don't think it happens (and neither do the numbers), but there are some interesting matchups here.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

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Kentucky at Missouri

Record AP
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Kentucky 5-3
72 76 57 112
Missouri 6-2 31 39 96 16 11

F/+ projection: Missouri 21, Kentucky -1 (win probability: 84 percent)
(Yeah, the projected scores are screwy and, at this point, for entertainment value only. The projected margins are still solid, though.)

At this point, Missouri more or less is what it is. The Tigers are still trying to figure out how to improve and stabilize offensively, and if you squint, you can see promise in last week's performance against Vanderbilt -- lots of drives into Vandy territory, points when they absolutely needed points, etc. Still, there were plenty of mistakes last week, and at this point, to some degree, Missouri is a team with a very good defense, very good special teams, and an offense that holds it back.

Kentucky, meanwhile, is evolving. I like to say that improvement isn't linear -- you're a little better next week, then a little better the next, etc. -- and UK is in the middle of a long-term improvement process. The Wildcats are experienced with low upside in some units and inexperienced with high upside in others. And while Missouri is pretty much the same at home or on the road (maybe even a little better on the road), Kentucky is, like a lot of youngish teams, the opposite. The Wildcats knocked off South Carolina at home and tried their damnedest to do the same to No. 1 Mississippi State last week; in their only two road games of the year, they lost to Florida (which looks a lot worse now than it may have at the time) and got absolutely drubbed by LSU.

That makes this game pretty hard to predict. If last week's UK team shows up, then Missouri will need to play pretty mistake-free ball to hold the Wildcats off and move to 7-2. If the UK team of two weeks ago shows up, Missouri wins by at least two touchdowns. The numbers like Missouri's chances, but I know what you (and I) are already saying to that: the numbers also liked Missouri's chances against Indiana and disliked their chances against Florida and South Carolina. I'm talking about Missouri as a "known," but there have been a lot of unexpected results this year.

F/+ Win Probability (remaining games)
Kentucky (84%, down 8% from last week)
Arkansas (43%, down 35% from last week
at Texas A&M (65%, down 10% from last week)
at Tennessee (35%, down 4% from last week)

Missouri beat Vandy by far less than the numbers expected, so one would assume to see win probabilities falling a bit here. The Arkansas odds fell drastically, but here's your reminder that, with the way I do win probabilities, there's almost no space between 40% and 60%. Fall a little there, and you fall a lot. Still, the game went from Solid Lean Mizzou to Tossup, basically.

When Kentucky Has The Ball…

NOTE: Below, I'm using IsoPPP instead of PPP, as I have used in the past. For more on IsoPPP, click here. The idea was to create an explosiveness measure that is separated from Success Rate, an efficiency measure. It basically asks, "When a team is successful, how successful are they?" It measures the magnitude of the big plays, and I love it ... but early in the season, a very small number of big plays can skew things pretty dramatically.

ONE MORE NOTE: Keep in mind when you look at these numbers that Success Rate carries more weight than IsoPPP. Before the size of the successful play matters, you have to have successful plays. When I come up with an effective way to incorporate IsoPPP into my overall S&P+ formulas, Success Rate will likely carry 70-85% of the overall weight of the formula. If you can be good at either Success Rate or IsoPPP, you're going to choose Success Rate.

Standard Downs
UK Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 54.9% (86th)

S&P+ 116.1 (31st) 114.9 (32nd) push
Success Rate 49.4% (47th) 46.2% (70th) UK
IsoPPP 0.81 (50th) 0.67 (30th) push
Rushing Success Rate 49.7% (41st) 42.5% (41st) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.72 (43rd) 0.67 (75th) UK
Passing Success Rate 49.0% (50th) 52.5% (111th) UK big
Passing IsoPPP 0.93 (57th) 0.67 (7th) MU big

This game has a strange balance to it. When both teams have the ball, standard downs are somewhere between a push and a slight advantage for the offense. On passing downs, defenses have big advantages. The biggest difference is that Mizzou's defensive advantages on passing downs are enormous, while Kentucky's are only big. (Size matters and whatnot.)

Kentucky is a very pass-happy team. The run is used pretty effectively as a counter -- either quarterback Patrick Towles running efficiently or one of four running backs breaking a random big play (and a lot of one-yard gains) -- but UK will go as far as the pass will take it. Against Missouri, that probably means a lot of successful short passes and, in theory, few big ones.

Targets & Catches
Ryan Timmons: 32 targets, 21 catches (66%), 324 yards (10.1 per target), 1 TD
Demarco Robinson: 22 targets, 17 catches (77%), 233 yards (10.6)
Javess Blue: 17 targets, 12 targets (71%), 296 yards (17.4), 3 TD
Dorian Baker: 17 targets, 13 catches (77%), 143 yards (8.4)
Garrett Johnson: 13 targets, 7 catches (54%), 87 yards (6.7), 1 TD
Blake Bone: 13 targets, 7 catches (54%), 87 yards (6.7), 1 TD
Braylon Heard (RB): 8 targets, 6 catches (75%), 26 yards (3.3)
Joey Herrick: 8 targets, 5 catches (63%), 42 yards (5.3)
Steven Borden (TE): 7 targets, 3 catches (43%), 32 yards (4.6)

Timmons is the go-to guy, and a pretty good one. The tricky part with Kentucky, though, is that Towles will throw it to anybody, whoever's open. If that means Timmons, fine. If that means a freshman like Blake Bone, fine. We have come to trust Missouri's corners -- Aarion Penton, Kenya Dennis, John Gibson -- but Towles will force all three of them (plus probably safeties Duron Singleton and Ian Simon) to perform well. And guys like Robinson and Blue are more than capable of turning iffy coverage and/or a broken tackle into a really long gain.

We see above that UK's full-season numbers are far from amazing here, but there's upside.

Passing Downs
UK Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 26.0% (97th)

S&P+ 91.7 (91st) 143.4 (10th) MU big
Success Rate 27.9% (96th) 23.4% (15th) MU big
IsoPPP 1.13 (76th) 0.89 (10th) MU big
Rushing Success Rate 35.0% (25th) 19.6% (21st) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.77 (118th) 0.99 (51st) MU big
Passing Success Rate 25.4% (110th) 24.8% (20th) MU big
Passing IsoPPP 1.30 (38th) 0.86 (10th) MU

Targets & Catches
Ryan Timmons: 25 targets, 15 catches (60%), 129 yards (5.2), 1 TD
Garrett Johnson: 15 targets, 9 catches (60%), 162 yards (10.8), 1 TD
Demarco Robinson: 12 targets, 7 catches (58%), 159 yards (13.3), 1 TD
Blake Bone: 12 targets, 6 catches (50%), 96 yards (8.0), 1 TD
Dorian Baker: 11 targets, 4 catches (36%), 39 yards (3.6), 1 TD
Braylon Heard (RB): 9 targets, 8 catches (89%), 34 yards (3.8)
T.V. Williams: 8 targets, 3 catches (38%), 61 yards (7.6)
Javess Blue: 7 targets, 3 catches (43%), 21 yards (3.0)

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown definitely trusts Towles to go out and try to turn third-and-long into a first down. That faith hasn't really paid off, though. UK is 119th in passing downs sack rate this year and is now facing one of the best pass rushes in the country (albeit one that wasn't amazing against Vandy last week). And while variety is a very good thing on standard downs, not having a particularly effective go-to guy on passing downs is a detriment.

I'm curious about the level of risk Kentucky attempts on these downs. Does Towles throw short a lot to Timmons to keep the pass rush off of him? Does he try to hit Johnson, Robinson, and others on more intermediate or long throws and risk getting taken down by Shane Ray and Markus Golden? (And can UK vary the snap count enough to draw a bunch of offsides penalties like Vandy did?)

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense UK Defense Advantage
SD % Run 59.6% (62nd)

S&P+ 103.2 (68th) 101.8 (63rd) push
Success Rate 48.5% (55th) 46.9% (75th) push
IsoPPP 0.75 (76th) 0.67 (31st) UK
Rushing Success Rate 52.1% (31st) 52.4% (112th) MU big
Rushing IsoPPP 0.57 (111th) 0.63 (60th) UK big
Passing Success Rate 43.1% (95th) 39.3% (17th) UK big
Passing IsoPPP 1.06 (29th) 0.75 (22nd) push

On first down, second-and-medium, and third-and-short, Missouri's had a decent offense this year -- not great, not terrible, right there in the middle of the pack. Missouri runs efficiently but almost never breaks big run plays, and the passing game is explosive but inefficient. Mediocre in every way. And it almost mirrors Kentucky's defense. The only difference is that Kentucky is inefficient against the run (good for Mizzou!) and efficient against the pass (not particularly good for Mizzou!).

Missouri committed to the run last week, handing or throwing short to Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough 38 times in 69 snaps. I would assume we'll see more of the same here.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 38 targets, 29 catches (76%), 337 yards (8.9), 4 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 19 targets, 13 catches (68%), 179 yards (9.4), 4 TD
Darius White: 18 targets, 9 catches (50%), 135 yards (7.5), 2 TD
Marcus Murphy: 14 targets, 10 catches (71%), 77 yards (5.5)
Sean Culkin (TE): 13 targets, 5 catches (39%), 36 yards (2.8), 1 TD
Wesley Leftwich: 6 targets, 2 catches (33%), 31 yards (5.2)

(White is listed as questionable, not out, but I'm crossing him off just the same. Betting on him not playing has been pretty successful recently.)

This should be a pretty run-heavy attack, but I am still curious about a couple of aspects of the pass. First, does Sasser's great second-half play against Vandy lead to Mauk trusting him a bit more and throwing some more balls his way (whether he's particularly open or not)? And assuming White is indeed out again, do we see more than a couple of targets for the emerging (in practice) Nate Brown? Standard downs are when you want to get younger, newer guys more involved.

Passing Downs
MU Offense UK Defense Advantage
PD % Run 31.4% (67th)

S&P+ 87.4 (100th) 102.1 (69th) UK
Success Rate 31.4% (58th) 28.8% (56th) push
IsoPPP 1.04 (91st) 0.99 (28th) UK big
Rushing Success Rate 34.9% (27th) 21.3% (27th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.85 (98th) 1.21 (90th) push
Passing Success Rate 29.8% (84th) 32.6% (74th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.15 (70th) 0.92 (19th) UK big

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 20 targets, 11 catches (55%), 208 yards (10.4), 2 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 15 targets, 7 catches (47%), 85 yards (5.7), 1 TD
Darius White: 10 targets, 8 catches (80%), 104 yards (10.4), 1 TD
Marcus Murphy: 9 targets, 4 catches (44%), 42 yards (4.7), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 9 targets, 3 catches (33%), 53 yards (5.9)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 6 targets, 2 catches (33%), -10 yards (-1.7)

Every time I see Mizzou's numbers, I think back to the first three weeks of the season, when standard downs were a bit of an issue, but Mauk and his receivers were big-time improvisers and passing downs play-makers. That changed when defensive coordinators figured out some tendencies (and White got hurt), but rarely do success and identity take this much of a turn in the period of a few games.

That's success and identity, yes. Obviously Mizzou has been far less successful, but after throwing the ball almost exclusively early on, Mizzou has begun to once again lean more run-heavy on these downs. (Think back to last week, when a couple of the most successful passing downs attempts were designed Mauk runs.) That's probably not anybody's preference (including Mauk's), but it's just the way it has to be.

Kentucky is far from amazing at defending on passing downs, but it probably goes without saying that the Wildcats are better at defending them than Missouri is at converting them. There's a decent pass rush here, and it will probably get to Mauk a couple of times, but if Missouri can keep Kentucky off-balance and at least turn second-and-longs into third-and-manageables (probably via the run), I'll feel pretty good.


So here are the key factors:

1. Big Plays

Kentucky lived off of big plays last week against Mississippi State but hasn't always gotten them. Missouri, meanwhile, has allowed fewer big plays than anybody in conference play. If UK can get a couple of 40-yard passes and create a couple of easy scores, it will put a lot of pressure on Missouri to keep up. Key Stat: IsoPPP.

2. Passing Downs

Obviously. Both defenses have pretty significant advantages on passing downs, so if one offense is able to convert a few, that team will likely generate a solid advantage overall. Key Stat: passing downs success rate.

3. Little Things™

I'll probably be putting this one here every week now. Missouri is a defense-and-special-teams team this year, which means that field position and finishing drives have become even more important than usual (and they're usually very important). Missouri has to create shorter fields for itself than its opponents, and the Tigers have to finish the scoring opportunities they get. (They didn't do a particularly good job of that last week.) Key stats: points per scoring opportunity and average starting field position.

4. The first quarter

It's been strange these past few weeks, watching Missouri play with a pretty strong fire on the road but start rather slowly at home.

First quarter against Indiana, Georgia, and Vanderbilt: Opponent 13, Missouri 10

First quarter against Toledo, S. Carolina, and Florida: Missouri 35, Opponent 10

The first quarter seems to be pretty important, especially for the Mizzou offense. When you lack play-makers, you might need to find some success in the game plan early on before simple talent and athleticism take over.

In addition, Kentucky is coming to town with some confidence after last week's showing. If the Wildcats are able to take an early advantage, it could portend bad things. Key stat: Q1 S&P


Your view of this game is completely defined by which Kentucky games you've watched this year. The Wildcats were aggressive and confident and interesting -- they looked like a Stoops team, basically -- last week. They were also a listless speed bump against LSU. They made every play in the fourth quarter against South Carolina; they also made a few plays early against Ohio, then shifted down to second gear. They are a confusing team, but of course they are; they're young, fun and dumb, with the upside and inconsistency that comes with being young, fun and dumb.

If Missouri is able to play the game it wants to play -- strong running, strong special teams, minimal big plays allowed -- then the Tigers will be 7-2 on Saturday evening. But those are ifs, not givens. Kentucky has a chance to further prove that the Wildcats are a team to watch moving forward under Mark Stoops. Hopefully the Tigers are able to prevent that from happening.