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A good defense can contain Kentucky’s offense. What will *Missouri’s* defense do?

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Both Kentucky’s offense and Missouri’s defense have been disappointing this year. Who rights the ship on Saturday?

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It always feels a little bit extra disappointing to stink when others stink. It’s one thing to be bad, but it’s another to be bad when there are lots and lots of potential wins on the table.

Kentucky’s offense has been, frankly, extremely disappointing this year. I expected a lot more from the Wildcats, who are struggling even worse than Missouri to run the ball with their own sophomore star (Benny Snell Jr.) — they are currently 102nd in overall success rate and 118th in rushing success rate. Bad.

When you see something like this, your immediate thought is, “This is something my team can take advantage of!” And a focused, organized Missouri defense absolutely could. But it’s hard to assume that’s the type of defense Missouri will field when it plays the Wildcats in Lexington on Saturday. The Tigers, after all, are 118th in success rate allowed and 106th in rushing success rate.

For the sake of sanity and optimism, however, let’s make some assumptions. Let’s assume that Missouri plays its best defense since the first half of the South Carolina game. Let’s assume the Tigers are focused and organized, that they have a clear plan of action and follow it well. What would that Missouri defense perhaps be able to accomplish against UK?

To answer that, let’s peruse the Wildcats’ depth chart.

Quarterback

  • Stephen Johnson (6’2, 185, Sr.) — 77-for-119 (65%), 940 yards, 7 TDs, 1 INT, 12 sacks (6.6 yards per attempt, including sacks); 24 carries, 175 yards (7.3), 2 TD
  • Drew Barker (6’3, 225, Jr.) — 1-for-2, 5 yards, 2 sacks (-2.5 yards per attempt, inc. sacks)

Barker was one of Mark Stoops’ first big-time recruits at UK, but he lost the plot early last year, then got hurt. That he didn’t transfer once usurped by Johnson was a bit of a surprise, but he’s definitely been usurped.

Johnson is not the most dynamic passer in the world, but he’s a safe passer who’s thrown just seven picks in 384 passes at UK and only one this year. Missouri doesn’t tend to get hands on passes, so I’m doubting Johnson’s INT total rises this year unless there’s massive miscommunication with his receivers.

Johnson can also run. He only does it about five times per game, but he picks his spots well.

A well-performing Missouri defense can contain him but probably won’t turn on the turnovers faucet or anything.

Running Back

  • Benny Snell Jr. (5’11, 223, So.) — 106 carries, 406 yards (3.8), 4 TD; 6 targets, 5 catches, 40 yards (6.7)
  • Sihiem King (5’9, 172, Jr.) — 31 carries, 159 yards (5.1); 8 targets, 7 catches, 53 yards (6.6)

Man oh man, do I like Snell when he gets rolling. His story is similar to that of Damarea Crockett: he broke into the depth chart a few games into 2017 and showed massive promise down the stretch. His 2016 explosion began the week before UK played Missouri — that was the second of a five-game stretch in which he rushed 107 times for 665 yards (6.2 per carry) and seven touchdowns. That was also UK’s best five-game stretch of the season — the Wildcats went 3-2 and nearly beat Georgia in that span.

This year, Snell has struggled. He briefly got hurt against Eastern Kentucky (and the offense completely bottomed out when he was out of the game), but I haven’t read much about a lingering injury. With an offensive line that is unsettled and ineffective, Snell hasn’t found the blocking he needs, and he hasn’t created nearly as much on his own. Last week, he rushed 21 times for just 75 yards in the Wildcats’ narrow win over EMU.

King has fared much better in a backup role. He rushed 16 times for 140 yards against EKU, South Carolina, and Florida, though he also carried seven times for just seven times last week.

A well-performing Missouri defense can hold Snell and King to four or five yards per carry. Technically, I should set the bar higher than that for Mizzou considering EMU held them to 2.9 last week, but I’m assuming a bounce back on their end. And you can beat UK if you’re holding these two under 5 per carry.

Wide Receiver (F)

  • Garrett Johnson (5’11, 175, Sr.) — 30 targets, 20 catches, 222 yards (7.4), 1 TD
  • Lynn Bowden Jr. (6’1, 190, Fr.) — 2 targets, 2 catches, 19 yards (9.5)

Wide Receiver (X)

  • Kayaune Ross (6’6, 225, Sr.) — 10 targets, 6 catches, 83 yards (8.3)
  • Blake Bone (6’5, 213, Sr.) — 11 targets, 5 catches, 116 yards (10.6)

Wide Receiver (Z)

  • Tavin Richardson (6’3, 214, So.) — 17 targets, 9 catches, 72 yards (4.2), 1 TD
  • Isaiah Epps (6’2, 185, Fr.) — 4 targets, 2 catches, 24 yards (6.0)
  • Josh Ali (6’0, 180, Fr.)

Wide Receiver (Y)

  • Charles Walker (5’11, 203, Sr.) — 14 targets, 10 catches, 112 yards (8.0)
  • Clevan Thomas (5’11, 205, Fr.) — 2 targets, 1 catch, 4 yards (2.0)

Tight End

  • C.J. Conrad (6’5, 245, Jr.) — 12 targets, 9 catches, 195 yards (16.3), 3 TD
  • Greg Hart (6’5, 245, Sr.) — 3 targets, 2 catches, 23 yards (7.7), 1 TD

Kentucky managed just a 31 percent rushing success rate against EMU but still managed to beat the Eagles due to a couple of factors:

  1. Luck. They got about 4.5 points’ worth of turnovers luck. In a four-point win, that seems pretty significant. Missouri has had just about the worst turnovers luck in the country thus far, so if that were to flip around a bit, that could help the Tigers immensely.
  2. Efficient passing. Johnson was 18-for-27 for 175 yards, two scores, and a passer rating of 145.6. (For reference, Missouri is allowing a 158.0 passer rating thus far. 145.6 is pretty good, but not “torching you” good.) There weren’t many big plays, but ‘F’ receivers Johnson and Bowden combined to catch 10 of 12 passes for 80 yards and a 67 percent success rate, and that gave the Wildcats just enough efficiency to hold on.

UK is missing Dorian Baker and Jeff Badet. Badet was a speedster, and Baker was an interesting, explosive piece out of the slot. But Badet transferred to Oklahoma (he’s caught 12 balls for 243 yards this year), and Baker has been sidelined by an August ankle injury.

Without Baker and Badet, this is an efficiency-heavy passing attack. The top three targets (Johnson, Ricardson, Walker) are combining to average just 10.4 yards per catch, and the best big-play weapon has been the tight end, Conrad, who has only six catches in the last four games.

Of course, efficiency passing can work if you can throw short, safe passes and maybe turn a couple of them into big plays thanks to missed tackles. Missouri defensive backs have been, shall we say, lacking in the tackling department, so I wouldn’t expect just a ton of risk here until Missouri proves it’s warranted.

A well-performing Missouri defense can tackle well and maybe get just enough pressure on Johnson to force some throwaways or quick checkdowns. I don’t want to use the word “contain” too much, but this offense can be hemmed in and popped down, is what I’m saying.

Left Tackle

  • Landon Young (6’7, 305, So.) — 4 starts in 2017, 7 career starts

Left Guard

  • Logan Stenberg (6’6, 318, So.) — 5 starts in 2017, 5 career starts
  • Luke Fortner (6’6, 305, RSFr.)

Center

  • Bunchy Stallings (6’3, 315, Jr.) — 4 starts in 2017, 12 career starts
  • Drake Jackson (6’2, 290, RSFr.)

Right Guard

  • Nick Haynes (6’3, 300, Sr.) — 5 starts in 2017, 28 career starts
  • Mason Wolfe (6’6, 310, So.)

Right Tackle

  • Kyle Meadows (6’5, 300, Sr.) — 5 starts in 2017, 18 career starts
  • George Asafo-Adjei (6’5, 315, Jr.) — 2 starts in 2017, 5 career starts

The trenches have been a problem for UK. The Wildcats lost all-conference center Jon Toth and guard Ramsey Meyers to graduation, then lost left tackle Cole Mosier to a torn ACL in August. They fielded three different starting lines in the first three games before settling on a lineup, but the results aren’t there yet. UK ranks 91st in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards), 117th in power success rate, and 94th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). That’s bad.

By contrast: Missouri ranks 26th in opportunity rate, 77th in power success rate, and 40th in stuff rate. The Tigers have suffered some massive breakdowns on the runs where a guy gets more than four or five yards downfield, but they’ve shown more upside against the run than the pass. Cale Garrett and Terez Hall have each taken part in seven run stuffs, and Terry Beckner Jr. has five. This is a massive area of opportunity for Mizzou, even with its woeful rushing success rate.

A well-performing Missouri defense can eat up Kentucky’s line. Beckner, Rashad Brandon, and company clog the middle, forcing Snell and King to cut to the outside, where Hall, Garrett, and the linebackers make sound tackles. Nothing in that sentence is guaranteed, but it’s on the table, and if it happens and Kentucky is forced to get a little more aggressive than it would like through the air, Missouri will give itself a chance to win.