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Short, precise passing is the key to beating Kentucky’s defense

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Missouri’s offense has been awful on passing downs and might not be able to rely on big run plays to move the ball on the Wildcats.

Kentucky v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

For the most part, Missouri’s offensive performances in 2016 were pretty closely dictated by the quality of the defense. Go figure. LSU and Florida had tremendous defenses, and Mizzou scored a combined 21 points on them. EMU and Delaware State had bad defenses, and Mizzou scored 140. Teams like Arkansas (28), Georgia (27), and Vanderbilt (26) were in between and got in-betweened.

The Kentucky game was a bit of an oddity, however. The Wildcats’ defense was pretty bad last year, finishing 86th in Def. S&P+ and struggling mightily against the run (93rd in Rushing S&P+).

But while Damarea Crockett managed to average 9 yards per carry in the blowout losses to LSU and Florida, he averaged only 4.2 against UK. And while Drew Lock’s passing numbers eventually ended up okay against the Wildcats — thanks mostly to him going 2-for-2 for 64 yards in garbage time — he struggled early. J’Mon Moore, about to wreak havoc in November, caught three of six balls for 12 yards. Basically everybody but Dimetrios Mason (who caught a garbage time bomb) and tight end Sean Culkin struggled.

Sometimes matchups trump on-paper quality, and Missouri struggled with Kentucky’s lanky cornerbacks and high-havoc linebackers. It was a bad Saturday at Faurot Field (and there have been too many of those of late).

This year, the two units are different. Missouri’s has struggled since the second quarter of the South Carolina game, and due to lingering injury, sophomore slump, bad blocking, or whatever, Crockett has been awfully mediocre since leaving the SC game with a bruised butt. Meanwhile, the passing game has been dreadful on passing downs. That’s a bad combination.

Kentucky’s defense has changed, too. This might become Mark Stoops’ best run defense yet in Lexington — the Wildcats are allowing no explosive plays whatsoever — but the pass defense has taken a step backwards. UK still has those lanky, physical cornerbacks, though.

Let’s take a look at UK’s defensive depth chart and how Mizzou might choose to attack it.

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

(Note: I’m once again including each defender’s success rate allowed below — I don’t have good benchmarks for what’s good or bad, but I like the picture it paints. You can pretty clearly figure out how close each player plays to the line of scrimmage with it.)

Defensive Tackle

  • Adrian Middleton (6’3, 275, Jr.) — 7.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 run stuff, 9% success rate allowed
  • Kordell Looney (6’3, 293, RSFr.)

Nose Guard

  • Naquez Pringle (6’3, 320, Sr.) — 5.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 run stuffs, 0% success rate allowed
  • Matt Elam (6’7, 360, Sr.) — 6.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 25% success rate allowed

Defensive End

  • T.J. Carter (6’4, 280, So.) — 3.5 tackles, 1 PBU, 20% success rate allowed
  • Kengera Daniel (6’5, 260, Jr.) — 3.0 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 0% success rate allowed

Defensive End/Outside Linebacker

  • Denzil Ware (6’2, 245, Jr.) — 11.5 tackles, 4 TFL (2.5 sacks), 2 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 2 FF, 29% success rate
  • Josh Paschal (6’3, 270, Fr.) — 2.0 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 0% success rate allowed

The words “read and react” have become obscenities in Columbia after Barry Odom attempted to shift Mizzou’s defense toward more of that type of attack last year. It left Missouri’s defensive linemen flat-footed and didn’t really fit the personnel, and he ditched it halfway through the year.

Kentucky’s front seven is currently proving the approach can work with the right personnel and teaching. The Wildcats are currently just 106th in stuff rate and 60th in overall havoc rate, but they are suffocating opposing run games all the same. They will give you a couple of yards, but they’ll never give you five.

  • South Carolina’s Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner combined to gain just 35 yards in 13 carries.
  • Florida’s Malik Davis gained 93 yards in 21 carries, 4.4 yards per carry. He’s otherwise averaged 10.3 yards per carry.

I have no direct proof, but I maintain that Crockett was dealing with lingering effects of his tailbone injury against Purdue and Auburn. He averaged 11.2 yards per carry against Missouri State and 5.4 against South Carolina but managed just 76 yards in 23 carries against Purdue and Auburn. The blocking didn’t help, but he didn’t seem to have the same sharp cutting ability.

If Crockett is full strength, he’s agile enough to elude a tackler and maybe carve out steady three- or four-yard gains against this defense. But he needs to be full strength to pull that off.

Eastern Michigan v Kentucky
Eli Brown (32) and Courtney Love (51)
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Strongside Linebacker

  • Josh Allen (6’5, 230, Jr.) — 25.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL (5.5 sacks), 3 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 36% success rate allowed
  • Jordan Bonner (6’5, 222, Jr.) — 2.5 tackles, 100% success rate allowed

Middle Linebacker

  • Courtney Love (6’2, 242, Sr.) — 22.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 39% success rate allowed
  • Kash Daniel (6’1, 235, So.) — 3.5 tackles, 100% success rate allowed

Weakside Linebacker

  • Eli Brown (6’2, 215, So.) — 13.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 41% success rate allowed
  • Jamar “Boogie” Watson (6’3, 240, RSFr.)

Jordan Jones had a huge game against Missouri last year and had recorded 9.5 tackles in two games earlier this year, but he’s missed time with a shoulder injury and is listed as doubtful for Saturday. This unit is still a strength, though. Josh Allen is on pace for nearly 20 tackles for loss, and Courtney Love is unique and versatile at MLB.

The line is better than it was last year, but I think the linebackers’ ability to clean up messes is the primary cause of UK’s improvement against the run. I’ll be surprised if Crockett has too big a day, and I’m curious what Missouri does on standard downs to avoid passing downs. Passing downs are bad for Mizzou. Very, very bad.

NCAA Football: Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
Mike Edwards (7) and Davonte Robinson (9)
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback

  • Derrick Baity (6’3, 186, Jr.) — 20.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 3 run stuffs, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 65% success rate allowed
  • Lonnie Johnson (6’3, 203, Jr.) — 12.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU, 67% success rate allowed

Cornerback

  • Chris Westry (6’4, 195, So.) — 12.5 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 69% success rate allowed
  • Jordan Griffin (6’0, 186, So.) — 7.0 tackles, 57% success rate allowed

Strong Safety

  • Mike Edwards (6’0, 200, Jr.) — 22.0 tackles, 1 run stuff, 3 INT, 3 PBU, 52% success rate allowed
  • Kendall Randolph (6’0, 183, Sr.) — 10.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 60% success rate allowed

Free Safety

  • Darius West (6’0, 210, Jr.) — 28.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 run stuff, 1 INT, 1 FF, 73% success rate allowed
  • Davonte Richardson (6’2, 187, RSFr.) — 4.5 tackles, 75% success rate allowed

As solid as UK has been against the run, the Wildcats have been equally problematic against the pass. Opponents are completing 62 percent of their passes and have figured out that attacking through the air is preferable — they are throwing 58 percent of the time on standard downs, easily the highest rate in the country.

EKU's Tim Boyle was 14-for-22 for 107 yards on standard downs, South Carolina's Jake Bentley was 20-for-28 for 265, Florida's Luke Del Rio and Feleipe Franks were 13-for-22 for 134, and EMU's Brogan Roback was 17-for-22 for 158. Bentley aside, the yardage totals aren’t particularly high, but the completion rate was. The short pass is the key to efficiency against UK.

That’s how the guy with the worst success rate allowed on the team (Darius West) ends up leading the team in tackles. It would behoove Missouri to make West work quite a bit.

Missouri tried to work in some safe, conservative passing on standard downs against Auburn, but the game got out of hand so quickly that it’s hard to know what was the intent and what was the product of suddenly being down 14-0.

Regardless, Johnathon Johnson ended up targeted 12 times, and I would expect another 8-12 targets this week. If the short passes to Johnson, Richaud Floyd, etc., work, it might stretch out UK’s defense enough to open up more run opportunities. (And yes, David Morrison, the tight ends would be a lovely, efficient option here, too.)

That’s the hope, anyway. But it will require Missouri’s receivers to beat UK’s big, physical corners, both in route running and perimeter blocking. To put it lightly, that has been an issue since the Missouri State game ended.

Special Teams

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

Kicker

  • Austin MacGinnis (5’10, 185, Sr.) — 14-14 PAT, 5-5 FG under 40, 4-9 FG over 40 (64th in FG efficiency); 28 kickoffs, 11 touchbacks (69th in kickoff success rate)
  • Miles Butler (5’9, 171, Jr.)

Punter

  • Matt Panton (6’4, 230, Sr.) — 43.1 average (43rd in punt success rate)
  • Grant McKinniss (6’1, 210, So.)

Kick Returns

  • Sihiem King (5’9, 172, Jr.) — 3 KR, 30.3 average
  • Lynn Bowden Jr. (6’1, 190, Fr.) — 4 KR, 23.3 average

Punt Returns

  • Charles Walker (5’11, 203, Sr.) — 4 PR, 21.5 average

Kentucky doesn’t really have any weaknesses in special teams, but its strengths can potentially be avoided. Austin MacGinnis is decent in the kickoffs department and automatic under 40 yards, but he’s misfired quite a bit on longer field goals. Meanwhile, Matt Panton is a perfectly solid punter but not necessarily a standout.

The strength, however, is in the return game. The Wildcats are sixth in kick return success rate (Sihiem King is scary) and 16th in punt returns (Charles Walker is very scary). Luckily, you can avoid that if you’re kicking the ball well. If Tucker McCann is planting kickoffs deep into the end zone, and if Corey Fatony is generating good hang time, Mizzou could at least break even in the field position department. But if there’s going to be a good return, it’s probably going to come from UK. Don’t let it.