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If Missouri beats Kentucky on Saturday, here’s how

What do the Tigers have to do to get past the Wildcats?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

BC: We’ll start with something basic: who wins in Lexington on Saturday?

TR: This is purely based on blind faith and the hope that somehow my preseason prediction of seven to eight wins can still come true. So I’ll say that Missouri shocks the SEC world and knocks off Kentucky in Lexington.

BC: Okay, great! ...how?

TR: Missouri must reset its mindset. They played well versus South Carolina for a quarter and a half, then made crucial mistakes, which they never recovered from.

With all due respect to Purdue and the huge strides they’ve made, I refuse to believe that they are that much better than Missouri. The 35-3 pounding was more a hangover from the South Carolina collapse. There is no way to sugarcoat the Auburn loss. Auburn is a substantially better team than Missouri, and the score indicated that.

BC: Yeah, the way this team crumpled, basically from the two Deebo scores in the second quarter, was alarming. They did rebound from an effort perspective, but it was against a vastly superior Auburn team. (That Auburn was vastly superior is alarming in a different way.)

From a matchups perspective, though, what do you see as Missouri’s biggest opportunity against a confusing Kentucky team that has fought well against decent teams (South Carolina, Florida) and labored significantly against lesser teams (EKU, EMU)?

TR: Missouri can’t allow Benny Snell to beat them two years in a row. Snell is not the same freshman that torched Missouri as he rushed for 192 yards and 2 TD’s. The 2017 version seems impatient and focused on breaking the home run play instead of taking what the defense gives him. Containing Snell will be easier said than done, but if the Missouri defense has a strength it would be stopping the run.

Missouri should force Stephen Johnson to beat them, which he hasn’t shown an ability to do yet. Johnson is the perfect definition of a game manager. Through five games Johnson has thrown for 970 yards, seven touchdowns, and a single interception. Most of Johnson’s passes are screens and check-downs that allow his receiver an opportunity to make plays in space.

So to put it plainly, he won’t lose you a game but he definitely won’t win you one either. Based on Missouri’s struggles with tight ends, do you view CJ Conrad as a bigger concern than Benny Snell?

BC: Oh, Snell has to be considered the biggest threat. Look at it this way: Snell touches the ball 22 times per game, and Conrad catches two passes per game. Even though they’re really good at using the tight end to catch you off-guard, you still have to stop the heavy-frequency guys first. As a defensive coach would tell you, “make them fight left-handed.” Make them go to Plan B. If Conrad catches three 25-yard passes but Snell averaged three yards per carry, Missouri’s odds of winning are quite high.

You’re definitely right about Johnson. He’s doing a really good job of making safe decisions, and against Missouri maybe that’s all it takes — if you can throw an easy five-yard pass, and the defender misses a tackle and goes for 50 yards, that’s all you need.

Simply playing sound, fundamental defense would give Mizzou a chance to win, but ... I mean ... it’s hard to assume that will happen, right? Missed tackles, changes in philosophy, a total lack of confidence ... there are a lot of obstacles blocking Missouri from playing sound, fundamental D at the moment.

What’s your biggest concern when Mizzou has the ball? Kentucky didn’t have a good defense last year, but the Wildcats had the right pieces when it came to slowing Missouri down. What are the biggest obstacles between Missouri and points on Saturday?

TR: The biggest concerns have to be in-game adjustments and getting too cute with the play-calling. Missouri has the playmakers to match up with any defense and have at the very least moderate success. But as the last three games can attest, Josh Heupel’s offense doesn’t always place the offense in position to succeed. An excellent example is the way Johnathon Johnson is utilized.

I see Johnson as the most important skill player not named Damarea Crockett, but for whatever reason Johnson is mostly used as a gimmick. Currently, Johnson has been utilized in the same manner as Tavon Austin with the Rams under Coach Fisher, which for the most part wasn’t successful.

I understand that you want to show off JJ’s speed by throwing screens, deep balls and reverses, but you still need to use him as a real receiver and allow him to run normal routes.

Those types of plays are successful against lesser opponents because Missouri can properly block those teams, but that hasn’t been the case thus far versus Power 5 conference members. To put it plainly, as great as Johnson is in the open field he can’t be expected to slither through three defenders on a regular basis.

As far as the in-game adjustments are concerned, Mizzou must be willing to veer away from the game plan they created on Thursday. There have been too many occasions where guys have been effective, but then we see them subbed out because of pre-planned substitutions i.e. the running back carousel.

BC: The main problem there might simply be that he isn’t an amazing route runner and that he’s more of a Devin Hester than a Tavon Austin. Pure speculation, obviously, but most of the time it feels like they’re just trying to get him the ball in space in any way they can, and there might be a reason for that.

The best thing that could happen for this offense would be a third legitimate, route-running WR emerging. Opponents can put a safety over the guy covering J’Mon Moore, and the numbers game will tell Drew Lock to look for a different option. Johnson is used as, in essence, a punt returner playing receiver, so to punish opponents for their numbers game, a third guy has to make plays, preferably downfield.

In other words, it’s time for Emanuel Hall to go from part-timer-with-potential to legitimate starter. We’ve seen the promise, but he has to produce. On a per-target basis, losing Dimetrios Mason doesn’t hurt at all because he was being used as a safety valve of sorts ... but it hurts if no one else steps up, and I think Hall has the most potential to do so.

So Kentucky’s pass defense isn’t very good, but the cornerbacks are tall and physical, and it seemed to give Mizzou problems last year. Do you see that being just as big an issue as it seemed in 2016?

TR: This should be a major concern for the coaching staff. For the last two years, Missouri’s receivers have been exceptional when facing less physical secondaries. The struggles have occurred against the physical DBs like Kentucky has. We have seen it time and time again when the receivers are getting harassed or get popped, they become visibly frustrated and seem to check out of the game.

Missouri can offset this by bringing the physicality to Kentucky, instead of sitting back and allowing the Wildcats secondary to set the physical tone. If J’Mon and the rest of the guys set an early precedent that they won’t be bullied, by making their presence felt from the first snap, I can see this being an excellent matchup.

I think it’s fair to say that a team’s level of physicality has a direct correlation to thee number of turnovers they force. With that being said, would you attribute the Tigers awful turnover ratio to the defensive line’s inability to bring a certain level of physicality and truly dominate the line of scrimmage as they did in previous years when they earned the nickname D-Line Zou?

BC: Part of it is luck. Missouri and its opponents have fumbled 11 times, and Mizzou has recovered only two of those. That’s drastically unlucky, and it’ll even out, either this year or next. Granted, Mizzou has committed seven of those 11 fumbles, but the biggest self-inflicted issue in the turnover battle, in my view, is the simple fact that the Tigers aren’t getting hands on annnnnnny passes.

Opponents have defensed (intercepted or broken up) 17 of 133 passes — about 13% of passes. Mizzou has defensed five of 118 passes — 4%. You can’t pick off passes if you aren’t anywhere near them, and it’s mortifying to think that the Tigers have been that shaky while playing in a base nickel. There are benefits to playing with five defensive backs, and Mizzou is reaping none of them while also reaping some of the drawbacks.

Kentucky, by the way, has defensed 26 passes (13%) and had 14 defensed (11%).

ALRIGHT. Here’s what I say are the three keys to the game. Tell me where I’m wrong:

  1. Stopping Snell, as mentioned here.
  2. Efficiency passing, as mentioned here.
  3. An easy score. A special teams score. A pick six. Free points of any kind. It feels Mizzou hasn’t had any of those since about 2014, and it’s really hard to win on the road (without superior talent) without some sort of field flipper.

TR: So are we agreeing that Missouri is going to win 26-24?

BC: If Mizzou wins, it’ll be something in that neighborhood. But the most likely scenario is still something like 27-13 UK.