Missouri’s matchup with Kentucky on Saturday was supposed to be a bounce-back game for Tigers in only one sense of the word.
Outside of South Carolina, who Missouri took care of earlier this season, and Georgia, who the team has yet to play this season, the Wildcats are the only SEC East team that has consistently had the Tigers’ number throughout head coach Barry Odom’s tenure. Missouri hasn’t beaten Kentucky since 2014, a 20-10 win that saw Maty Mauk hit Bud Sasser with two second quarter touchdown passes to put the Tigers up to stay.
Since then, Missouri has lost four straight to their opponents from Lexington by a grand total of 29 points.
And who can forget the Tigers’ loss last season, when a controversial pass interference call on cornerback DeMarkus Acy gave the Wildcats an extra play from the 2-yard line. Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson completed a touchdown pass to tight end CJ Conrad with no time on the clock, taking a win right out of Missouri’s hands after it had led since the 14 minute, one second mark in the second quarter.
So yes, the Tigers look at this week’s game as a way to bounce back against an opponent who’s knocked them off four years in a row.
But after Missouri’s shocking 21-14 loss last Saturday against Vanderbilt, the Tigers have another reason to see their next game as a potential bounce-back performance.
Missouri, who went into the game ranked No. 22 in the nation, hit the road to Nashville to take on a Commodores team that sat at 1-5 on the season and had just lost to UNLV the week before. The Tigers may have overlooked their opponent too much, as the offense, defense and special teams all seemed to lack focus as Missouri was knocked off by Vanderbilt.
Odom said that some of the players and coaches who were around for 2018’s loss to the Wildcats may be using it as more fuel for Saturday’s showdown, it’s important that the Tigers look at last week’s performance as their guide for what they need to improve this time around.
“The ownership that we’ve got and the care that (the players) have on trying to make a wrong, trying to make it right, it’s there,” Odom said. “You can’t just say ‘OK now we addressed it, now it’s over, let’s go fix it.’ Now the action part of it happens, and it’s going to take a tremendous effort to go end up in the winner’s circle this next week. We understand that.”
Missouri will be without starting safety Tyree Gillespie, who attempted to break up Conrad’s game-winner last season, for the first half Saturday after he was called for targeting last week.
Gillespie hit Vanderbilt quarterback Mo Hasan with the crown of his helmet as Hasan was sliding feet first to the ground, a textbook targeting penalty that got him ejected from the game and disqualified for the first half against Kentucky. The Tigers will use a rotation of players to fill Gillespie’s spot for the first two quarters, but Missouri expects freshman safety and Columbia-product Martez Manuel to start in his place.
Manuel, who had been a backup safety on the depth chart since Week 1, will be making his first career start against Kentucky, but Odom doesn’t expect the moment to go to his head.
“(Manuel has) worked extremely hard up to this point, he understands the scheme of the way we’re going to go play, he’s got really good skill, and we need him to just do his job,” Odom said. “... He’s going to prepare extremely well, he has up to this point, and he’s earned the opportunity now that his number is called.”
Of the Tigers’ starters, perhaps two of their most important ones have no real beef from the rivalry with the Wildcats.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant and receiver Jonathan Nance have yet to take part in a Missouri/Kentucky matchup, as both transferred to MU in the spring. They both took official visits to Columbia the same weekend as the 2018 game, seeing first-hand how big of a matchup this is for the Tigers.
Sitting in the stands for much of the game, both Bryant and Nance could feel the atmosphere in Memorial Stadium as Missouri looked to stop its losing streak to Kentucky at three games. Bryant described hearing the crowd go silent after the last play, saying it’s a moment that you definitely remember.
Though the pair weren’t sold on MU due to the game alone, both said seeing where they could help the Tigers based on what they saw on the field helped sway their decisions.
Of course, Missouri doesn’t want to put too much focus on past results as it prepares for Saturday. Many players discussed “winning the week” or “going 1-0 this week,” which are cliché but reasonable answers nonetheless as far as motivating factors for the game.
Whether it be against the Wildcats or any other opponent, the Tigers just want to get back in the win column.
“Just trying to get back to 1-0,” linebacker Nick Bolton said. “Our mindset hasn’t really changed that much. We know we’ve got to find a way to win on the road. We’re just going to come back out here, work again and hope that our success speaks for itself.”