All you older Mizzou fans remember how awful it was to play Kansas State, right? Once Bill Snyder really got the Wildcats rolling, Missouri lost an unprecedented 13 straight games to K-State, from 1993 through 2005.
The worst part was that Snyder’s ‘Cats didn’t do anything flashy. Offensively, everyone knew exactly what they would do: whether it was Ell Roberson and Darren Sproles or Collin Klein and Daniel Thomas, K-State would run-run-run-run-run until they had to pass and then just run it some more. Defensively, they didn’t make any mistakes and played fundamentally sound defense, erasing a team’s offensive strength. All those teams needed was one or two turnovers to make an opposing offense uncomfortable and then they’d pounce on the predictability and win.
It was frustrating for so many reasons: it wasn’t flashy, they didn’t recruit well, and there was very little question as to what they were going to do. But they constantly executed nearly flawlessly and made few mistakes. Your team lost because your team made mistakes so it always felt like...man, we could have easily won that. Kansas State was a bellwether team: bad teams lost to them, good teams beat them, and if you made mistakes or executed poorly, you were screwed.
Kentucky is the Kansas State of the SEC. The offense controls the clock, grinds defenses down with a punishing run game, rarely takes big risks, and sets up the defense to pounce on opposing offenses that get progressively more frustrated and start pressing. They beat bad teams, lose to good teams, and make you pay if you make mistakes.
Missouri is going to have to play patient, consistent football on Saturday to break “The Streak” against these Demoncats. It’ll be a true test of Drinkwitz’s offensive acumen and a perfect time for Missouri’s elder-statesmen-defensive line to step up and stuff some runs.
Missouri’s Key Stats against Kentucky’s Offense
Win on Standard Downs
For all intents and purposes, Kentucky is a service academy triple-option team: they play ball-control, run on 63% of their plays, utilize the quarterback in the running game, only pass when they absolutely have to, dominate on early downs and crumble in passing down situations. So, while the goal for the defense is to win on Standard Downs to put them in passing situations, that’s way easier said than done. Missouri’s defense has done well in standard downs and fallen apart in passing downs so this will be a strength-on-strength goal but Missouri has shown that a competent running attack with excellent offensive linemen can wipe them out. The Wildcat offensive line features three 3-stars (Luke Fortner, Darian Kinnard, Kenneth Horsey), one 4-star (Drake Jackson), and the 29th-best player of the 2018 class, 5-star Landon Young. They have the talent and the scheme, so if Kentucky is averaging a 45% or better success rate on Standard Downs and an Opportunity Rate over 40%, then the offense is doing exactly what they want to do and the Tigers are in trouble.
Limit Explosive Plays
Look...I might be a tad nihilistic here. Just based off of all the other recent matchups between Mizzou and Kentucky, the Wildcats always, always get their yards on the ground. But, much like an option team, they tend to be more efficiency based rather than explosive based. Kentucky has only had 5% of their plays go for 20+ yards, one of the worst big-play rates in the country, so if they magically start rattling off 6-7 big plays, that would tend to spell doom for the good guys. If Kentucky gets more than five plays of 20+ yards that would indicate that the Tiger defense is having a terrible day. Also, five plays of over 20+ yards in a game would be 35% of Kentucky’s explosive plays for the entire season...
Missouri’s Key Stats vs. Kentucky’s Defense
Stay Ahead of the Chains
Kentucky’s defense is exactly as it always is under Mark Stoops: excellent in pressuring the quarterback, dynamite passing defense, solid run defense. Currently, the Wildcat defense is a Top 20 defense in passing downs but a surprising 64th (out of 75 teams) in standard downs. So don’t get in passing down situations! Easy! If the Tigers either have a Standard Downs success rate of at least 45% OR a Passing Downs success rate of at least 30% then they’ll be able to execute well enough to capitalize on the fewer possessions this game will probably feature.
Pass to Run
As I pointed out in my last Beyond the Box Score, Drinkwitz has shown a tendency of running Larry Rountree III on 1st downs and then having Bazelak throw it on 2nd and 3rd. It’s fairly unimaginative, but could be a by-product of the defense lining up in situations that mean the read for Bazelak is to hand it off on 1st. For all their talent on passing downs, however, Kentucky is particularly susceptible to the pass, currently ranking 60th. This is a good chance for Mizzou to flip the script to open drives with the pass to get Larry and Tyler Badie some room to run on later downs. Kentucky opponents are averaging a 65.8% completion rate and Bazelak has shown an ability to connect on over 80% of his passes as long as his receivers catch the ball. If Bazelak has a completion percentage over 70% and the receivers have less than 2 drops, I’ll feel good about the passing game’s productivity.
Finish your dang drives
Five scoring opportunities with 3.8 points per opportunity against Alabama. Five scoring opportunities with 2.4 points per opportunity against Tennessee. Eight scoring opportunities with 5.6 points per opportunity against LSU. Which one did the Tigers win again? Pretty obvious, right? Kentucky is averaging 28 points per game at this point (much more when their defense gets pick-6’s, obviously) so six scoring opportunities at 5.2 points per opportunity will get the Tigers to 31 (roughly) points. That should do it!
Missouri is a 6.5-point underdog at home. Bill C has this game as a 59% chance for a Kentucky win, with a score of 26(ish)-21(ish) in favor of the Wildcats.
Here’s the stat that really matters: Missouri is 0-5 in its last five games against Kentucky. And most have not been particularly close.
Missouri has lost to Kentucky because for those last five matchups, Missouri has not been that great of a team. Maybe they aren’t even that good this year, but this is the hurdle that Missouri fans really want Drinkwitz to get over. Have Bazelak and the offense get three touchdowns on a Top 20 defense. Have Bolton and Whiteside and Bledsoe and Gillespie put a hurting on the Kentucky ground game and force some punts or - please, please, PLEASE - get some dang turnovers. Put some scare back in the ‘Cats and let’s see if we can even win this thing and end the nightmare.