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Fresh off an extension, Blake Baker’s defense shows its worth

Despite the 21-17 defeat to Kentucky, the Tigers’ defense excelled with six sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Missouri William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

“A guru when it comes to calling these defenses.”

Those were the words senior linebacker Chad Bailey used to describe Missouri Tigers defensive coordinator Blake Baker, following yet another dominant effort from the Mizzou defense against the Kentucky Wildcats.

The Tigers recorded six sacks (their most since Week 1 of 2021), 11 tackles for loss and three pass breakups while holding Kentucky to a 37.5% conversion rate on third downs. Despite the constant pressure and success, however, Mizzou (4-5, 2-4 SEC) dropped its fourth SEC game by one possession in the 21-17 defeat to Kentucky (6-3, 3-3 SEC).

For yet another week, the defense attempted to bail out the Brady Cook-led offense, but fell short in dramatic fashion.

Entering Saturday, Mizzou had 17 sacks on season, or 2.12 per game, but Kentucky brought in one of the nation’s worst sack rates, allowing 3.75 sacks per game. For Baker’s blitz-heavy scheme, that meant payday was coming early.

Senior defensive lineman Darius Robinson notched one of the best performances of his career, bulldozing his way to four total tackles, including 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Graduate defensive lineman DJ Coleman notched a season-high nine tackles and Bailey added seven tackles of his own.

Earlier this week, Baker applauded his unit’s effort and success against then-No. 25 South Carolina, but left the door open for growth.

“I still think, and this isn’t coach talk, that there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Baker said in Tuesday’s media session.

Those areas of weakness presented themselves on Kentucky’s first possession, as the Wildcats marched down the field in an eight-play, 71-yard touchdown drive. On that drive alone, Kentucky converted two third downs and recorded two plays of more than 15 yards.

“As a part of the game, you know somebody’s going to score on you, but it’s how you handle it and how you come back from it that makes the defense great,” Mizzou defensive back Jaylon Carlies said.

From then on, the Wildcats did not fare well against Mizzou’s ferocious front.

Kentucky totaled just 242 yards on offense. For context, the Wildcats entered the game averaging 352.6 yards per game, including 112.6 rush yards and 240 yards passing. The Tigers slashed those numbers to the tune of 82 rushing and 160 passing yards, respectively.

Will Levis, Kentucky’s quarterback and a projected first round quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft, tied a season-low in completions and posted his second-lowest amount of passing yards. He finished the game with 12 completions for 160 yards and three touchdowns.

Perhaps the most important element to the Tigers’ defensive turnaround, however, presented itself once again.

“We stopped the run,” Mizzou head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said.

Kentucky running back Christopher Rodriguez Jr. fought for 112 yards on 29 carries, but his 3.9 yards per attempt were his second-lowest on the season and below his average (4.9). Outside of Rodriguez, the Wildcats had -30 rushing yards, mainly due to the sacks on Levis, which netted a loss of 39 yards.

Earlier in the week, Baker emphasized the importance of preventing these gains, saying, “It’s tough to win in this league and it starts and stops with the trenches.”

Although Mizzou did not win, the Tigers stepped up in the trenches and improved upon their rushing defense, which ranked 25th in the nation coming into the contest at 114.9 yards per game. They remain fourth in the SEC in this category, trailing powerhouse programs Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

When looking at the weaknesses from Saturday’s performance, the Wildcats’ big-gain plays (15+ yards) stand out. On just seven of these plays, Kentucky totaled 157 yards of offense. Three of these occurred on third down, including two that happened while the Tigers defended a pair of 3rd & 11’s.

All three of the Wildcats’ scoring drives included one of these “big” plays, emphasizing the impact they have on the Mizzou defense. However, the latter two of Kentucky’s scoring drives became easier with the help of the Tigers’ special teams corps.

“We’re just trying to give our defense a chance to play and not do something crazy on special teams,” Drinkwitz said.

However, that’s what happened—A dropped snap on a punt forced Mizzou punter Jack Stonehouse to take off for a first down, and he fell a yard short to give Kentucky possession at the Mizzou 34-yard-line in the third quarter. Then, midway through the fourth quarter, a botched squib kick gave the Wildcats a start at their own 42-yard-line.

Both possessions epitomized what the season has been like for Mizzou’s defensive unit. Despite performing consistently at an above-average level nearly every possession, mistakes on offense and special teams are holding back the program’s success.

Late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, that notion came to light once again when the defense forced a three-and-out on Kentucky with 2:42 remaining in the game. The following play, as many of you will remember, resulted in a roughing the kicker penalty. Despite the public’s feelings toward the call itself, it epitomized yet again what the Tigers’ defense has had to deal with.

Nearly every time the defense has been called upon this year though, Baker’s group has answered the challenge. Those efforts explain why Mizzou rewarded the defensive coordinator with an extension to the 2025 season, and highlight the sheer impact he’s had on the program in such a short time.

The Tigers, along with their feisty defense, travel to Knoxville next, and the Vols will be looking to expose Mizzou’s defense for the first time in weeks. With questions on offense and special teams though, it’ll be on the defense to try to lead the Tigers back into the win column.