1. Kentucky played really well
I watched long portions of the UK-South Carolina and UK-Florida games, and this is not the team I saw. We heard the word "confidence" a lot during the broadcast -- you could tell it was a word Mark Stoops used a lot during meetings with the SECN crew -- and there was no question that Kentucky had more of it last night than in those previous games.
The result was a Missouri team daring Kentucky to do certain things it hadn't been able to of late ... and Kentucky doing them. Patrick Towles, 8-for-24 a week ago, rifling intermediate passes above one defender and in front of another. UK run defenders, iffy to date, stiffening against, well, what might be the weakest run blocking they've faced to date. UK's young secondary making more plays than Mizzou's young receivers.
Kentucky's players played better than Missouri's, and the new tweaks UK coaches introduced worked much better than Missouri's. They tried to establish a rhythm for Towles with early rhythm passes to the sideline. They had Towles actually throw to the tight end -- C.J. Conrad had been targeted once in three games and caught three of three passes last night, two for big gains up the middle.
Kentucky asked Conrad for a little and got a lot. Mizzou, meanwhile, asked for more from players like Ray Wingo and Keyon Dilosa and got a little and asked for more vertical running from its running backs and got "improvement" in the form of 3.3 yards per carry.
Despite all of Missouri's offensive struggles, last week's Kentucky team would have probably figured out a way to still lose that game. But the Wildcats played well, and kudos for that.
2. The early tweaks were encouraging
They ceased to be encouraging after a while, but I liked some of the principle shifts in thinking that I saw. First, in Friday's preview, I kind of thought they might use Hansbrough as a bit of a decoy early on, and they did. With Hansbrough in the backfield, Mizzou came out throwing, and it worked. With the mere threat of the run, Mauk completed nine of his first 10 passes for 65 yards. Mizzou was ... EFFICICIENT early on. It was strange. And the line held up to a big blitz long enough for Mauk to find J'Mon Moore for a touchdown! It was strange and thrilling!
And when it came time to run, you saw a little bit of a philosophical shift. It appeared Missouri was attempting a bit more downhill running between the tackles and a bit less of the stretch play that hasn't worked all year. It was Mizzou's bread and butter over the last couple of years, but this line cannot get even the slightest push with it (and again, this makes no sense to me and makes me angry), and this set of running backs, with Hansbrough still clearly nowhere near 100%, cannot burst through like we're using to seeing.
Because Missouri's running game was indeed so egregiously awful through three games, last night was indeed an improvement. Mizzou actually averaged 5.0 yards per play! Ish Witter averaged 4.5 yards per carry! Tyler Hunt had a 4-yarder! This was a step forward ... and a sign of just how many more steps this offense has to take.
People are raging at Josh Henson now, and hey, he's paid enough to handle the heat. But while Mizzou's staff will never be the type to freak out and make epic changes (which has benefited the Tigers handsomely through the years), you can see he's trying to figure out what Mizzou is actually competent and confident enough to execute well, and you can see that he has very limited options in that regard. When your guys can't throw, catch, run, or block consistently, your hands are just a wee bit tied.
By the way, Auburn's going through these same issues right now. When you are tasked with replacing some awesome play-makers, you never know if the new guys are going to step up. And with both Auburn and Missouri, it appears that coaches are genuinely surprised that their guys aren't.
At some point in a close game, you simply have to make a play. And after the first quarter, Missouri barely made any. Hansbrough still isn't in position to be leaned on by Henson, and when it became clear that Mizzou had to pass, there were few open receivers for Mauk to find. Mauk isn't going to be able to make unbelievable throws into tight windows, and when he does, this receiving corps probably won't reward him with many tough catches. J'Mon Moore got both hands on a potential touchdown pass that Mauk threw on the run but couldn't keep his hands on it. And of course, Lock had a sure touchdown pass knocked down by misjudged wind. When you don't get many chances to score, you pretty clearly remember the blown ones.
3. Holding almost anybody to 21 points should be enough
College offenses average nearly 30 points a game these days. If your opponent is held to basically three scoring opportunities, you should expect to win, even when they score a TD in all three chances.
That Missouri allowed Kentucky to average 5.7 yards per play was a surprise ... but 5.7 is still basically the national average. Even with those passes over the middle, even with far more success than we're used to seeing from an opposing offense -- I'm sure we'll go into detail about that in the coming days -- Kentucky in no way torched Mizzou's D. And yet, that third touchdown basically made the UK lead insurmountable.
We've heard nothing but good things from the young defenders so far this year. Charles Harris was talking about last night as if it was a massive defensive failure, for instance, and Harris, Anthony Sherrils, and others talked about welcoming the pressure last week after the tight UConn game.
But now that there's officially a loss on the record, we'll see if nerves and tempers start to fray a bit. Mizzou's defense is absurdly young up front and (with Ian Simon out) at safety, and UK was able to neutralize the former more than anybody has and took full advantage of the latter. Now that Mizzou has officially failed in some way, we'll see how well the defense keeps it together. I assume this will still be a good D, but with this offense, it will have to be great. I'm not sure it will.
4. Injuries suck
2012 redux, huh? Obviously the injuries haven't been piled mostly onto one or two units, but they're still streaming in now. And Missouri's offense line stinks regardless of injuries! Parallels are fun!
We obviously don't know a ton about the significance of the injuries we saw last night, but this was not the year for the injury bug to bite heavily again.
Missouri was already fighting depth and youth issues with a perfectly healthy two-deep; now, Missouri's best offensive player (Russell Hansbrough) has been healthy for exactly one snap this season, and Mizzou finished yesterday's game without Sean Culkin, Nate Crawford, Kentrell Brothers, and Ian Simon, too. Not only are they four starters, but three of them are rare upperclassmen.
It's still up to Mizzou to respond, as TCU, UCLA, and others have when waylaid with injuries, but again, this was already going to be a two-deep thin with experience. Mizzou was less equipped to handle injuries like this this year, and now it has to handle injuries like this for the first time in three seasons.
In a way, this might be a blessing. Missouri would have been awesome in 2013, almost no matter what, and that Tiger team already did lose James Franklin and E.J. Gaines for extended periods of time. They would have responded better to losing more than a third of their starters, but they might not have finished 12-2, and we might not have gotten to experience what we experienced. The same goes for last year -- Mizzou dealt with WR injury issues, and Markus Golden was less than 100% for a while, but the Tigers still won the East. Lose your best running back, a starting lineman, Culkin, Brothers, and Simon, and maybe you slip up one more time. You still have a solid 9-3 campaign or so, but maybe you don't win the East.
That's a fair trade-off in my book. The highs got to be high, even if this year's low might get awfully low.
I was thinking of this as a mulligan year of sorts; after the joy of 2013 and the unexpected highs of 2014, this year is a freebie in my book, just as 2009 was after 2007-08 and 2012 was after 2010-11.
We aren't entitled to having awesome teams every year. Even in the 1960s, Missouri's best decade, the Tigers had a few duds scattered throughout the success -- 6-3-1 in 1964 with losses to 3-7 Cal and 4-6 OSU, 6-3-1 in 1966 with an offense that averaged not even six points per game over its final six contests, 5-6 in 1970 following the 1969 Orange Bowl trip.
If this is destined to be one of those seasons, that's no fun, but so be it. We've seen the future in players like Terry Beckner Jr. and Drew Lock, and while we still need to see some skill position guys step up (and the offensive line is a clear concern), this year will only tamp down my optimism for the coming years so much. But ... this still isn't very much fun, is it?