Party like it’s 2014?
Maybe so, if you’re a Missouri fan that has endured some pretty gut-wrenching losses at the hands of the Kentucky Wildcats in recent memory. After a memorable win over a powerhouse school, followed by an unexpected bye week, the Tigers could have very easily played the same way they have against a division opponent that usually ends up right around them in the standings. Instead, they followed an offensive and defensive script flawlessly, without any real deviation, and came up with a 20-10 win Saturday.
Even Eli Drinkwitz said after the game that he couldn’t believe some of the stats in front of him during the post-game press conference. Who can blame him? Just 145 total yards of offense, 47 passing yards (with just nine through three quarters), and only 36 total plays from Kentucky? You’d wonder if it was just a 48-minute game. Combine that with Missouri running 92 plays, including 21 on a single drive (that hilariously resulted in no points), and possessing the ball for more than 43 minutes, and you have yourself a pretty complete domination of the proceedings. Even though it didn’t show up on the scoreboard, the Tigers controlled the game from the jump.
With that, a few Knee-Jerk Reactions to how Missouri got the job done against Kentucky:
The defense followed the game plan perfectly
Missouri had to make a concerted effort to stop Kentucky’s running attack. It broke loose for a few plays, but overall they kept the Wildcats out of manageable third-down spots and forced them to make throws. That clearly didn’t happen from Terry Wilson, and even forced Mark Stoops to make a quarterback change in the middle of the game, just to get something going with the pass. Nick Bolton led the way with seven tackles and one for lost yardage, but give a lot of credit to Tre Williams and Devin Nicholson for clogging up the line of scrimmage as well.
It was fair to wonder if this Missouri run defense could be up to the task. They struggled against tough running attacks from Alabama and Tennessee, and with the multiple running threats Kentucky presents, the Tiger defense may have been due for another rough day. But Ryan Walters and the rest of the defensive staff laid out the exact right plan to give the Wildcats trouble, and Missouri executed it as well as any team could.
Larry Rountree earned some of the toughest yards he has earned in his career
He surely had an idea that he would have to carry most of the load Saturday, with how Kentucky’s pass defense has played recently. But if you had him getting more carries than Kentucky’s offense had plays (!!!), you should probably go buy lottery tickets. Those 37 carries were good for 126 yards and Missouri’s only two touchdowns.
It was particularly impressive considering that Missouri had a couple of offensive linemen come out of the game for injury at certain points. That’s not to say that the O-line didn’t play well, because they did. But it goes to show how physical the game was between the trenches when the Tigers had the ball. That first touchdown Rountree had in the second quarter was only a one-yard run, but he needed every bit of strength to gain it. Not sure when Rountree will start to feel the impact from carrying the ball so many times (he said after the game that he felt great), but Missouri needed him to be a workhorse Saturday and he didn’t disappoint.
Connor Bazelak passed a tougher test than he got against LSU
Kentucky may not have the same talent on defense as LSU does, but they do have a better overall unit. Those nine interceptions in two games coming into this one, while unsustainable, was no fluke. They were going to try and let Connor Bazelak think that he had openings down the field, then try to pounce on an underthrown ball. Bazelak didn’t take the bait.
The thing we wondered coming into Saturday was whether Bazelak could keep up his accuracy while feeling a little more pressure in the pocket than he did against LSU. On multiple occasions, he showed he was ready. There was one play where an unblocked Kentucky defender came on a blitz on third down. Bazelak felt it coming from behind, stepped up, kept his eyes downfield, and delivered a strike to Keke Chism to keep the drive alive. Good quarterbacks can stay accurate with clean pockets. Great ones can do so when it gets a little muddy. Missouri fans should feel optimistic that Bazelak’s performance against LSU wasn’t just a one-off.
Martez Manuel is Missouri’s most underrated defensive player
He’s certainly one of the most versatile. Just a sophomore and handling starting duties at strong safety since the start of the year, Manuel provides that presence that the defense needs on both the run and the pass. He’s been impressive chipping in on run stops already this year, particularly against LSU during the goal line stand at the end. At the same time though, he’s got the speed to keep up with receivers, as he did on a pass break-up on a deep route down the sideline during Kentucky’s first drive.
Missouri has had some solid players hold down the strong safety position in recent years, but having a guy as young as Manuel play as well as he is right now gives them so much more stability. That allows them to use Josh Bledsoe as a guy that can match up with receivers, while Manuel plays as an extra linebacker of sorts. The way that Manuel has handled his first few starts in a Missouri uniform may not always be noticed in the stat sheet, but it does a world of good for that unit.
It wasn’t a must-win, but finally breaking the streak vs. Kentucky was crucial for this team
Having the win against the defending national champions two weeks ago is what Eli Drinkwitz needed to get the fanbase excited again. Winning against Kentucky for the first time since 2014 is what he needed to keep them around. Even Barry Odom had some exciting, eye-opening victories in his tenure, but the games against alike programs within the SEC had been a struggle. Teams in Missouri’s position can run into upset victories that no one expects, then come back the next week and have a letdown.
It was important for this program to finally prove that it can take steps forward. Beating a team that has felt like a thorn in your side for years is one of those steps you need to take. Kentucky had not only beaten Missouri during that time, but outplayed them throughout. The opposite was true Saturday. Drinkwitz and his players kept to the game plan even when their efforts didn’t always result in points. They didn’t panic, and they got through with a victory this time.