The Cats were once 5-1 with six games remaining. Needing just one of six to become bowl eligible. With their upcoming schedule, you knew that last win wasn’t going to come easy. After failing at LSU and at home against Mississippi State, the Cats now travel to Columbia to face Missouri. A win on the road would be their first road conference win since they beat Georgia on November 21, 2009.
The Tigers come into the game at 6-2, and 3-1 in conference, but this is a team that has been marred by inconsistencies. They lost at home against Indiana, then beat South Carolina at their place, then got crushed by Georgia, and the last two weeks have taken care of Florida and Vanderbilt.
The reason for their inconsistencies is their offense. They just aren’t that good. They are averaging just over 100 yards passing a game in SEC play. That can be attributed to their not-very-good receiving core and the much-maligned play of sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk.
The biggest blow to this team was the loss of beast wideout, Dorial Green-Beckham, who was dismissed during the offseason. UK fans are very familiar with Green-Beckham as he toasted the Cats last year at Commonwealth Stadium for 7 catches, 100 yards and four touchdowns.
Without Green-Beckham, they simply do not have a standout wide receiver. The best of the bunch is senior Bud Sasser, but he is not known for his ability to get separation. When they need a catch, it has been Sasser who has made it and he can go up and get passes. He has 40 catches for 551 yards and six touchdowns.
Mauk has been the model of inconsistency for the Tigers. In non-conference play he threw for 14 touchdowns and just four picks. But, in SEC play, those numbers have dropped significantly as he has thrown just two touchdowns and five picks in four games. In the Florida game, a game where it must be noted that they jumped out to the lead early and then just kind of settled, he completed just 6-of-18 passes for 20 yards and an interception.
He has shown resiliency, and there has been a lot of opportunity to showcase this skillset for the sophomore. In the South Carolina win, he did nothing for three quarters, but then marched his team straight down the field twice in the fourth quarter to get the win. He can also make plays with his feet when he has to. Several times this year he has picked up third and longs with big scrambles.
But, he struggles going through his progressions and he has a tendency to make mistakes with the football.
The key to this offense is their running game because it allows them to set up their play action. They ran the ball well last week as both Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough nearly rushed for 100 yards. Both Murphy and Hansbrough are undersized backs with good footwork and vision. They haven’t broke many big plays, but when the offensive line is playing well, they can pick you apart with five yard runs.
As much as their offense has struggled, their defense and special teams have been extremely special. Simply put, that is why they are 6-2 right now. Both rank in the Top 20 in the country.
Their defense plays a bend but don’t break style. They will allow short passes, but want to keep the play in front of them. And they pride themselves on their ability to tackle well. They do not want to allow the big play. They have two of the best pass rushers in the country in defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray. When they are able to force offenses in to passing downs, those two guys both have the ability to wreak havoc and give the Tigers the ability to get to the QB without blitzing.
Their secondary is pretty good. Braylon Webb is as good of a safety as there is in the SEC and their corners are young, but talented, and are led by Aarion Penton.
For the Cats to win in Columbia, they cannot allow the Tigers to kill them on special teams. Mizzou struggles to score offensively so you cannot give them free scores on punt and kick returns. Or interception or fumble returns, for that matter. In their win over Florida, they had one of each variety, which propelled them to victory at the Swamp.
On offense, Kentucky has to be patient and take what the Missouri defense gives them. But, when the opportunity for a big play is there, they have to take advantage. One thing that has made UK so much better on offense this year, besides the obvious improved play at quarterback, is their ability to hit big plays.
Defensively, they have to take advantage of the mistakes that Mauk will surely make.
If they can get out in front, I like their chances to win this thing and I think they will. I like the Cats to get their first SEC road win in a half-a-decade and garner bowl eligibility in the process.
Kentucky 24, Missouri 17