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Kentucky at Missouri Preview: Cats must prevent big special teams plays and take advantage of Mauk’s mistakes

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.

mauk640 500x234 Kentucky at Missouri Preview: Cats must prevent big special teams plays and take advantage of Mauks mistakes

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

Mark Stoops talks prior to Missouri

UK head coach Mark Stoops talked to the media prior to Saturday’s tilt at Missouri. He said that their special teams played really well on Sunday. They were nowhere near as bad as they were at LSU, but still many would disagree.

UK Football Preview: Mississippi State at Kentucky

The last time the Kentucky Wildcats got absolutely creamed at LSU, they came back the next week and beat Mississippi State, on the road. Their next home game was against Georgia, a game they won and was really the first big win in the Rich Brooks era. It was also the last time they went .500 in conference play. This was 2006.

Now they look to get up off the mat and standing in their way is the No. 1 team in the land, Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs are coming off of a bye week and have now had two full weeks to allow the fact that they are No. 1 to sink in a bit. But, after speaking to Charlie Burris, editor of ForWhomTheCowbellTolls.com of SB Nation, I’m not sure that their No. 1 ranking has sunk in yet.

How did Mississippi State get to No. 1? After taking care of Southern Miss, UAB, and South Alabama, they then faced the beast of their schedule, a three-game stint that featured games at LSU, and Texas A&M and Auburn at home. Win two of three and you’re still on schedule for a special season. But, then they took care of LSU on the road, a place where they hadn’t won since 1991. Heck, they hadn’t even beat LSU since 1999. Those are both streaks normally reserved for UK and their SEC opponents.

The win at LSU gave this team tremendous confidence and they rode that to home wins over A&M and Auburn. Now, after a bye week, they face the Wildcats in Lexington, as the No. 1 team in the country.

When you look at Mississippi State, the first thing you notice is their Heisman candidate quarterback, junior Dak Prescott. Prescott is a run/pass threat, the type of quarterback that has seemingly always gave UK problems. He has thrown for 1,478 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has rushed for 576 yards and eight touchdowns. He is really, really good.

prescott640 500x234 UK Football Preview: Mississippi State at Kentucky

As a run/pass threat, Prescott has the ability to use his eyes to hold defenders, is a great decision maker, and he has complete control of the offense. And he fits right into Dan Mullen’s scheme, just as Tim Tebow did at Florida. But, what makes him really special may be his ability to lead. He is a player that his teammates want to play for. He gets the best out of everyone.

One of those players is junior running back Josh Robinson. Robinson is a guy that many didn’t expect to explode on the scene this year, but at the midway point he has 689 yards and eight touchdowns. He is averaging 7.0 yards every time he gets a carry. At 5-foot-9, Robinson is a shorter back, but he’s wide and his low center of gravity makes him tough to tackle. That’s why his teammates call him “The Bowling Ball”.

Sophomore De’Runnya Wilson and Senior Jameon Lewis are Prescott’s two best pass catchers. At 6-foot-5 with a monster wingspan, Wilson is a huge target. He has the ability to make plays when the pass isn’t even there. Lewis has missed the last two games with a leg injury, but after the bye week he is expected to be 100-percent on Saturday.

The biggest problem area for Mississippi State has been their secondary. They allowed 435 passing yards against UAB. 288 to South Alabama. 341 to LSU. 365 to Texas A&M. If there is an area where the Wildcats can make hay, this is it. But, they will have to throw over the top and that is not something we have seen a ton of from UK. A lot of the passing yards that the Bulldogs have allowed have been because teams have been able to go over the top for the big play.

As bad as their secondary has been, their front seven is as good as any in the country. And the best way to take pressure off of their corners is to get pressure on the quarterback. Something they have been really good at. Over and over again, they have found a way to force opposing quarterbacks into bad decisions.

Junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney is the leader of the defense. Three adjectives to define McKinney are dynamic, fast, and huge and he has an uncanny knack to get to the quarterback. Sophomore Chris Jones and Senior Preston Brown are the strengths of their defensive line. Both are deceptively quick and Smith was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week the first three weeks of the season.

Now in his sixth year at Mississippi State, Mullen has created the depth needed to sustain success in the SEC. They lost Lewis for a few weeks at wide receiver and their depth allowed them to not really skip a beat. And they are deep like that at multiple positions, especially the front seven on defense.

Can the Wildcats pull off the upset against Mississippi? Yeah. But, it’s going to be crazy tough. This Mississippi State team is deep and talented. And they see the potential greatness that this season beholds. A loss at UK would put a screeching halt to that. So while the possibility of them overlooking Kentucky is there, don’t expect it.

UK has to get off to a better start. Their starts have been an issue the last three games. They were able to overcome that against USC and Louisiana-Monroe at home, but last week never really got things going against LSU on the road. Well, the Bulldogs have been the exact opposite. They have gotten off to quick starts, which have helped propel them to wins over quality opponents. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead at LSU in the first quarter, a 28-10 lead against A&M at half, and a 21-0 lead over Auburn in the first quarter. If UK digs a whole like that, it’s lights out.

The main reason for UK’s poor start last week was their special teams. That has to be better against MSU. They have to get more from the ground game, which will be a real challenge. I look for maybe Mikel Horton to get more touches.

I know the Air Raid is all about getting skill guys the football in open spaces and not necessarily trying to beat them downfield. But, that didn’t work last week against LSU and I don’t think it will work against MSU either. Covering the deep ball is an area of concern for the Bulldogs. To win the game, the Cats will have to beat them for a couple big plays.

Defensively, they aren’t going to keep the Bulldogs in check completely, but they have to slow down the ground game. Make Prescott be a passer and don’t let Robinson get rolling downhill.

The Cats will look better than last week. I mean, they can’t look worse. They will look considerably better. They will score multiple touchdowns. But, they still won’t win. It could happen, but I think a lot of us jumped the gun on how good this UK team is. They are better. They are improving. They will compete. But, they aren’t a team that can beat the No. 1 team in the land. Not yet.

Mississippi State 34, Kentucky 23

Kobe Bryant to Julius Randle, “You’re an idiot if you f#^@ this up”

kobejulius640 500x234 Kobe Bryant to Julius Randle, Youre an idiot if you f#^@ this up

When you are one of the first players to join the Lakers via the Lottery as Julius Randle was, that means that Kobe Bryant is probably going to apply some pressure on you. He knows his time is running out and that he needs the help from the young guys if they are to prove the pundits wrong by making the playoffs.

On Sunday night, Randle put up eight points, five rebounds and two blocks in their 98-91 preseason victory over the Jazz.

Bryant was asked about Randle, and specifically the opportunity that Randle has to play with Kobe, Steve Nash, Carlos Boozer, and other veterans.

“It means he can’t f— up,” Kobe said. “Seriously, if you f— this up you’re a really big idiot, you know what I mean? ESPN are idiots, but you’re a really big idiot if you manage to f— this up.”

He continued.

“It’s up for me to mess it up. Kobe said, ‘You can’t mess it up, unless you want to,’” Randle said. “I [would] intentionally have to mess things up, having a coach like Byron, learning from greats like Kobe, Boozer, Nash, all those guys. And, on top of that playing for the Lakers organization. I’m in the perfect situation, I can’t mess it up.”

When he mentioned ESPN, he did so because they listed him as the 40th best player in the league entering the year. If he’s healthy, he is nowhere near 40. If he’s not, he is nowhere near 40 either. So No. 40 is a terrible mark.

And Kobe is right about Randle, too. This is a great situation for him. And really this team has no pressure because most don’t expect them to make the playoffs. If Randle can help the veterans get there, it would be a tremendous rookie season for the former Wildcat.

Pick 6: Six Takeaways from UK’s 41-3 loss at LSU

The game ended late on Saturday night and then the Bengals got crushed yesterday, so I haven’t really been in the mood to write. Well, better than late than never, here are my takeaways from LSU’s crushing of the Wildcats.

Bad starts have got to stop – They were able to overcome rough starts in their last two games, but you can’t do that in Death Valley. You can’t do that against better opponents. The game started big return, personal foul, roughing the passer, 1-yard touchdown. Less than three minutes in and it’s 7-0.

Special Teams not so special – A big reason why they got off to such a bad start was the play of the special teams. A huge kick return. A punt return touchdown. An pseudo on-side, squib, floater kick recovered by LSU. Kentucky did not play well enough to win this game on any side of the ball. The special teams made it impossible.

No creativity on offense – The Wildcat isn’t going to work. Especially when it’s fourth and two and a young, but talented team like LSU knows you are going to run it. You can’t keep throwing it out sideways in the flats and expect it to work. I get that LSU’s defense is down, but they are still too fast for those plays to work. And I get that UK’s receivers weren’t creating separation. I get that it’s tough to move the ball against LSU. But, once plays didn’t work, I didn’t see any kind of effort to try something new. And stop it with the QB Read option. Stop it.

Everyone has to play better – It isn’t just Patrick Towles. It isn’t just Ryan Timmons. While those guys probably stand out the most after last Saturday. You got to stop the run. You have to run it. All three aspects have to play better.

We jumped the gun a bit – I thought UK would play LSU tough on the road. I thought LSU was down and that the Cats were on the rise. I thought UK had come a lot further than they probably have. I jumped the gun in thinking they could compete in Death Valley. A lot of people did. But, they got whacked. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe this helps them realize they still have a ways to go. Maybe now they can regroup and play Mississippi State tough.

And while this is a disappointing loss, it doesn’t negate all of the positives that have occurred so far. This program is still trending forward. They just need to play better next week.

Fans need to show next Saturday – I don’t want to hear the “Wait for basketball” talk from UK fans.
There is nothing more annoying than directing someone’s attention towards hoops when football is at the forefront of the conversation. They need to show up on Saturday. They have to fill the house. It’s a 3:30 game. It’s the No. 1 team in the land. Show up.

Three Thoughts from Big Blue Madness

ukmadness640 500x234 Three Thoughts from Big Blue Madness

Last night, 24,000 fans once again showed up to Rupp Arena to watch what was basically glorified starting lineup introductions and some practice drills. As a kid I was enamored by this whole thing, but as I get older and older, it has lost it’s luster a little bit. Back when it was Midnight Madness, it was cool. I guess it is still kind of cool, but it’s not my cup of tea anymore. I’d much rather be at Rupp for the Blue/White game in a little over a week.

But, still you can’t disregard that they fill the house for this thing. And it is the fans first chance to see these freshmen in action. Sort of.

Here are my three thoughts from last night.

Cal didn’t even give his yearly State of the Bluegrass address. After being introduced by Drake, Cal grabbed the mic. But, he hardly spoke. He hugged Drake. Said, “How about this guy?”. Talked about Drake some more. Thanked the fans. And then directed the fans to the videoboard. On the videoboard was his speech from 2009. Just a replay. He then dropped the mic and said, “Let’s play ball”.

Drake didn’t even sing, he just spoke. There was one more player to introduce even though the Wildcats were out of players. That player…Drake. He got the same type of graphics. The same type of intro, “From Toronto, Canada….Drake!” I get that Drake is a great ambassador to the UK program. He resonates with recruits and undoubtedly helps them get certain players. But, what is the point to bringing in Drake if he isn’t going to drop, “Last name ever, first name greatest”? Not even a little of “Started from the bottom, now we here”? Nothing. He just spoke for a little bit, introduced Cal, and then stood next to Cal as they ran 3 on 3 and 5 on 5.

One person that did sing was UK women’s coach Matthew Mitchell. And he wasn’t that bad. It just went on way too long.

I am going to love Tyler Ulis. I already knew this after watching the Cats play in Bahamas. Heck, I knew this as soon as he committed. I have always been enamored by undersized guards, for obvious reasons. Ulis will rank as one of the smallest players in UK history. When I think of small guards at UK, I think Travis Ford. You also had Leroy Byrd in the early 80s, but he didn’t play too much. Ulis is the real deal and I can’t wait to watch him play. Just watching him check Andrew Harrison is fun enough. But, he plays big. He plays hard. It’s going to be fun.

Oh, and a bonus thought. This team is going to be stupid good. I spent most of last night trying to figure out who would start for me. I came up with the Twins, Poythress, Towns, and WCS. But, you can go so many different directions. Jay Bilas made an interesting thought about this team. Remove their top five guys and the rest of the team is still at Top 10 team. It’s pretty amazing. And Derek Willis, a guy who will get limited run, didn’t miss a shot last night.

Quick Look at the LSU Tigers

With a late win last week in Gainesville, LSU avoided their first 0-3 start in the SEC since 1999. This is a young team, but they are maturing quickly. They never quit on the road against the Gators and were able to sneak out a win late. This is a trend that you saw even in their loss to Mississippi State. After being down a lot early, they hung in there and nearly pulled off the comeback.

How young is this LSU team? Nearly 20 freshmen play significantly. They lost both of their starting tackles on defense as they left a year early for NFL Draft. But, now these freshmen are eight games into their season and no longer are they considered freshmen.

Year after year LSU is known for their blistering defense. Is their defense up to that level this year? No. They lack the talent and experience of year’s past, but they do have talent and they are getting better. A sign of that improvement could be the fact that they held Florida to 2-12 on third down and forced three turnovers against the Gators.

At quarterback, look for both Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris to take snaps against UK. Jennings took every snap last week and looked poised. He will get the start, but with this game being at home, I would not be surprised to see Harris at some point. Harris is a true freshman and is quicker and has a stronger arm than Jennings. But, he is also battling a high ankle sprain. Even without an ankle sprain, Jennings would likely see the majority of the snaps simply because of his experience. He has a better grasp of what it is like to play at this level. With Jennings in there, look for LSU to run a lot of read option and to get him to roll the pocket in order to create a run/pass option.

True freshman tailback Leonard fournette was the number one recruit in the nation a year ago. He is as talented of an athlete as there is. He’s a big guy with great speed and a tremendous ability to find holes. He is shifty, difficult to tackle, and when he gets in open space has breakaway speed. Last week in his first start, he racked up 140 yards and two touchdowns.

The Tigers have two fantastic receivers in Travin Dural and Malachi Dupree. Dural leads the country with 26.1 yards per catch and has caught 24 balls for 626 yards and six touchdowns. Dupree is a tall, lanky wide receiver that has 11 catches for 257 yards and four touchdowns.

On defense, look for Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco on the defensive line and Kendell Beckwith, an All-SEC performer, and Kwon Alexander at linebacker. They also have a heck of a kicking game. Colby Delahoussaye kicked the game winner against Florida last week and is one of the best kickers in the country.

Kentucky has a chance in this one, but it’s going to be tough to pull off the upset in Death Valley. I think they play it close, but the young LSU defense will create a turnover late that UK is unable to overcome.

LSU 24, Kentucky 17

LISTEN TO OUR FULL INTERVIEW WITH LSU RADIO VOICE JIM HAWTHORNE

Pick 6: Six Takeaways from Kentucky’s 48-14 win over Louisiana Monroe

After last week’s win over South Carolina, Kentucky needed to roll past ULM to continue their momentum. After a slow start that is exactly what they did. Here are my six takeaways.

Slow starts have got to stop – Kentucky cannot continue to start like this and continue to win. This is now two weeks in a row where the Cats have done absolutely nothing in the first quarter. On offense they looked stagnant. On defense they made ULM look like Oregon. And this is a ULM team that gave up nearly 600 yards and managed just two scores against Arkansas State last week. A hangover after the South Carolina win was not expected, but you can certainly understand it. Still, if you want to win any of your final six games, it’s going to be tough sailing with a slow start like today and last week.

After the game, Stoops agreed, “I thought we started a little flat and a little lethargic. We need to have a better week of preparation, I thought we were a little flat all week.”

Big Plays – One thing that UK teams absolutely could not do in year’s past is make big plays on either side of the ball. Today, it was the big play that helped them dig themselves out of a 14-3 hole and eventually role to an easy victory. It was Javess Blue’s 83-yard touchdown pass from Towles that made the score 14-10 and got them going when they really needed it. Then Josh Forrest picked off a Pete Thomas pass just over a minute later and ran it back 29 yards for a score and a 17-14 lead. They never looked back. At that point in the game, it didn’t look like they had what it took to sustain long drives and get points. That made these big plays even more important.

Speaking of Blue. How about that one-handed catch? We’ve seen guys pull it in with one hand before. What really impressed me was his ability to hold it up against his body why he was doing a somersault. Pretty sick catch. Big plays.

Would love to see more conventional runs – Line it up and run it right at teams like ULM. You are better than them. Your o-line needs to impose it will against lesser teams. So run it at them. None of this Wildcat stuff. None of this Patty Towles read option stuff. Oh, and don’t throw it with JoJo Kemp. Line up, hand it off, allow D.J. Warren to block, and allow JoJo Kemp, Braylon Heard, Boom Williams, or Mikel Horton. That is exactly what happened on Williams’ 58-yard run at the end of the third quarter. But, why do we have to wait so long to see this? I get last week. You would have to be the worst coach in history to not continue to run the Wildcat. I mean you were getting 12 yards a pop. But, this is ULM. Be conventional. Impose you will. And run it.

Third downs of old – One of the strengths of this team compared to teams of old is their ability to get stops on third down and pick up thirds on offense. Today it was pretty ugly on both sides. ULM picked up just 4 of 16 third downs in their loss to Arkansas State. Today they started off 4 for 6. They were just 3 for 13 the rest of the way, but still. And on O’s, UK managed to pick up just 1 of 11 third downs. Far too many times they found themselves in third and long and right now they just aren’t showing the ability to hit passes down field consistently.

Dancin’ Patty Ice – How many times did Andre Ware mention Patrick Towles’ dancing feet during today’s broadcast? Too many to count. But, he’s right. Towles just does not look that comfortable in the pocket right now and he is missing some throws that he has to hit if they are going to pull off some upsets the rest of the way. His numbers are fine as he finished 16-28 for 216 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. But, I don’t see marked improvement from the beginning of the year, something I was hoping to see at this point. I won’t say that I’ve seen regression, but he isn’t getting better. For this team to take that next step, I believe that Towles has to take some positive steps.

Boom goes the dynamite has got to stop. Not the player, the stupid announcers thinking they are creative.

ukulm640 500x234 Pick 6: Six Takeaways from Kentucky’s 48 14 win over Louisiana Monroe

Not the player. Kentucky needs Boom to go, but the announcers have got to stop saying, “Boom goes the dynamite”. It was awful when Ball State student Brian Collins said it on a student broadcast and it is still awful. Be more creative.

He passes it to the man and boom goes the dynamite! Everyone pays attention to that part of this video so much, but the best part may be the rest of it. Just watch the whole damn thing. His pronunciations of Hakim Warrick and Wayne Simien are money. Then the other student anchors reactions at the end. It’s so awesome.

There is no denying Boom Williams’ importance on this team, though. He definitely gives Kentucky a spark, which was evident of his kickoff return to start the game.

Stoops on Williams after the game, “He was anxious to get out here and he started it with a big kickoff return and then had the big run so it was good to get him out here.”