Kentucky matchup a true “measuring stick” for Missouri

The Tigers will find where they truly stack up in the SEC East as they look to defeat the Wildcats for the first time since 2014.
Running back Tyler Badie reaches the end zone for a touchdown during Missouri's upset win over LSU on Oct. 10, 2020. SEC Media Portal

As Missouri football players sat in a team meeting, beginning to prepare for their next game against the Kentucky Wildcats, coach Eli Drinkwitz asked his team a simple question.

“Who here has beaten Kentucky?”

Nobody’s hands shot up. Not even one sophomore, junior, senior or graduate student had beaten the Wildcats as a member of the Missouri Tigers.

“It was an eye-opener,” redshirt junior Barrett Banister said. “A lot of freshmen, transfers and even coaches –– it’s a new staff –– they don’t know that we haven’t had great success against Kentucky over the past couple years. It was an eye opener and a motivational thing for us.”

These two SEC East foes clash every season, but one would have to go back to 2014 to find the last time Missouri beat this Wildcats football team, with a 20-10 victory at Faurot Field. What seemed like a routine win at the time kicked off a five-year drought that the Tigers will look to put an end to this Saturday.

Missouri currently sits at 1-2, with losses against Alabama and Tennessee, but the team is coming off a program-defining 45-41 win against reigning college football champions LSU. Yet Missouri’s season was never going to be measured by playing well against –– or beating –– the Alabama’s, Florida’s, Georgia’s and LSU’s.

In Drinkwitz’s first year as a Power Five head coach, player development and building a culture should, and has been, the goal. The Tigers have shown flashes of the team they want to be, most noticeably against LSU, but a better litmus test of where this program truly stands will come in matchups against mid-tier SEC teams such as Kentucky, Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The Tigers faced Tennessee in Week 2 but fell to the Volunteers 35-12 in Knoxville. In that defeat, however, Missouri found itself a new starting quarterback in redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak.

In his second full start, Bazelak will be throwing against a Kentucky defense that has held its last two opponents to a combined nine points. A defense that turned in two pick-sixes to lead the Wildcats to its first win on Rocky Top since 1984. The Tigers have seen what Bazelak can do when he and the rest of the offense is clicking, but how will he look against a complete defense that seems to be picking up steam?

“It’s going to be a physical game all four quarters,” Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton said. “They’re going to run the ball and they’re going to be playing physical defense on the other side.”

Against Kentucky, the Tigers need to take the next step in its upwards trajectory: finding a way to grow and develop in what should be a competitive game from the opening kickoff.

“Week 1, offensively we didn’t sustain drives and execute critical situations and that showed up again on tape in the Tennessee game,” Drinkwitz said. “We were able to take that off the tape in the LSU game, so we want to continue to see that growth.”

Drinkwitz said the next step is taking explosive plays off the tape, as the Tigers allowed chunk plays of 74, 44 and 32 yards to LSU. Can they prevent those against a middle-of-the-pack Wildcats offense that averages 348.5 yards per game? It’s one of many questions that will be answered this weekend.

“I think it’s just focusing on the details and trusting that our system and our coaches put together a good game plan for us,” Banister said. “We have to go out and execute what we practice, which is the biggest thing for us. They are a heck of a defense and we got a great challenge ahead of us.”

Saturday afternoon’s game will show where this team stands in the SEC pecking order. Does this season’s Missouri team resemble the one that put up 586 yards of total offense against LSU or the one that couldn’t execute in the red zone against Tennessee?

Drinkwitz spent the last two weeks telling his players not to “drink the Kool Aid.” He’ll find out Saturday afternoon whether or not any of them did.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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