Last year, it seemed, most everything went against Joker Phillips and the football Wildcats.
The starting quarterback, on his way to what appeared to be a sizzling season, went down after just three games. The highly-touted freshman backup QB played only briefly before he was sidelined as well. Even the schedule seemed to conspire against the Cats, affording them an open date not when their collective injuries cried out for a break, but prior to the Samford game – just the second (and last) victory of the season, and the last in the Joker Phillips era.
Columbia, Missouri, was supposed to be an oasis.
The 1-7 Wildcats were given a chance to roll into the “Show Me” state and show enough to pull off a victory over a Mizzou team that had been devastated by injuries. The Tigers had lost five starting offensive linemen in the opening weeks of the season, not to mention starting quarterback James Franklin.
But despite the facts that the Wildcats’ J.D. Harmon picked off passes on consecutive possessions, and Missouri fumbled away two punts, Kentucky couldn’t take advantage and left Columbia with a 33-10 loss, providing the Tigers with their first Southeastern Conference victory in the history of the program. Franklin? He came off the bench and played well enough to lead the victory.
Now it’s Mizzou coming to town although this time, the Tigers are right – healthy, and powerful. If not for a couple of missed chip-shot field goals, they would be ranked higher than ninth. A homefield, overtime loss to South Carolina dropped the Tigers from the ranks of the unbeaten, although still they could win the SEC championship as the entry from the Eastern Division.
“Like you've heard me say many times, there is no hiding from it,” said UK coach Mark Stoops. “You have to be able to play. You have got to man up and play. And that's just the way it is. You are not going to constantly trick a team like this. They have seen it all. This group, this coaching staff, they have been around for a long time and seen just about everything.”
Missouri is third in the league in scoring offense, with 40.6 points per game, and fourth in scoring defense, surrendering just 20.6 per contest.
“You know, it's no mystery that they are playing very good,” Stoops said. “They are blocking, they're running, and they're throwing it and catching it. That's a pretty good combination. They have got an experienced group up front. They are healthier this year than they were last year up front. They're very physical. They can run the ball extremely well. They have very talented lineups. You put that all together and you have got a team that's averaging 40 points and 500 yards.”
This would be a good week for the Air Raid offense to put it all together and become what Stoops and Neal Brown had envisioned when they first arrived. Mizzou gives up nearly 280 yards through the air per game.
But that number is a mirage; from a distance it’s inviting. Up close, not so much. You have to see the fact that they’re third in the league in run defense – meaning teams that have fallen behind the explosive Tigers (i.e., every team they’ve played) have had to throw the ball far more than they likely had intended, with Missouri trading yards for minutes on the game clock.
And the Tigers have a whopping 17 interceptions. “A lot of it has to do with their front four and a lot of it has to do with they're scoring a boatload of points,” Stoops said. “So any time you're scoring over 40 points a game, the teams have got to get desperate at times and start throwing the ball around. They get a lot of turnovers.”
The Wildcats need to keep that from happening Saturday, which they’ve managed to do of late. In each of its last four games, Kentucky has not turned the ball over – a streak unmatched dating back to the 1940s, when the school began keep track of such things.
Another flawless performance could put the Cats in a position to hand Missouri just its second loss of the season.
“When you've seen a team as explosive as Missouri, they've feasted on turnovers as well,” Stoops said. “We've got to be very careful with the ball again this week.”
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)