JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Expect A Low-Scoring Affair At Saturday Night's Kentucky-Missouri Showdown
Less three weeks ago, after UK had kicked off its football campaign with a 40-33 victory over Louisiana Lafayette, many folks weren't too thrilled about the Wildcats giving up 26 second-half points, making the game much closer than what it should've been.
Of course, not having a couple of veteran linebackers (Ryan Flannigan and Jason Hatcher) made the job more difficult for the young defense, which had two first-time starters.
But, even without these two standouts practically, the situation somehow has improved for Kentucky's defense after the South Carolina and Florida matchups, and the fans aren't complaining too much right now except for the lack of touchdowns by the Cats in their 14-9 setback to Florida last Saturday night.
Interestingly, the defensive unit has shown improvement in all four categories (total yards, passing, rushing, and scoring) in three consecutive games and the opponents have gotten tougher each time. For instance, against the Gators, the Wildcats only gave up 245 total yards as compared to 479 and 417 total yards produced by Lafayette and South Carolina, respectively. Scoring-wise, the foes have gone from 33 to 22 to 14 points.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops liked his team's defensive performance against Florida in his weekly press conference on Monday.
"Well, if you look in general, I was pleased with the way the defense played and overall effort," said Stoops. "We are always picky and looking for that perfect game knowing that it probably is never going to happen.
"But you are always striving for perfection. You know, we were far from that defensively, but I did feel like the guys played really hard. We limited big plays. They had one big play in the game and really disappointed in that one. It was a pass play that A.J. Stamps had a great opportunity to defend and didn’t make the play and weren’t in position to make the play and we should have been.
"Outside of that, the unit really played hard. There were some missed opportunities and give them credit in the way they escaped some pressure at times. We were harassing the quarterback and we were on him. On both touchdown drives we had opportunities to stop them and didn’t do it. But overall it was good effort and I think that was good to see. Offensively, the effort was there as well just need to convert and be precise in certain situations."
Defense got a boost against Florida when junior linebacker Jason Hatcher made his season debut after being suspended for the first two games of the season. The Louisville Trinity High School product made a couple of solo tackles in limited action.
Said Hatcher, "It was a great feeling being out there after so long. It would have been a better feeling to get the win."
Stoops was asked about Hatcher moving up on the depth chart.
"He has earned the right," said the coach. "We wanted to make sure he earned his spot and worked his way back in there and did some good things. In certain packages we will go with some other guys. That is again for you all. You all make a bigger deal out of the depth chart than we do, I promise you. Certain packages mean certain guys start and some don’t. We will see. He is going to play and so is Denzil (Ware) and so is Jabari (Johnson)."
But look for Hatcher, who started six games last year, to make some noise as the campaign progresses.
In addition, the Wildcats (now 2-1) are expected to see senior linebacker Ryan Flannigan back in action against Missouri Saturday night (7:30 p.m., SEC Network) after suffering a shoulder injury during a preseason practice, forcing him to miss three games. He was cleared to play last Saturday but wasn't ready.
After a slow start, Flannigan had finished the 2014 season strong with 12 tackles against Tennessee and 11 tackles along with a pass breakup against Louisville. Getting Flannigan, a junior college transfer from Texas, back on the field is significant, according to Stoops.
"It is very big to have him back this week," added UK boss. "He will be full steam ahead."
Stoops pointed out Flannigan had a very productive spring practice.
"Ryan was really playing some great football. You heard us talking about him throughout the spring and throughout the summer," he said. "He was really playing fast and explosive. Anytime you’re getting a player like that back, you’re happy.
"Khalid (Henderson) will still get some reps and play and maybe back us up at both spots and be able to help because he’s done some really good things for us. I really appreciate the great effort he’s given us and really played well at times. It’ll be good to get Ryan back as well and get that depth because we’ve been pretty thin there."
Going into Saturday night's matchup, the veterans are leading the team in tackles. They are senior Josh Forrest (30 tackles), senior Khalid Henderson (29) , junior Marcus McWilson (19) and senior A.J. Stamps (15).
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With Missouri and junior QB Maty Mauk now struggling with its offense, which rank last in the SEC in both total and rushing yardage categories, UK's defense could be the difference-maker this weekend. Especially if the Wildcats continue sputtering on offense against the Tigers, who by the way have the best total defense in the conference.
With that in mind, it looks like we are going to see a low-scoring affair.
The Tigers are guided by veteran coach Gary Pinkel, a former Nick Saban teammate who has done an admirable job over the years in producing more than respectable clubs in Columbia. For the past two years, Missouri was 12-2 and 11-3, winning the division titles but losing the SEC championship games both times.
Before the season, I had Missouri winning the game by 6, but I've changed my mind. A quick fearless forecast: Kentucky by 3. ________________
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.