By The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky faces another ranked opponent on Saturday and the Wildcats will be looking for their first Southeastern Conference win of the season when they host No. 9 Missouri.
The Wildcats lost four consecutive games to ranked opponents earlier this year, including one against top-ranked Alabama. But Kentucky has had two games against unranked Mississippi State and FCS Alabama State to prepare for the Tigers.
Kentucky (2-6, 0-4 SEC) is coming off a 48-14 victory over ASU and showed grit in its previous game against MSU with a second-half rally that fell short.
The Wildcats will need to apply everything they learned during their grueling stretch against the nation’s best teams if they want to upset the explosive Tigers (8-1, 4-1).
Missouri’s offense is averaging 40.6 points and 500 yards per game; its defense ranks third in turnover margin at plus-1.7.
Kentucky’s statistics are nowhere as impressive as the Tigers’ numbers, but coach Mark Stoops is hopeful the momentum from last week’s win can carry over into the effort the Wildcats will need to stop another tough foe.
“I think we’ll have more energy,” Stoops said this week. “I think it was good to get a win. We needed that.
“We’re going to need to improve a great deal between last week and this week to win this game. I believe our players will have a great mindset.”
Kentucky will need it to slow down Missouri’s powerful offense.
The Tigers rushed for 339 of their 502 yards in last week’s 31-3 victory over Tennessee with backup quarterback Maty Mauk gaining a team-high 114 yards on 13 carries. Henry Josey (647 yards, eight TDs) and Russell Hansbrough (510, four TDs) do most of Missouri’s heavy lifting on the ground.
A bigger challenge looms for the Wildcats’ secondary, which must stop the Tigers’ collection of tall receivers including 6-foot-5 senior L’Damian Washington (680 yards, nine TDs), 6-6 sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham (479, 5) and 6-5 senior Marcus Lucas (team-high 43 receptions for 522 yards).
“You have got to man up and play and that’s just the way it is,” Stoops said.
Here are five things to watch as No. 9 Missouri visits Kentucky:
KENTUCKY’S WIDEOUTS: The Wildcats’ inexperienced wide receiver corps suffered two huge losses last week with a season-ending knee injury to freshman Alex Montgomery after a TD celebration while freshman Ryan Timmons is out with a sprained knee. The good news is that junior college transfer Javess Blue, who sat out last week after sustaining a pregame eye injury after getting hit with a football, will play.
MAUK IS THE MAN: Until James Franklin’s shoulder has healed, redshirt freshman Mauk will again be under center for the Tigers. He’s scheduled to make his fourth straight start against Kentucky and has completed 45 of 92 passes for 748 yards and five TDs. “I feel fortunate that Maty has done a good job,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
GIVE ME THE BALL: Freshman JoJo Kemp continues to show why he might be Kentucky’s running back of the future. He leads the team with 390 yards rushing – just 20 more than senior Raymond Sanders, who’s also been solid – thanks to a hard-charging style and moves that are earning him more touches. The Wildcats are determined to establish the “Air Raid” passing attack, but they’re creating a viable ground option as well.
TIGERS’ TAKEAWAYS: The Tigers have nearly three times as many takeaways (24) as turnovers (nine), which puts Kentucky on notice to protect the ball and be particularly careful throwing against a Missouri defense with 17 interceptions. The Tigers picked off two against Tennessee last week, with senior E.J. Gaines returning from a two-game absence because of injury to make his team-best fourth interception.
SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE: Kentucky’s last conference victory came against Tennessee in the 2011 season finale. Twelve straight losses have followed but the Wildcats’ comeback efforts at South Carolina and Mississippi State offered hints that things are heading in the right direction. As last week’s victory over FCS Alabama State demonstrated, starting quick has its benefits and the Wildcats want to prove they can be competitive against another ranked opponent. “Another big challenge this week with another top 10 team,” Stoops said.