Kentucky-Missouri notes: Tigers' sack-happy defense a challenge for Cats

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 8, 2013 

Kentucky Missouri Football

Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow, right, runs with the ball as Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam attempts to grab him from behind during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)


All the Missouri talk the past few seasons has been about the Tigers' offense.

Big plays, big yards, big arms.

But the reason the ninth-ranked Tigers are in the Southeastern Conference East Division driver's seat this season might be their defense.

UK has run a defensive gantlet this year, facing Alabama, Florida and South Carolina among others, but the Cats' offensive coordinator thinks their biggest test might be on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

"They have the fastest D-line that we've played," Neal Brown said. "They play super hard and they chase the ball probably better than anybody we've played."

A lot of that is behind defensive end Michael Sam, who leads the nation and the league in quarterback sacks with 10, and he's third in the country and best in the SEC in tackles for loss with 16.

"He's very explosive," UK Coach Mark Stoops said of Sam. "We'll have our hands full. ... If you watch us, we try to get rid of the ball relatively quick at times and pick our spots in the drop-back passing game. But we'll have to be very conscious of him at all times and get rid of the football, try to screen them, dump the ball down and try to have good balance within our offense."

Missouri's defensive line, which has 24 sacks in its last six games, has been the biggest reason for its turnaround this season, head coach Gary Pinkel said.

The Tigers are the league's third-best rushing defense (109.4 yards a game), behind those familiar foes Alabama and Florida.

"We have impact players that make plays, with great quickness," Pinkel said this week. "If you mention one name we got to mention nine. I'm certainly pleased with the effort there. We are a lot better at defensive line. We have taken it to a different level."

And if an opposing player can manage to get past Sam and the defensive line, he probably will be met by linebacker Andrew Wilson, who leads Missouri in tackles with 64.

The combination of those players has led to a fruitful year for the Tigers' secondary as well. They have a league-leading 17 interceptions in nine games.

What gives?

One of the key statistics on Saturday probably will be turnovers. Kentucky has gone four straight games without a mistake and has coughed the ball up only six times this season, second-fewest in the nation.

The Tigers have forced a turnover in their past 39 straight games, the longest active streak in the BCS. They have 17 interceptions (second-most in the country) and have recovered seven fumbles.

"Our offense is doing a very good job of protecting the ball," Stoops said. "They have been very conscious of that. I think we do a good job of coaching ball security. ... We've got to be very careful with the ball again this week."

Feet on the ground

The knee injury to wide receiver Alexander Montgomery last week as the freshman leaped into the air with teammates after scoring against Alabama State had Stoops pondering whether or not there should be celebratory guidelines in place.

"We're not going to overdo it, but I'm going to definitely talk to them about relaxing a little bit with the jumping and chest pumping and all that stuff," he said when asked if there would be a proclamation issued.

He has to balance the excitement of players doing things well with potential for huge injury on a team already lacking depth.

"We've got to be smart about that," he said. "We've got a couple of those guys that can do back flips and sometimes they'll do that before practice and get guys sparked up. I'm a little leery of that as well. We might have to get our feet on the ground for our celebrations right now. We can't afford to lose anybody else."

Speedy starts

It's a matchup not so made in heaven for Kentucky, facing one of the fastest starting teams in the SEC.

The Tigers have outscored league opponents 109-23 in the first two quarters this season, and the Cats have been outscored 90-14 in the first two quarters in SEC action this season.

So UK can't be overwhelmed early, Stoops said, or it could spell certain doom.

"They come out firing," he said of the Tigers. "That tempo with the great execution that they've shown in just about all their games early, it's hard. But we've got to make some stops. ... There's no way around it."

A day for heroes

Just a couple of days out from Monday's Veterans Day, Kentucky will play host to its annual "Heroes' Day" on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. All active, reserve and veteran members of the armed forces along with police, firefighters and first responders are invited to attend the game.

Individual tickets (and one for a guest) may be obtained on game day with the presentation of a service ID at the ticket booth outside Gate 4.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog:

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