UK Football

Mark Story: Take a bow, UK defense, you're the men who mowed down Mizzou

Kentucky Wildcats defensive end Denzil Ware (35) was congratulated by Kentucky Wildcats defensive tackle Cory Johnson (67) and Kentucky Wildcats defensive end Farrington Huguenin (91) after Ware sacked Missouri Tigers quarterback Maty Mauk (7) as the University of Kentucky played the University of Missouri in Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, September 26, 2015. This is first quarter college football action. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats defensive end Denzil Ware (35) was congratulated by Kentucky Wildcats defensive tackle Cory Johnson (67) and Kentucky Wildcats defensive end Farrington Huguenin (91) after Ware sacked Missouri Tigers quarterback Maty Mauk (7) as the University of Kentucky played the University of Missouri in Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, September 26, 2015. This is first quarter college football action. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

There was more than one reason to hire Mark Stoops as Kentucky's head football coach, of course.

But the number one rationale to choose Florida State's defensive coordinator as UK's head man in 2013 was to put the "D" back in "Wilcats."

Four games into Stoops' third season, he is emphatically doing that.

For the second straight week in a Southeastern Conference game, the Kentucky defense stood tall. A week after holding Florida to two touchdowns (one of them a short-fielder set up by a turnover), the UK D stifled two-time defending SEC East champion Missouri.

Holding longtime Cats nemesis Maty Mauk to 15-of-30 passing and 49 yards scrambling, Kentucky (3-1, 2-1 SEC) beat No. 25 Missouri (3-1, 0-1) 21-13 Saturday night before a Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 58,008.

"We've played in a bunch of close football games this year — and we're 3-1," Stoops said afterward. "I'm very proud of that."

It was the first victory for UK over a ranked foe since Randall Cobb led a 31-28 upset of No. 10 South Carolina on Oct. 16, 2010. After eight losses to ranked teams as UK head man, it was Stoops' first victory over one.

Giving all props to Kentucky offensive stars Patrick Towles, Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker and Jojo Kemp, this was a defensive victory.

Kentucky held Missouri — to keep it real, a team that appears to lack offensive explosiveness — to 338 total yards. The Cats kept the Tigers, the masters of pulling out close games in recent years, out of the end zone in the second half.

Best of all, there were Kentucky defensive heroes at every level.

Senior defensive tackle Cory Johnson played the game of his life. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Columbia, S.C., product had a career-high 11 tackles, including half a quarterback sack.

Last year, the junior-college transfer had 10 tackles in 12 games.

With UK senior Ryan Flannigan back from injury and Jason Hatcher in his second game since returning from suspension, Missouri was the first team this season who played against Kentucky's projected linebacker starters.

The Cats linebacking corps was a force.

Senior middle linebacker Josh Forrest made nine tackles. Hatcher had eight and harried Mauk from the edge all night.

Flannigan showed the speed that UK's defensive coaches talked up all offseason when he successfully covered Mizzou wideout Ray Wingo on a deep sideline rout. The product of Missouri City, Texas, finished with eight tackles and two pass break-ups.

Finally, redshirt freshman Denzil Ware shook off an early unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and was in on five stops, including two tackles for loss.

Stoops and UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot used their dynamic linebackers to stymie Mauk with well-timed blitzes.

"I thought we did keep them uncomfortable," Stoops said of Mizzou.

In the secondary, Missouri appeared to be targeting Chris Westry, Kentucky's true freshman starter at cornerback. As has been his wont, the lanky 6-4, 185-pound product of Orange Park, Fla., rose to the occasion, making five tackles and recording a pass break-up.

For Kentucky, it was a total team effort.

Defensively.

In a game tied 7-7 at halftime, the Kentucky offense went three-and-out on its first two possessions of the second half.

The UK defense held Missouri out of the end zone until the Cats offense eventually got back in rhythm.

Said Stoops: "Our defense really had some good stops, critical stops, that gave us a chance to hang in there until we got going offensively."

For Kentucky, it will be easy to lament what might have been. Had the Cats made one more play offensively in the 14-9 loss to Florida, the Cats would be unbeaten and an emerging national story line in college football.

Still, three victories, two in the SEC, out of four games decided by a touchdown or less is a pretty stout sign of Wildcats toughness.

The Kentucky defense bent but didn't break and then made big plays to win at South Carolina.

UK's D kept a struggling Cats offense in the Florida game until the end.

And the Wildcats defenders essentially controlled the second half against Missouri, giving Stoops the best win he's earned yet as UK head coach.

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