UK Football

Kentucky hopes ever-changing defenses knock Missouri off balance

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops talked with defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree (2) during the Cats' game against Florida.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops talked with defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree (2) during the Cats' game against Florida. Herald-Leader

Just how balanced is Missouri's attack?

Think scales of justice. Think playground seesaw with identical twins on each side.

Of the ninth-ranked Tigers' touchdowns this season, 24 have come on the run and 20 through the air.

Of their first downs, 106 were gained rushing and 104 via the pass.

Yardage? Same thing, with the Tigers averaging 237.2 yards a game running and 262.8 yards a game passing.

That symmetry makes Mark Stoops' job on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium much more complicated.

"They can run it and they can throw it, so they put you in a bind," the Kentucky football coach said this week as the Cats prepare to meet their fifth top 20 opponent this season.

"There is no hiding from it," Stoops said of going against the balance. "You have to mix things up. You have to be multiple. You have to be able to play. You have got to man up and play. ... You are not going to constantly trick a team like this. They have seen it all."

Kentucky (2-6, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) isn't going to trick anybody, but it's not planning to make it a leisurely day on the seesaw for Missouri, either.

Even through losses this season, UK has been able to be creative enough defensively to create some mismatches. Stoops works out of a base 4-3 defense, but the Cats also have used a 3-4 and a nickel package. Against Louisville, there was the equivalent of five down linemen at times.

Last week against Alabama State, Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot trotted out another new package with three cornerbacks, a safety and a nickel.

"That was a good package for us, and it enabled us to play tighter coverage with some guys," Stoops said of the new scheme. "So we're going to continue to work just different things like that. We've got to find the best ways to create some matchups for ourselves."

At times, Kentucky's multiplicity has been able to slow offenses, the players said.

"No one can just scheme to play us," said defensive back Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who is second on the team in tackles with 45, including 7.5 for a loss. "They can't scheme just a 4-3 or just a 3-4. They never know what they're going to get from us, which helps us surprise some teams."

So the plan against Missouri (8-1, 4-1 SEC) — whether the Tigers are using starting quarterback James Franklin or redshirt freshman backup Maty Mauk — is to make the defense as confounding as possible.

It's still going to be a difficult task.

UK could play its best pass defense all day (against one of the biggest groups of wide receivers that Stoops has ever faced) and the Tigers still have three running backs that have combined for 1,611 yards and 19 touchdowns.

That group collectively racked up 339 yards rushing against Tennessee last week. The Tigers' spread offense, known for its passing, is the SEC's second-best at rushing and the 16th-best in the nation.

"We have to show some patience and just do what we always try to do, and that's basically get off the field as quick as we can," Stoops said. "But we've got to mix it up."

In a season that's been filled with surprises — not always pleasant ones for the first-year coach — one positive has been the defense's ability to learn.

"Our guys are doing real well," safeties coach Bradley Dale Peveto said. "We teach very conceptually. I think Coach Stoops' defenses are set up that way. So with that said, we teach concepts, so once they know these concepts, they apply them and here we go. It makes week after week have a lot of carry-over."

Cats coaches are hoping that carry-over will be able to slow a Missouri offense that went from averaging just 25.8 points a game last season to 40.6 points this season, 13th-best in the nation.

"We're much more prepared right now than we were earlier in the year," Stoops said. "We're starting to figure out our personnel better and trying to find guys to get on the field that can help us with matchups."

Or at least help keep Missouri off balance.

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