Missouri rides ground game, stingy defense to statement win over Kentucky

Tigers get first win over Kentucky since 2014 in Drinkwitz’ first showdown against the Wildcats.
Running back Larry Rountree III runs through a hole during one of his 37 carries in Missouri's win over Kentucky on Oct. 24, 2020. SEC Media Portal

In four years under Barry Odom, the Missouri Tigers could never find a way to beat the Kentucky Wildcats. They came close multiple times, but at the conclusion of every game, the Tigers always found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard against their Southeastern Conference foes.

On Saturday afternoon, Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz did what his predecessor never could when the Tigers took down Kentucky 20-10 in his first game against the Wildcats.

“Both sides of the ball; they played the game exactly how we wanted it to be played in order to win,” Drinkwitz said via Zoom after the game. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

The game may not have been as flashy as the win against LSU two weeks ago. The final score may have been close. But make no mistake about it: The Tigers dominated every facet of the game.

Missouri outgained Kentucky 421 yards to 145. It converted 10 third downs to the Wildcats’ two. The Tigers won the time of possession battle by nearly 30 minutes. Outside of one 26-yard touchdown pass from Terry Wilson to Josh Ali, the Wildcats offense lacked any potency.

“I’m shocked with these stats,” Drinkwitz said. “I’ve never been a part of a game like this.”

The Tigers strung together drives of both six and seven minutes throughout the course of the afternoon, but none stands out more than their drive to start the second half.

Over the course of nine minutes and 35 seconds, Missouri ran 21 backbreaking plays –– including three fourth down conversions –– and tired out a Kentucky defense that arrived in Columbia touted as one of the best in the SEC. Although the drive didn’t end in points, it signaled the intent of a Missouri team determined to take down Kentucky for the first time since 2014.

“We could see it in their eyes and see it in their demeanor,” receiver Jalen Knox said. “They were tired and just couldn’t play with us. They couldn’t keep up with us, and so we said, ‘Keep on going, don’t stop.’”

Missouri never did let up, imposing its will in the ground game. Running back Larry Rountree III carried the ball 37 times for 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Kentucky only had four offensive possessions in the second half. In many ways, the Tigers out-Kentucky-ed Kentucky.

“[That drive] helped keep our defense fresh, and it shows that we can sustain long drives without getting tired,” Rountree III said. “When we was on long drives, they were getting tired. It shows that we were more in shape than them. We outplayed them; they were tired, and we showed who was better prepared on the field.”

And while quarterback Connor Bazelak wasn’t needed to make the plays he did against LSU, he excelled when called upon. With the threat Kentucky’s secondary brought, Missouri wanted to keep the ball on the ground whenever possible. Bazelak finished the game 21-31 for 201 yards and more often than not made the correct read to keep drives alive.

On one play in the second quarter, Bazelak sensed a cornerback blitz, scrambled forward in the pocket and found receiver Keke Chism for a 24-yard gain on third-and-eight. With the Tigers driving down the field before halftime, the play helped extend a drive that put three points on the board.

“I knew all week that I was just going to have to take what they gave me,” Bazelak said. “Take the check downs. Get the playmakers in space, let them get the first down using their feet. Knowing where to go with the ball and having a plan pre-snap every play.”

On the other sideline, coach Mark Stoops’ team suffered with inconsistent quarterback play. Stoops pulled Wilson after the starting quarterback went 2-6 for nine total yards through three drives. His replacement, Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, didn’t do much either; he finished the afternoon with 12 yards on four completions.

But much of the credit goes to a Missouri defense that started the game by holding Kentucky to 23 total yards in the first quarter.

With the defense clicking, Drinkwitz decided to go for it on fourth-and-five near midfield. That decision led to the Tigers’ first touchdown a few plays later when Rountree III fell into the endzone for the 7-0 lead.

“Executing under pressure is something we discuss and challenge ourselves to do all the time,” Drinkwitz said. “We knew going into the game that we were going to be in those scenarios. You can either feel pressure or apply pressure, and for us, we choose to apply the pressure.”

With both teams coming into Saturday afternoon off big wins, the game ultimately came down to which team could out-execute its opponent. Through its stingy defense and overwhelming ground game, that team was Missouri.

If the LSU win was a fluke, then this game was a statement. And the Tigers just announced themselves to the rest of the SEC.

“It’s a step,” Drinkwitz said. “Obviously we’re 2-2 which puts us in a situation to travel to Florida for a big game.”

Missouri will take its two-game win streak to Gainesville next weekend for a Halloween showdown against the Florida Gators.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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