The Missouri Tigers didn’t get to play the Vanderbilt Commodores last week, as the SEC schedule was revised to due a COVID-19 postponement. Coming off an unexpected week of rest, the Tigers – just three games into their season – face a few specific challenges when they take on the Kentucky Wildcats. Those challenges represent the main game keys for Saturday’s contest against Big Blue.
By Matt Zemek
1 – Keep the rhythm going
Missouri’s offense found – and established, and sustained – tremendous rhythm against LSU on Oct. 10. Young quarterback Connor Bazelak made this offense his own. It’s his unit, his group, right now. Bazelak was an astounding 29 of 34 for 406 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. The whole stat line, for a player with very little collegiate game experience entering the 2020 season, is remarkable. The completion percentage, by itself, was amazing. The yardage per completion – exactly 14 yards – is impressive. Bazelak wasn’t playing it safe. He was being aggressive. Yet, his completion percentage was still stratospheric. He threw four touchdowns, which represents tremendous production in the one stat which really counts – points – and he didn’t throw a pick.
We can safely conclude that LSU’s defense is a mess, but that still doesn’t take anything away from Bazelak’s ability to take advantage of a bad defense to that extent. Who thought Bazelak was going to do anything close to that, this early in the season? Maybe later in the year, after several more games in which he could gain a comfort zone, but not in the third game of the season. It was a stunning performance in its totality.
Now, Bazelak – who had expected to play on Oct. 17, one week after LSU – was denied the ability to go back onto the field and maintain a rhythm. It could be the case that much as a long inning on the bench (watching his team score three runs) breaks up a pitcher’s flow, Bazelak’s unexpected off week will bust up his groove. Bazelak has to find a way to keep the rhythm going and not overthink this game.
2 – Recognize the challenge
While Bazelak needs to maintain rhythm, he also needs to be very conscious of the reality that Kentucky has a noticeably better defense than LSU. Kentucky’s defense isn’t spectacular – Ole Miss exploited it – but it is certainly miles better than what LSU showed. Bazelak needs to continue to trust his own abilities, but he also needs to tell himself (with guidance from Eli Drinkwitz helping him along) that he doesn’t have to be a hero. Make the read, go through the progressions, scan the field, don’t try to force things. Bazelak can’t allow himself to think that his LSU stat line will become a regular occurrence. Kentucky is going to play better defense than LSU did. Bazelak needs to make sure to fully process each play and not assume that everything he touches will continue to turn to gold. No, he has to make sound decisions and reaffirm good habits. Respecting Kentucky’s defense without fearing it is the balance Bazelak needs to strike in this game.
3- No big giveaways
Not all interceptions or turnovers are created equal. The other night in the NFL, the Chiefs fumbled at midfield with five seconds left in the first half against the Bills. That turnover was not likely to cost them at all, and it didn’t. That’s a low-value turnover. On the other hand, pick-sixes are the ultimate high-value, high-leverage turnover in a close and competitive game. Kentucky used two pick-sixes to blow open its win over Tennessee this past weekend. The Wildcats’ offense wasn’t special at all, scoring a modest 20 points. Yet, with 14 points scored directly by the defense, Kentucky created a low-stress afternoon.
Missouri met no resistance from LSU. It will meet more resistance from Kentucky. Ultimately, not giving away turnovers – specifically, turnovers which lead to UK points – is the most immediate thing Missouri can do to win this game.
Saturday‘s game kicks off at 3:00 PM CT (4:00 PM ET). Watch on the SEC Network.