Welcome to my Pick-Six Opinions as I review Missouri’s impressive 38-21 victory over Kentucky on Saturday night in Lexington. The win lifted Mizzou to 6-1 on the season overall, and the Tigers are tied for third in the SEC East.
Here are the top four records in the division:
Let’s get rolling …
1. This was a momentous win. A breakthrough win. The best win for the program in the two-plus seasons under coach Eli Drinkwitz.
It was a big step in the right direction against a familiar, annoying opponent that has consistently tormented the Tigers. After a slow and sleepy start, after being rattled early on, Missouri stabilized and energized and asserted absolute control over Kentucky to win by Kentucky to win by 17.
I didn’t think Mizzou would win this game. Sure, the Tigers were capable of getting it done, but the program’s frustrating history with Kentucky puts a chill on optimism. Going into the latest matchup, Missouri hadn’t won at Kentucky since 2013 and had lost seven of the previous eight games to the Wildcats. My attitude was based on a simple premise: show me, Mizzou. I need to see it. After blowing a 15-point lead and losing to LSU in a home game they should have won, I had to see how the Missouri coaches and players would respond.
I wasn’t prepared to default to blind-faith homerism and pick MU. The program had not earned that. And when Kentucky galloped out to a 14-0 lead on its first two possessions – making it look absurdly easy – my reaction was probably similar to yours:
Just what I thought. This is why it’s so difficult to trust this vacillating program. What is it about Kentucky that bedevils Mizzou? Or is this just a Mizzou thing?
Missouri wasn’t just staring at another loss to Kentucky. The Tigers risked losing much of the credibility they’d built during their 5-0 start. A setback at Kentucky would have meant two consecutive losses, a change in perception, and the latest installment of “Same Old Mizzou” belittling.
The Tigers had other ideas. They believed in themselves, even if some of us – many of us – didn’t. Even while under duress, with the one-sided game flow about to drown them, the coaches and players would have their say in this tipping-point test. They would reverse the Kentucky curse – whatever that is – silence Big Blue, win the damn game, and travel home to CoMo with deeper pride and increased respect. What a night.
2. Here’s what I really liked about this conquest: Missouri showed that it could stay calm, dig in, persevere and find its way to a victory despite so many things going wrong.
– Mizzou’s first three possessions: three-and-out, bad interception, punt. Kentucky’s first two possessions: nine plays, 65 yards for a touchdown … and nine plays, 63 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Just a brutal way to get the game underway.
– A fragile start by quarterback Brady Cook, who was out of sync early. More on this in a couple of minutes.
– The Missouri defense was overwhelmed early, and Kentucky running back Ray Davis churned through missed tackles for 69 yards rushing on seven carries. And he burned the Tigers again by catching a seven-yard touchdown pass. The Tigers couldn’t stop him … until they did. More on that in a bit.
With all of this to overcome, Missouri pushed through and trounced Kentucky. This was new and different and good to see. It reflects well on Mizzou’s growth as a team in 2023.
I’d argue that this type of win was more valuable to Mizzou than a relatively easy and stress-free blow-out. This experience should benefit the players and coaches going forward. Mizzou learned something important: Bad start? Keep your poise, don’t panic, lean on your teammates, and just keep on competing.
3. The play of the game, the proverbial turning point, the coaching-cajones moment came early in the second quarter on a bold, daring gamble by Drinkwitz.
On fourth and 10 from the Kentucky 39, Mizzou punter Luke Bauer threaded a 39-yard sideline pass to longball specialist Marquis Johnson. The call for this feat of legerdemain required some nerve, some guts, some audacity. If this play flopped – and MU goes onto lose – Drinkwitz would be getting roasted like never before. Drink did not flinch. And Bauer threw a perfect strike. What a trick. What a turnabout.
Was this Luke Bauer?
Or Jack Bauer?
Not only did this punter-as-hunter surprise cut Kentucky’s lead to 14-7, the impact instantly weakened the Wildcats’ confidence and resolve. Mizzou needed points, needed to stall Kentucky’s momentum, needed to rip up the script and start over. The funky fake worked, and there were repercussions for the home team.
“It’s one of those plays that kind of feels like it punches you right in the gut,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops told reporters after the game. “We didn’t respond very good after that.”
4. After regrouping from the early Kentucky ambush, Missouri’s defense was relentless and ruthless and played to the level we’ve expected from them … but always haven’t seen.
— After KY’s excellent running back Ray Davis had so much fun in the first quarter – averaging 9.85 yards per carry – Missouri held him to 59 yards on 13 excursions the rest of the way.
— Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary had a hot start, completing 5 of 7 seven passes for 39 yards and a touchdown pass – and traipsed on a 13-yard TD run for a 14-0 lead. After that, Leary completed 9 of 20 for 81 yards. He did pass for another touchdown, but Mizzou doused any hope of a Kentucky comeback by picking off two Leary passes.
— After racing to a 14-0 lead, Kentucky scored on one of its final 10 possessions, the third-quarter touchdown that put the Wildcats back into the lead at 21-20. But Mizzou shook that off and reasserted control.
— Over the final three quarters the Mizzou defense forced four punts, a lost fumble, made two interceptions, rumbled for four sacks and three hurries and halted the Wildcats on a fourth-down play inside the MU 10-yard line.
Kentucky finished with 299 yards but managed only 149 total yards offense on 38 plays after scoring the early touchdowns – an average of only 3.9 yards per snap. Plus the three turnovers and the four sacks. Even with the poor start, this was MU’s top defensive performance of the season. And a Mizzou offense that tended to soften late in the first six games actually got tougher and stronger as the game went on at Lexington.
5. Respect goes to Brady Cook for the way he handled the early adversity, settled in, and became a leader to count on.
On Missouri’s first three drives, Cook completed one of four passes for six yards. He threw an awful interception and endured a sack. On the INT, Cook haphazardly threw into double coverage and sailed a wobbly pass that Kentucky would grab and go the other way on its second touchdown march of the first quarter.
Cook rebounded. After that jumpy start, Cook completed 18 of 25 passes for 161 yards with one touchdown pass and a TD run. He also rushed for 40 yards, and finished the game with 63.8 percent of his team’s yardage. Statistically that isn’t anything special, but don’t overlook the larger point.
Cook could have fallen apart – the way his QB counterpart at Kentucky did. But Cook cleared his mind of the early negatives and became steady and sure. Confident and calm. An underrated part of being a good quarterback is reading the game situation, being aware of the circumstances and playing accordingly.
After Mizzou found its composure as a team, Cook realized the psychology of this game had changed. He understood what was needed of him based on the dramatic change of momentum that favored MU. He didn’t force anything. He didn’t put his team at risk. He had no urges to be the hero; he just wanted to win. And Cook’s mature approach was just right as Missouri flexed its authority over the Wildcats.
Cook tried to do too much in on his first interception.
And he learned from that.
After coming up empty on their first three possessions, Mizzou punted one time on its next eight drives. The results of the other seven possessions: four touchdowns, three field goals, and a missed field goal. (I’m not including the end-of-game kneel downs.
One series summed up Cook’s performance.
After Kentucky grabbed a 21-20 lead, Cook directed a nine-play, 70 yard drive to restore Missouri’s advantage, 28-20. The Tigers got back in front and stayed there. On the game-winning drive, Cook completed 5 of 5 passes for 54 yards. He completed throws to four different receivers. Another attempt, aimed at a fifth different receiver (Theo Wease Jr.) resulted in a 15-yard penalty for pass interference. Cook capped the procession by romping in for a 1-yard touchdown.
Kentucky put considerable emphasis on preventing explosive plays through the air and was determined to remove the wings from Luther Burden III.
That was fine with Cook, who patiently went to the open receiver time after time. If that meant piecing together a long and methodical drive instead of trying to strike quickly with deeper, low-percentage throws, Cook was happy to take the deal. That’s the epitome of a smart quarterback. With Kentucky self-destructing with a cluster of mistakes, Cook wisely focused on efficiency instead of trying to be flashy or padding his stats. And kudos to offensive coordinator Kirby Moore for maintaining the discipline in his play calls.
Mizzou outscored Kentucky on the IQ test.
And that’s a big reason why MU outscored Kentucky on the field.
6. Missouri is on the move – and the direction isn’t downward. The Tigers are moving up.
* This 6-1 opening to 2023 is Mizzou’s best start through seven games since the 2013 Tigers went 7-0. Coach Gary Pinkel’s squad went 7-1 in conference play and surprisingly won the SEC East. MU finished the season with a 12-2 record overall and were ranked No. 5 nationally in the final AP Poll.
* In the new Top 25 polls released Sunday, Missouri is No. 20 in both the AP and Coaches poll. The last time the program was ranked in the top 20 came late in the 2014 season. Pinkel’s second consecutive SEC East titleist was No. 14 in the season-ending AP ranking.
* Mizzou is already bowl eligible and has five games remaining in the regular season. Drinkwitz already has matched his highest win total in a season at Mizzou. He won six in 2021 and ‘22. And he was 5-5 in the 2020 season that was restructured because of Covid-19.
* Saturday’s win was notable for another reason: Missouri already has two conference road wins – at Vanderbilt and Kentucky. In his first season Mizzou went 1-3 on the road in SEC games. It was the exact same SEC road mark (1-3) in 2021, and 2022. Until now, the Tigers hadn’t won two consecutive SEC road games since prevailing at Florida and Tennessee in November 2018.
* This season Missouri has won each of its two SEC road games by 17 points. That hasn’t happened since the aforementioned 2018 campaign when the Tigers won by 21 at Florida and by 33 points at Tennessee.
* The Tigers are assured of no worse than a 2-2 SEC road record this season. They have two remaining away games, at Georgia (Nov. 4) and at Arkansas (Nov. 24). If MU can win just one of their final two SEC road games, they’d have their best conference road record since the SEC East champs went 4-0 in 2014. The 2013 SEC East champs were also 4-0 in conference road games.
Thanks for reading …
I hope you enjoy the rest of your Sunday.
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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