COLUMBIA, Mo. — The jokes about Kentucky football aren’t as frequent or as funny anymore.
Since Missouri arrived in the SEC in 2012, the Wildcats have been the one team on the schedule the Tigers — and everyone else — could count on for an automatic win. Even the forgettable 2012 Mizzou team, with Corbin Berkstresser taking most of the snaps at quarterback, routed Kentucky, 33-10, for its first SEC win.
But while even most of their own fans were paying significantly more attention to the crown jewels in John Calipari’s basketball recruiting classes, second-year coach Mark Stoops and his staff were finding some pearls of their own. Still, few expected the Wildcats to compete this year — until they went on the road and took Florida to three overtimes, then recorded home wins over South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
"Who cares what they did last year?" says Tigers middle linebacker Michael Scherer, who has watched enough film to know Kentucky’s turnaround is for real. "They’re not the same team as they were last year. They’ve got a lot of different players and they’re a lot better."
The Wildcats still have half the same starters on offense and defense as the ones who were on the field for last year’s 48-17 loss to Missouri in Lexington. But this team already has more wins than the last two seasons combined, and a 17-7 triumph over Vanderbilt snapped a 17-game SEC losing streak.
A week ago, Kentucky drew nearly 65,000 fans when it welcomed No. 1 Mississippi State to Commonwealth Stadium. The Wildcats kept hopes of a monumental upset alive until Christian Holmes returned an onside kick 61 yards for a touchdown with less than two and a half minutes left.
That 45-31 loss left no doubt as to who deserves the most credit for ending Kentucky’s run as the SEC’s doormat. Sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles played a role in all four touchdowns and posted career highs of 390 yards through the air and 76 on the ground, despite getting sacked seven times for a loss of 45 yards.
"He’s playing really well," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says. "Very, very impressed. A big guy that can run like he does, it’s unusual, but you’ve got to watch him because he goes well for a guy that weighs 235 pounds."
Towles redshirted last season to improve his fundamentals, and those efforts have paid off in a big way for an offense ranked fifth in the SEC with 266.6 pass yards per game. Mizzou defensive end Markus Golden knows containing Towles and bringing him down will be critical, but the occasionally vulnerable Tigers secondary will have to be prepared as well.
The Wildcats have been even better at defending the pass, with a pass defense efficiency rating of 103.6 that ranks third in the conference behind only LSU and Ole Miss. An athletic group of defensive backs with 13 interceptions in eight games could spell trouble for a struggling Mizzou passing game expected to be without wide receiver Darius White on Saturday.
Quarterback Maty Mauk and the offense hope to have turned a corner in the second half of a 24-14 win over Vanderbilt last week, which included Mauk’s first two touchdown passes in four SEC games. They also had their best rushing day of the year thanks to Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough, two tailbacks poised to take advantage of the biggest weakness in Kentucky’s defense.
"They’re pretty physical on defense," says Murphy, who ran for 93 yards on 16 carries against Vandy. "They’re big. They bring a lot of different blitzes, so we just have to focus up and get a lot of film study and just familiarize ourselves with their defense."
Wide receiver Bud Sasser insists even the last two seasons Missouri made sure to take Kentucky seriously, and he says he’s not surprised by the Wildcats’ newfound success. Certainly, a team that lost at home to Indiana can’t afford to overlook anyone, and the Tigers don’t want to be the team to end Kentucky’s 19-game road losing streak.