Wildcats expect to empty tank against Mizzou

LEXINGTON (KT) — The tank is full and Kentucky is prepared to run it out against Missouri on Saturday before refueling for the second half of the season during next week’s open date.

The Wildcats (4-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) begin a stretch of six straight league games against the struggling Tigers, who are coming off a much-needed bye week following three consecutive setbacks.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops admitted his team is banged up after opening the season with five straight games, which he said takes its toll, but said his team can’t afford a letdown before taking one week off to heal and regroup.

“You drive your car until its empty and then you refill it, right? So that is what we are going to do,” Stoops said. “We are going to run it empty this week and then we will refuel.”

Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran agreed. Despite the offensive struggles in a 24-20 win over non-conference foe Eastern Michigan last week, Gran said there’s no panic in the camp and added the Wildcats are “close” to a major breakthrough.

“This is a critical time right now, but you let everything go right now,” Gran said. “We’ve got a bye week after this. That gas tank’s gotta be full Saturday night. Period. The end. I don’t care how tired you are. I don’t care what bumps and bruises you have; this is football, we’ve gotta go.”

Stoops added the Wildcats focused on regrouping, especially offensively this week in preparation for the Tigers, who have been employing a makeshift coaching staff on defense after coach Barry Odom fired his defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross following a 31-13 loss to South Carolina earlier this season.

“There’s no panic button,” Stoops said. “You just look at the things and get them fixed and move on. Some are easy and some are difficult. There’s going to be games when we’re going to have to outscore people. Heck, just look at the week before (Florida game). It should have been enough (points) and defensively we didn’t get the stops, so we’re in this together. We know that in that building we’re all in this together. It’s a team effort.”

Gran said the key is to be aggressive, especially considering the Tigers are coming off an open date.

“We’re going to have to play a really good football game for us to do what we need to do,” Gran said. “And again, it’s cliche and you guys don’t want to hear it, but this is about us on offense. Being physical, executing and doing our job. That’s what we have to do.”

While Kentucky’s offense has been shaky at times, the Wildcats haven’t had many issues on defense and on special teams, both of which were steady in last week’s win over the Eagles.

“I think coach (Dean) Hood has done an unbelievable job,” Stoops said. “He’s got a great demeanor. The players really respond well to him, and I think it’s a sign of your team being unselfish. Those guys work hard. Like I said, extra meeting times, extra practice, they do a lot. They take great pride in what they do. Guys knowing their role.”

Missouri (1-3, 0-2) rolled past Missouri State in its opener, but has struggled in their second season under Odom. The Tigers have been outscored 86-17 in their past two games and suffered a 51-14 loss to Auburn in their last encounter nearly two weeks ago.

“I know the season got off tough for them, I can relate to that,” Stoops said. “I’m sure they had their bye week and had a chance to hit the reset button and want to start their second part of their season much different.”

Stoops said his top concern is slowing Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, who ranks second in the league in passing, averaging 278.8 yards per game. Lock has thrown 10 touchdowns, but also six interceptions.

“The number one thing you are always concerned about when you play them is their offense and the tempo at which they play. Their quarterback (Drew) Lock is as good as there is. Seems like we have been seeing a slew of good quarterbacks lately and he’s another one that can make all the throws.”

Although Missouri is struggling to find its niche, Stoops said the Wildcats can’t dwell on the Tigers’ immediate past.

“I anticipate them coming out and playing extremely fast and backs against the wall,” said Stoops, whose team has won two straight against the Tigers. “I know they’ll play well.”