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Tigers make defensive statement against Kentucky

By Chris Bowie
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton, right, reaches for Kentucky running back Asim Rose Jr. during a game Saturday at Faurot Field.

Nick Bolton and the Missouri defense were prepared to make a statement either way.

The Tigers' offense was in the midst of a mega 21-play drive that consumed nearly the first 10 minutes of the third quarter, extended by a pair of fourth-down conversions. 

When head coach Eli Drinkwitz decided to go for it again on fourth-and-1 from the 7, Bolton and his defensive cohorts were already scheming how to deflate the Wildcats — regardless of whether Missouri was coming off a touchdown or turnover on downs.

“We talked about it on the sidelines,” Bolton said of that important juncture of Missouri's 20-10 victory over Kentucky on Saturday, its first win against the Wildcats since 2014. “Regardless if they scored or not. Just from the defense's perspective, you know that when somebody's on the field for eight minutes, and then go three-and-out, it’s mentally deflating for them. ... We knew that we had to get a stop because if we got the ball back, their defense was going to be tired and fatigued.”

After Missouri was stopped short on fourth down, Bolton and the defense were there to stand strong against a momentum swing, forcing a pivotal three-and-out punctuated by the junior linebacker's fierce third-down tackle of Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson.

Kentucky quarterback Joey Gatewood (2) is tackled by several Missouri players during a game Saturday at Faurot Field.

It was Kentucky's first of three possessions in the second half with four or fewer plays.

Missouri went on to score right after on a six-play, 61-yard drive to go up 17-3. Kentucky would later score to pull within 17-10, a 26-yard pass from Wilson to Josh Ali.

But that proved to be the only time the Tigers' defense broke and allowed a touchdown to a Wildcats team that had won five straight in the series against Missouri and was fresh off a 34-7 victory at Tennessee a week ago.

The win puts Missouri in solid position at 2-2 heading into a suddenly more meaningful game at Florida scheduled for next Saturday in Gainesville.

“To hold them to 98 rushing yards and 145 total yards is just unbelievable by those guys,” Drinkwitz said. “Anytime you can force three-and-out, it’s a great job. Really good focus by our defense to take a 'this play' philosophy and a 'this play' mindset and not worry about everything else. We told our team to play fearless and play connected.”

The Tigers were certainly connected throughout the game. Although Kentucky cut the lead to seven with 13:14 left, Missouri time and time again stopped the Wildcats, becoming the first opponent to not allow them into the red zone this season.

While Missouri finished the game with 421 yards of total offense, Kentucky's 145 total yards represented a season low and included only 47 yards through the air.

Time of possession weighed heavily in the game: The Tigers controlled the clock for 43 minutes, 10 seconds compared to 16 minutes, 50 seconds for Kentucky.

Put a different way, Missouri ran 92 offensive plays to Kentucky's 36.

Kentucky tight end Keaton Upshaw (88) looks for a flag as Missouri safety Martez Manuel (3) celebrates during a game Saturday at Faurot Field.

Drinkwitz noted during a Zoom call with reporters after the game that teams can’t score if they don’t have the ball, and that truism on Saturday applied to Kentucky, which claimed just four possessions in the second half. 

“I think we neutralized all their running ability, whether it was (quarterback) Terry Wilson or the running backs, but hats off to our defensive staff,” Drinkwitz said. “I thought we had a great game plan. We had a couple of times where we knew specifically that if Wilson was going to get out, that Tyree Gillespie was gonna have to have a one-on-one tackle in space. He did that well. ... A tremendous scheme by our defensive staff and coach (Ryan) Walters, and tremendous execution.”

Bolton finished with seven solo stops, including one sack. He credited the offense for controlling the clock and giving the defense time to rest and recover.

Holding the Wildcats to three first downs and 65 total yards in the first half, the Tigers also held the Kentucky quarterback duo of Wilson and Joey Gatewood to nine yards passing over the first two quarters.

Missouri safety Martez Manuel opened the game with a statement of his own by knocking away a pass by Wilson. Manuel posted three solo stops on the day.

“Everybody knew this week that we had to tackle,” Manuel said. “We just had to play really aggressive. I'll just say, our coaches did a good job of taking care of us, but also having that physical aspect of practice to make sure that we could perform the way that we did.”

Missouri safety Joshuah Bledsoe (1) is congratulated by teammates after his forced fumble and recovery to secure the Tigers' win over Kentucky on Saturday at Faurot Field.

Tigers safety Joshuah Bledsoe proved to be clutch late in the fourth quarter with a forced fumble and recovery to secure the win.

“I see Kentucky as like a mosquito, a nagging mosquito that should have been killed," Bledsoe said. "They just kept staying around, but we finally got them.”

“When everybody does their job, we're the top defense in the nation,” he concluded.

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