Balanced attack turns to dominant ground game in win at Mizzou

Jeff Badet. The University of Kentucky football team beat Missouri 35-21 at Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo., on Saturday, October 29, 2016. Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

Anthony Crawford

In the first half of UK football’s 35-21 victory over the Missouri Tigers, the Cats displayed a balanced attack in the first half that put them in firm control of the game heading into halftime. Coming out of the half, the Cats quickly turned that balance into absolute dominance on the ground as they posted 377 rushing yards in the game.

The total effort gave UK 582 yards of total offense, which is the second time in a row the Cats have eclipsed the 500-yard mark in SEC games, something the team hasn’t done since 2001.

The total yardage is also the biggest outing for UK against an SEC opponent since 2006, when the Cats gained 597 yards against Vanderbilt.

Both Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell Jr. led the rushing attack contributing two touchdowns a piece (two rushing touchdowns for Snell and one rushing, one receiving for Williams) and 182 yards and 192 yards rushing, respectively. Both of those totals were career highs for each and made UK only the second SEC team in the past 10 years to have two players rush for 175 yards or more in a conference game.

“You see the physicality. You see the run game and you see how it helps a program. You have to be able to have that physicality. I’ve talked about that since Day 1,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “It’s a process to get there that nobody wants to go through and wait, but we weren’t ever discouraged. You just got to stay the course and get better.”

The list of accolades that came with the impressive offensive output includes more than those mentioned, but the end result ultimately is UK walking away with a clear offensive identity and only one win away from bowl eligibility.

The offense starts and ends with the run game, but some credit needs to go to the passing game for what it did in the first half.

UK went into halftime with 188 passing yards and 186 rushing yards, near perfect balance that was enough to keep the Tigers defense guessing. 

When Williams or Snell wasn’t taking snaps out of the wildcat, the threat of a handoff to one of the two left quarterback Stephen Johnson with plenty of time to make the right decision.

Johnson’s confidence was high coming off an impressive second half showing in the win over Mississippi State and it showed as he went 13-21 in the first half, including one beautiful 65-yard bomb that hit Jeff Badet in stride for a touchdown. Badet also stayed hot from his 139-yard, two touchdown performance against Mississippi State, chipping in 104 yards and a score.

Johnson’s strong play to start earned offensive coordinator Eddie Gran’s confidence and it showed as he trusted Johnson to drive the ball through the air in the closing minutes of the half. But right when UK got into field goal range, that trust was lost as Johnson threw a pick.

The turnovers continue to be a problem, as UK coughed up two to Missouri, but thankfully in the second half UK had it’s impressive offensive line and running backs to turn to.

UK averaged 6.4 yards per rush in the game and not enough credit can go to the offensive line. The group that was thin and possibly most concerning to start the season, dominated the line of scrimmage for four quarters against Missouri and made it easier for Williams and Snell to do what they do.

“Those guys, I really noticed them finishing blocks,” Stoops said of the offensive line. “I saw ‘em really playing physical and enjoying that. They’re playing extremely hard and they’re playing smart.” 

The two combined for all the aforementioned totals, but throughout the game numbers can’t describe how reliable they were in moving the ball for UK. The run game has been building up to this point all season, but now it’s a true pillar of the offense and controlling games on the ground should be a narrative for UK moving forward.

The legend of true fresh Snell, only grew larger today, as he showed once again to be the ideal closure for UK seemingly gaining three to six yards every rush no matter when or where the defense hit him.

He also proved to be a perfect compliment to Williams as his grit and grind run-style, allowed for Williams to come in take advantage of any gap the defense gave him as he averaged an insane 9.6 yards per carry on 19 rushes. Williams also eclipsed the 2,000-yard rushing mark for his career in the game, becoming the 8th player to do so in UK history.

The offensive output and the accolades are important, but the biggest thing to come out of this game might be how UK virtually secured bowl eligibility with the win. The Cats move 5-3 overall and 4-2 in the SEC for the first time since 1993. And a matchup with 0-8 Austin Peay (who lost to Southeast Missouri State Saturday 41-21) makes getting six wins virtually a lock.

The race in the SEC East also becomes a lot more interesting, as UK’s three-game SEC win streak — something the team hasn’t done since 1999 — places it firmly in contention along with Florida and Tennessee. The team should in no way look ahead, but things definitely get interesting with its matchup with the struggling Georgia Bulldogs next week.

“I think it’s about our team finally being in a position where we’re not satisfied. I’m proud of them,” Stoops said. “They should be proud of themselves because of the work and the preparation and how hard they’ve worked and how fun they are to coach, but I truly believe it’s about being back in there Monday ready to go and being ready to prepare to win games.”