Cats heading toward explosive offense in Columbia

By Ethan Levine | @KernelLevine

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Since the turn of the century, SEC football has built its reputation as the premier conference in the NCAA on balanced, pro-style offenses and fast, overwhelming defenses.

In a day and age where some of the nation’s top programs and conferences have begun to adopt new inovative offenses, the SEC has managed to win each of the past six national championships predicated on consistent offense and dominating defense.

So when UK travels to Columbia, Mo., to take on its new SEC East brothers, the Missouri Tigers, it won’t just be playing another conference game — it will be welcoming a completely new look to a conference built upon tradition.

Missouri brings more than just a new stadium, a new fan base and a new state to the SEC.

The Tigers bring a spread offense from their former home, the pass-happy Big 12 conference, to a conference that saw eight former defensive players drafted in the first 25 picks of last year’s NFL draft.

The transition to the SEC has been difficult for the Tigers. The team has lost its first four SEC games since moving to the conference, including 21-point losses to Georgia and South Carolina and a 22-point loss to Alabama.

UK lays claim to its own 0-5 record in SEC play and is just as desperate to earn its first conference win of the season.

If UK wants to get out of the basement of the SEC East and snap its six-game losing streak, it will have to shut down the spread offense.

“We’ve got to do a good job of playing in space,” UK head coach Joker Phillips said.

Stopping explosive passing games has been a struggle for the Cats’ defense this season. In the past two weeks, UK has allowed Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson to throw for a combined 799 yards and nine touchdowns while completing more than 76 percent of their passes.

UK continues to suffer injury problems in its secondary, with veterans Martavius Neloms, Cartier Rice and Mikie Benton still listed day-to-day.

The five true freshmen who have received regular playing time in the back-end of UK’s defense will face their greatest challenge of the year in Missouri’s spread offense.

“Those guys will compete,” Phillips said of his true freshmen in the secondary.

“(They) don’t back down from anything. You don’t see those guys change when they get beat, and they will get beat. They’re young kids that still try to find their way, but their demeanor doesn’t change when they give up a play.”

The Tigers will be playing their own true freshman Saturday in quarterback Corbin Berkstresser, who is completing less than 50 percent of his passes on the year.

But with two starts now under his belt and a bye week to prepare for the Cats’ porous defense, Tigers coach Gary Pinkell hopes this is the week his offense can get back on track.

Saturday will be an opportunity for Missouri to finally arrive in the SEC. It is a chance for the Tigers to show they can make the spread offense work in a defense-heavy conference.

It is a chance for them to assert that they can hang with the best conference in the country; it is a chance for them to show the nation the SEC brand is not impenetrable.

But for UK, Saturday is a chance to silence all of that chatter.

The Cats are certainly underdogs in this matchup, but a win would be more than the team’s first in conference this season.

A win in Columbia would show just how hard a transition to the SEC can be, just how good the conference is from top to bottom, and just how much pride these Cats are playing with for their team, their university, their commonwealth and now their conference.

“It’s not been the season we really want it to,” senior defensive end Taylor Wyndham said. “But we’re still going to come out and compete.”