Perhaps Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said best after a 20-10 win against Kentucky on Saturday at Memorial Stadium when he declared that nothing’s come easy to his Tigers this season.
Yet, aside from a hiccup against Indiana and a debacle against Georgia, Missouri has found a way to grind out victories en route to a 7-2 record, including a 4-1 mark in SEC play that has Pinkel’s crew sitting atop the East division standings.
Given the struggles on offense, the way the defense has emerged as a force in conference play and the special nature of Missouri’s special teams, Pinkel and his staff arguably have been forced to do a better job coaching than during last season’s magical 12-2 run that culminated with an SEC Championship Game appearance and Cotton Bowl victory.
Here are a few more observations from Saturday’s win:
1. Un-Pinkel-like offensive performances
Missouri won consecutive games while scoring 24 points or fewer for the first time under Pinkel.
The Tigers also own three such this season — 21-20 on Sept. 27 at South Carolina, 24-14 on Oct. 25 versus Vanderbilt and 20-10 on Saturday against Kentucky — which matches the most in any season during the Pinkel era. The 2011 team also won three such games.
“I’m not getting used to it,” Pinkel said. “I don’t want to get used to it. We won a lot of games around here a few years back 44-31, 45-29. We’re calling the game a little bit different, leaning on the run more and using the clock more, but yet we want to get the ball down field. … We’re not usually sitting here 20-10 and 20-13. I think the 10 and 13 part, but I’d like to get the other one a little bit higher.”
Missouri got rolling during the second quarter, totaling 134 yards on offense with Mauk going 8 of 10 for 89 yards, including touchdown tosses of 3 and 26 yards to senior wide receiver Bud Sasser.
The Tigers, undoubtedly at Pinkel’s direction given how well the defense was playing, played conservative in the second half, trying to protect a 14-3 lead and — just like at Florida — it worked.
2. D dominates third, fourth downs
Kentucky entered the game averaging 426.5 yards, but managed only 258 total yards against Missouri.
The Tigers were particularly effective on third down, limiting to the Wildcats to two of 16 conversions.
Kentucky was in third-and-5 or less only twice and quarterback Patrick Towles was one of two for 10 yards.
The Wildcats tried to run four times on third and long, netting only six yards and no first downs, while Towles was only five of 10 for 36 yards with one first down passing in third-and-long situations.
There were some drops in there, but Missouri played well.
The Tigers were even better on fourth down.
Early in the third quarter, Kentucky went for it on fourth-and-8 at the MU 37, but Kenya Dennis and Harold Brantley corralled Braylon Heard for no gain on a swing pass.
Its next drive, facing fourth-and-8 again at the MU 32, junior defensive end Shane Ray sacked Towles for a 5-yard loss.
Towles completed a 14-yard pass on fourth-and-4 from MU’s 15, which led to the Wildcats’ fourth-quarter touchdown.
After recovering an onside kick, Kentucky — in desperation mode — went for a fourth-and-20 at its own 36.
Missouri strong safety Braylon Webb stopped Javess Blue for a 19-yard gain with a terrific open-field tackle, but he was whistled for targeting and the call was upheld.
Later in the drive, on fourth-and-1 at the MU 21, sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer sniffed out a read option and dropped Towles for a 2-yard loss.
“They were driving the ball a little bit,” Scherer said. “It’s a two-score game, but you don’t want it to get that close, so you want to get a stop. I just read the play well and made a good tackle.”
Finally, on the Wildcats’ final snap, Ray again sacked Towles for an 11-yard loss on fourth-and-8 at the MU 49.
“When you get in third and fourth down, you’ve really got to focus,” Scherer said. “You’ve really got to lock in, know your assignment, read your keys and do your job. Third down and fourth down, that’s what win the games when you can get off the field.”
3. Mouth of Markus
On Kentucky’s first drive in the second half, refs flagged the Wildcats for two infractions on a third-and-7 incompletion.
There was a holding, which Missouri declined, and an illegal forward pass, because Towles strayed over the line of scrimmage before misfiring.
The latter penalty includes a loss of down, so the Tigers accepted it.
As referee Penn Wagers was explaining the call, Missouri senior defensive end Markus Golden could be heard woofing at the Kentucky players.
Golden could be heard barking, “That’s the only way they can stop us,” referring to the holding penalty as he danced around behind Wagers.
“Markus is full of energy if you don’t know by now and he was just yelling, ‘That’s what they’re going to have to do to stop us; to hold us,’” Ray said. “He’s that kind of player, and that’s the kind of passion and energy he brings to the game.”
Missouri said it’s typical for Golden to get rowdy like that.
“He’s a great teammate and such a passionate football player,” left tackle Mitch Morse said. “The game sometimes you get you like that. Hopefully, he won’t get reamed for that, and he won’t.”