Missouri hopes senior running back Russell Hansbrough will return to the lineup against Kentucky, but expectations that he can fix all that ails the Tigers’ offense should be tempered.
Hansbrough, who suffered a sprained right ankle on his first carry of the season against Southeast Missouri, was upgraded from questionable to probable and put back atop Missouri’s depth chart at tailback, but he can only do so much unless the blocking improves.
“It’s on us, man,” Tigers offensive line coach A.J. Ricker said. “It starts out front. If we’re not blocking the guys and opening up holes, we know it. That’s our mentality — put it on our shoulders and we’ve got to play better.”
Hansbrough didn’t express overwhelming confidence Monday that he’d be able to play against the Wildcats. He declined to put a percentage on how he felt, because he’d hadn’t run on it 10 days and wasn’t sure yet how well he could move laterally.
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“We got to find out how Russell is (Tuesday at practice),” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Monday during his weekly news conference. “We’re told by our medical staff that they think he’s going to be ready, but we have to wait and see. Being ready and being functional is two different things.”
Pinkel declined to provide an update on Hansbrough’s status or how he looked at practice Wednesday during the SEC Coaches’ Teleconference.
A fully healthy Hansbrough make a major difference. A gimpy Hansbrough isn’t much of an upgrade, so another week of rest might not be the worst thing in the world unless he’s close to 100 percent.
Certainly, Hansbrough’s availability and health are a big storyline, even for the Wildcats, but for more on Kentucky’s perspective we enlisted the help of Jon Hale, the new football beat writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
First down: Kentucky’s run defense hasn’t been great, but the Tigers’ run offense has been nonexistent. Do you get a sense for who has the edge there?
Hale: I don’t think Kentucky has a great run defense by any means, but a large portion of its success or failure seems to depend on how long the offense stays on the field. When the offense has managed the clock and held onto the ball for longer scoring drives, the run defense was actually OK against South Carolina and Florida.
When the offense goes three-and-out or puts a bunch of quick scoring drives together, depth becomes a significant problem on defense. Getting Russell Hansbrough back would probably give Missouri and edge, but Kentucky starting weakside linebacker Ryan Flannigan should also return this week. He has yet to play this season and represents a significant upgrade at the position.
Second down: Florida’s pressure really seemed to rattle Patrick Towles, so how much concern is there with D-Line Zou coming to town?
Hale: If I’m Kentucky, that’s my No. 1 concern heading into the week. Kentucky is starting a true freshman at right tackle and, while he’s one of the strongest players on the team, he is facing SEC defenses for the first time. I would expect Missouri to go after him early and often.
The rest of the Kentucky O-line did not exactly stand out against Florida either, so the whole unit needs to post significant improvement if Kentucky is to pull off the upset. Look for offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson to use his tight ends and fullbacks to help the linemen more than usual Saturday.
Third down: What makes Boom Williams a special running back and is he good enough to carry Kentucky to a win against the SEC’s top-ranked scoring and rushing defense?
Hale: As a freshman, Williams made plays on talent alone (check out his overtime touchdown catch-and-run against Florida for evidence). Now, he appears to be putting in the consistent effort on the practice field and in the film room coaches have been asking for. I don’t think Williams has quite broken into that first tier of SEC running backs, because of how talented and productive that group is, but he probably is in that second tier.
Through three games, there appears to be no doubt Williams is the team’s best player. He will need help to pull off the upset Saturday. Kentucky will hope backups Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton, who have thrived at times this season, can continue their success. UK needs rushing success to open up the passing game for Towles and a deep wide receiver group.”
Fourth down: Is Kentucky able to generate pressure with a four-man rush like Connecticut did or will the Wildcats need to rely more on blitz packages to get after Maty Mauk?
Hale: Kentucky is probably better equipped to do that than it was a week ago after the return of starting outside linebacker Jason Hatcher from suspension, but the defense has been most successful when bringing blitzers from a variety of spots on the field. No. 1 defensive tackle Regie Meant, who has one of the team’s six sacks, may be limited by a shoulder injury Saturday, so that will hurt the pressure up front.
His backup, C.J. Johnson, is considered to be the more athletic player and was a blitzing specialist last season, but he cannot replicate Meant’s strength and power. Three of UK’s six sacks have come from inside linebackers or defensive backs.