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Balance makes facing Tigers a tall task

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Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 win over Alabama State last weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 win over Alabama State last weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
After a day of watching film, Mark Stoops publicly kicks off game week at his Monday press conference.

There, he begins his question-answer-session with the media with some comments reflecting on Kentucky's last game before talking in general about his team's upcoming opponent.

He always has good things to say, but he was uniquely effusive in his praise of Missouri.

"Missouri is a very good football team, as we all know," Stoops said. "Very balanced, do a good job of running it, throwing it, keeping you off balance. Their defense has been the biggest improvement for them."

As Stoops' words suggest, what differentiates eighth-ranked Missouri (8-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) is its strength in all facets of the game. The Tigers control of their own destiny in the SEC East and are an overtime loss away from an unbeaten record not because of smoke and mirrors, but because they are sound across the board.

On offense, Missouri's receiving corps is what stands out, and quite literally. The Tigers top three receivers are Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham and the trio has combined for 1,681 yards receiving. They also look they should be in town to play in Rupp Arena instead of Commonwealth Stadium, standing 6-foot-5, 6-4 and 6-6, respectively.

"I can't remember playing a group bigger than this," said Stoops, whose career began as a secondary coach.

Safeties coach Bradley Dale Peveto took it a step further, calling the Tigers "as good a group of receivers as I've ever coached again." None of the five Wildcats listed on UK's depth chart at cornerback is taller than 6-0, but the group will have to find a way to match the physicality of the Tigers both in the passing game and in shedding blocks.

"You gotta eat your Wheaties and bring your A game," Peveto said.

The rest of the UK defense should load up before Saturday's noon ET kickoff (ESPNU) too, because Stoops sees an offense that's just as physical in the trenches.

"They run the ball on everybody," Stoops said. "And you see them really throwing guys around in the run game and creating big seams."

Missouri is averaging 237.2 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry on the ground, numbers that have hardly suffered with athletic quarterback James Franklin sidelined with a shoulder injury the last three games. Franklin is slated for a possible return on Saturday, but the Cats won't alter their approach much whether they're facing him or backup Maty Mauk.

"They're both very good quarterbacks," Stoops said. "Their offense basically stays the same."

That cannot be said of the UK offense.

With Jalen Whitlow returning to a starting role after battling ankle and shoulder injuries, the Wildcat attack found another gear against Alabama State. With an added dimension in the running game and Whitlow's progression as a passer, the Cats look to sustain that offensive momentum.

"I thought Jalen did a nice job making some plays with his feet," Stoops said. "I thought he did a nice job throwing it at times. There were a few throws that stuck out to me during the game that we know he missed. But after watching the tape, really thought he did a good job of hitting some guys as well. Got to continue to work our passing game and improve in that area. But to score 48 points was good to see."

Duplicating that feat against Missouri won't be easy.

The Tigers are fourth in the league in scoring defense, third in rushing defense and first in turnovers forced by a wide margin. That all starts up front.

"The first thing that jumps off the film when you're watching Missouri is their defensive line," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They go two or three deep at each position. They can really run. They have the fastest D-line that we've played and they play super hard and they chase the ball probably better than anybody we've played."

Michael Sam headlines the group, leading the SEC with 10 sacks.

To combat that pass rush and avoid the interceptions that have so frequently befallen Missouri opponents (the Tigers have 17 picks on the season), UK will rely on a combination of Whitlow's athleticism, quick throws and a variety of protection schemes.

"We've got to get the ball out of our hands fast," Brown said. "I think he understands. I mean, we've got to do some things in our protection: We've got to get some backs, we've got to get some tight ends, do some things like that to help our guys out."

Once Whitlow gets rid of the ball, he'll be relying on his receivers to make plays. Unfortunately for the Cats, Whitlow will almost certainly be without two of his top targets -- Ryan Timmons and Alex Montgomery -- due to injury. That means UK's "next-man-up" mentality will be put to the test.

"I think Demarco Robinson is a guy that's finally healthy, and we need him to step up and make some plays," Brown said. "We need A.J. Legree to step up. Some of the guys that have been here, they've got to step up and produce."

Against Alabama State, Robinson showed some the play-making ability that excited his coaches throughout the spring and summer with four catches for 44 yards. As Brown mentioned, an ankle injury has limited his explosiveness but Robinson is now finally at full speed.

"I have to play a bigger role this week," Robinson said. "I have to make more plays than I've been making in the past. I feel like it's a bigger responsibility."

Responsibility, however, isn't the first thing Stoops wants his team feeling heading into the weekend. Facing a team as good as Missouri affords the Cats a chance to measure their continued improvement against elite competition, and he wants them to embrace that.

"It's definitely a great opportunity for us," Stoops said. "We've got a great team coming in here, playing at home, at noon on a Saturday. It should be a beautiful afternoon and we're excited about it definitely."

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