Kentucky, it appears, is ripe for the picking.
Coming off a bye week, Missouri plays host to Kentucky on Saturday for the university's annual Homecoming game. And the Wildcats, 1-7 in the conference and losers of six straight games, are an injured opponent.
Kentucky’s starting quarterback heading into the season, sophomore Maxwell Smith, has missed the past three games with a torn ligament in his left ankle. That has spurred a musical chairs of different quarterbacks in the past few weeks, with three players – two of them freshmen – taking snaps.
Freshman Jalen Whitlow is scheduled to start against Missouri, but another freshman, Patrick Towles, and senior Morgan Newton could also see playing time.
Usually the loss of a starting quarterback isn’t too noticeable, especially when the backup can hand the ball off to a dominant running back. Unfortunately, Kentucky doesn't have one of those, either.
Kentucky’s two best runners, CoShik Williams and Josh Clemons, are unavailable on Saturday because of injuries. A corral of running backs, including Raymond Sanders III, Jonathan George and Dyshawn Mobley, have attempted to fill the void.
But any way you slice it, an offense can only do so much without its starting quarterback and running back, and predictably the Wildcats have averaged only 12.4 points per game in SEC play.
"It’s created a lot of challenges at quarterback, when you don’t have your best two runners and your best quarterback,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said Wednesday during the SEC’s weekly teleconference. “It’s really, really tough.”
Their luck hasn’t been much better on the other side of the ball. Injuries in the secondary has forced Phillips to give three freshmen — Zack Blaylock, Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller — significant playing time in the defensive secondary.
And for a young quarterback like Missouri’s Corbin Berkstresser, Kentucky’s freshmen corners look much more appealing than the ones he faced against Alabama a few weeks ago.
"It definitely gives you confidence, going against a young secondary," Berkstresser said Monday. "But one young secondary in the SEC is not any less talented than an older secondary, so they’re definitely great players."
The Wildcats, bruised and battered and winless in the SEC, will have to do another thing they’re not comfortable with this weekend — travel.
Kentucky is 0-3 on the road this season, and in those games they have lost by an average of 32.6 points. A trip to Faurot Field, a place Kentucky’s players have never been, isn’t likely to reverse that trend.
"We’ve been a lot better at home than on the road, so we’ll do some things to change the way we travel this week, going to a stadium and unfamiliar surroundings," Phillips said. "Missouri is an unfamiliar environment for many of us in this league."
While Faurot Field might be unfamiliar for Phillips and Kentucky, it hasn’t been kind to the home team this season, either. Missouri is 2-3 in home games thus far, with all three losses being conference games.
Coach Gary Pinkel said that while his team wants ultimately to reach a bowl game, it can’t do that without focusing first on its current opponent.
"Every Sunday, regardless of what you see or read or whatever, I always give the state of the team address. And I don’t care what your mom and your dad say or anything. I always do that every Sunday, so they clearly understand what we need to do," Pinkel said Wednesday, when asked if his team still thinks a bowl berth is within reach.
"I mentioned at that time about our goals, and they’re very well aware of them. But there’s no way in the world you got a chance of reaching those goals if you don’t focus on the task at hand. And for us, the task at hand is Kentucky"