Missouri safety Joshuah Bledsoe has iced a win for the Tigers twice now this season.
In a 45-41 upset of then-No. 17 LSU, Bledsoe jumped a pass from Myles Brennan to Terrace Marshall Jr. for a breakup, which forced a crucial turnover on downs in the final seconds of the win.
This week, the senior safety gave Missouri its first turnover since Week 1, stripping Kentucky receiver Josh Ali of a catch with 3:07 left in the game. It essentially sealed a 20-10 win over the Wildcats, which was Missouri’s first win against the program since 2014.
The senior safety’s emphatic plays two games in a row was one of few consistencies in his defense’s performance during its last two games.
Despite back-to-back wins, Missouri played a bend-don’t-break type of defense its last time out. In the win, the Tigers allowed more than 450 yards of total offense, and their opponent averaged 14.8 yards a completion and 7 yards a play. They also gave up five touchdowns.
However, that couldn’t be the case for a win over Kentucky, Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said postgame.
“There’s really no other way around it other than to beat them at their own game,” he said of Kentucky.
For Missouri to do that, it meant flipping from conservative coverages to meeting its opponent at the line of scrimmage, putting a priority on shutting down the Southeastern Conference’s best rushing attack. The Wildcats were averaging over 200 rushing yards a game coming into the game, with three different players already over 175 rushing yards this season.
“You’ve got no shot to win the game if you don’t stop the run against Kentucky,” Drinkwitz said. “That’s what they do. That’s what their identity is. That’s what their DNA is.”
The Tigers rose to the occasion Saturday, giving up just 98 yards on the ground. They also held Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson — who led the team in rushing attempts ahead of Saturday’s game — to minus-2 yards rushing.
Defensive end Tre Williams said after the game that, beyond watching film and keying up the right plays, Missouri’s defense didn’t do anything in particular to gameplan for the run-first quarterback. However, Bledsoe and linebacker Nick Bolton both noted that the defense’s goal was to force Wilson out of the pocket.
“Essentially, we’re trying to get the quarterback to roll out, hopefully get a D-lineman to chase him around from the backside and also have interior pressure,” Bolton, who had the Tigers’ lone sack, said.
Drinkwitz also said if the quarterback escaped the pocket, safety Tyree Gillespie was prepared and planned to make one-on-one tackles in the open field, which he said Gillespie did well. The safety ended the day with just three tackles, all of which came on quarterback runs.
Missouri established early on that Kentucky wouldn’t find success through the air, either. On the Wildcats’ first drive of the game, the Tigers forced a three-and-out with three incompletions. By the end of the day, Kentucky tried both Wilson and Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood under center. They finished a combined 4-of-13 for 45 yards and one score.
Although the Wildcats are usually impotent through the air, the stat line was a stark contrast from Missouri’s win over LSU, where it gave up over 400 yards passing and four scores. Drinkwitz credited his secondary Saturday, who he said “play on islands a lot.”
That focus on man coverage and success one-on-one seemed to contribute to Missouri’s ability to adjust from a pass-heavy opponent to a run-heavy one. Bolton said it allows extra defenders to contribute to the pass rush if they’re covering a back, end or receiver who may be staying in to block.
“We’ve kind of been hugging up a little more,” Bolton said, “and also just winning one-on-ones.”
Beyond Bledsoe, the Tigers’ other biggest consistency in its back-to-back wins was closing out on crucial downs.
The Wildcats were 2-of-9 on third downs Saturday, and other their last two games, the Tigers have held their opponents to 2-of-19 on third down attempts.
“It’s just everybody doing their job,” Bledsoe said when asked about conversion stops. “When everybody does their job, we’re the top defense in the nation.
“That’s point blank. Period.”