COLUMBIA — There are so many stark contrasts between Missouri's 45-41 win Oct. 10 against LSU and its 20-10 win Saturday against Kentucky, it's a time-saver to point to the few similarities they shared to illustrate their differences.
For one, both games were played at home for the Tigers, though they were officially the visiting team against LSU thanks to Hurricane Delta's wind and rain.
But the deciding commonality in the two wins — which catapulted Missouri from an 0-2 start to a .500 record and now third place in the Southeastern Conference's East Division — was this: A commitment to game-planning and preparation gave the players and coaches confidence they would win both games before either kicked off.
"It feels good, but the preparation made us," Missouri defensive lineman Tre Williams said Saturday after the Tigers snapped their five-game losing streak against Kentucky. "We expected to win, we didn't go in hoping to win. We came in prepared, preparation all week, we came into this game confident."
Missouri (2-2) now turns its attention to No. 10 Florida (2-1), with the two teams scheduled to play in Gainesville, Fla., at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. The Gators have had their football facility closed since the middle of last week while dealing with more than 20 positive coronavirus cases.
Florida plans to reopen the practice facility today to begin preparations for the Tigers. Missouri could move into second in the SEC East standings with a win.
"It gives credibility to what we've asked these guys to do," Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said Saturday of the two wins. "We've asked them to do things that are different, not that what they did here was right, wrong, it's just what we're doing is different."
Missouri was so wholly confident in its game plan — control the clock, run the ball at Kentucky, throw underneath the coverage when forced to throw and shut down the Wildcats' ground game to force Terry Wilson to pass — it would have been easy to think the Tigers were the ones on a five-game win streak.
"I mean, I wouldn't say it was mental," said Missouri safety Joshuah Bledsoe, who forced and recovered the game-clinching fumble. "I think, I see Kentucky as like a mosquito, a nagging mosquito. Like we should have been killed them, they just keep nagging around. But we finally got them though."
Larry Rountree carried the ball 37 times for 126 yards, and Drinkwitz's aggressive play-calling on third and fourth downs prolonged drives to the point Kentucky's defense was exhausted and its offense, which only ran 36 plays, never got into a rhythm.
"They beat the tar out of us," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "They beat us at our own game, and they did it decisively."
The Tigers knew the Wildcats were going to drop into coverage like they had against Mississippi State and Tennessee, so Connor Bazelak and the receiving corps just ran sits, curls and flats underneath, with Damon Hazelton, Jalen Knox and Niko Hea starring.
Bazelak was content to hand the ball off and let Rountree, Tyler Badie and Missouri's offensive line go to work.
"Unbelievable," Bazelak said. "Larry played his butt off, he ran his butt off. Him and the offensive line are really why this offense and this team won the game, along with Badie, he ran well, cut well. The running backs played their ass off and I'm super proud of them.
"This one that we really, really wanted, and we knew we were going to have to play our butts off and we did and we won, but I'm just really excited that the seniors got to beat Kentucky. Me being from Ohio, Kentucky being my first offer, it was pretty special for us to beat them."
Missouri's defense continues to improve after two tough games to open the season and despite forcing just two turnovers all season. The Tigers' opponents are now 2-for-19 on third downs in the last two games, and the run defense held LSU and Kentucky to a combined 3.4 yards per carry and one score on 43 attempts.
After years of Kentucky using its run game and offensive line to put games away against Missouri, the Tigers found ways to win up front. The defense played well, but the Wildcats' offensive play-calling was puzzling, too: running backs Chris Rodriguez and Asim Rose Jr. averaged 6.5 yards per carry but were only given 14 combined carries.
On the other side, Rountree and Badie kept plugging away and Bazelak and the rest of the offense found ways to keep moving the chains. Knox, who had five catches for 60 yards all in the second half, saw three of those receptions convert first downs: a 13-yard catch on third-and-7, a 10-yard reception on third-and-10 and a four-yard catch on fourth-and-4.
The Tigers had four drives of 12 or more plays and all told ran 61 plays on those drives, nearly double the Wildcats' offensive snaps.
"Oh yeah, for sure," Knox said when asked if he could see Kentucky's defense getting tired. "When we went on that long drive, I think it took 10 minutes off the clock, we had already, on the sideline, been talking about it. We could just see it in their eyes and see it in their demeanor: They were tired. They just couldn't keep up with us, couldn't play with us. So we just made it a message, keep going, don't stop. Keep shoving it down you know what I'm saying."
Missouri's offense did look stronger as the game wore on and Kentucky's defense wore down. In the middle of the fourth quarter, Rountree ran over defensive back Kelvin Joseph at the end of a run deep in Kentucky territory and hyped up the Missouri bench. Seven plays later, the Tigers couldn't punch in a touchdown from the 1-yard line, but a 15-play drive resulted in a field goal made it 20-10 with 3:07 to play.
"It shows that we can sustain long drives without getting tired," Rountree said. "Obviously on the longer drives they were getting tired, they couldn't function so they had to have guys fall down and act like they were hurt when they really weren't hurt. I would just say it just shows that we're more in shape than them and we outplayed them and they were tired, and it basically shows who was better prepared on the field."
Missouri players pointed to a sideline energy this week that hasn't been there in the past, an excitement and level of attention from everyone up and down the roster and depth chart keeping spirits high and the team moving forward.
"That's what makes these wins so special, is when everyone's so enthused," Rountree said.