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Missouri vs. Kentucky 2017 final score: Wildcats hold off Tigers, 40-34

A crazy game shows how far Missouri has come and how far Kentucky has to go.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

After Kentucky held off a late drive by Missouri—with a little help from the officials—one of the talking points became the chances of the Wildcats starting the season at 9-1.

Saturday’s 40-34 victory over the visiting Tigers at Kroger Field pushed Kentucky to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the SEC. The Wildcats are a narrow loss against Florida away from perfection. With four winnable games following their upcoming open week, pundits are pointing to a possible battle in Athens, Georgia, for the SEC East crown on Nov. 18.

It’s time to pump the brakes on that. At least for now.

The team Kentucky just barely defeated came into Saturday as arguably the worst Power-5 team in the country—let alone in the SEC. Beating a Missouri team that got blasted by South Carolina, Purdue and Auburn by a mere six points at home does not scream SEC East champ.

Kentucky had holes on its defense that a dormant offense exposed time and again on Saturday. Entering the game, Missouri (1-4, 0-3) had scored just 27 combined points in its two conference games. Sure, the extra week the Tigers had to prepare probably helped. But this group had looked lifeless since the first quarter against the Gamecocks.

With some dynamic playmakers, the Wildcats are level with the Gators in the weak East pecking order. But Saturday’s game—coupled with Georgia’s annihilation of Vanderbilt on the road—proves the road to Atlanta still goes through Athens.

What We Learned About Kentucky

While question marks remain about the defense, there is no questioning the talent the Wildcats have on offense. Yes, the unit struggled to get going in several games this season. (Prior to Saturday, the most points Kentucky had scored in a game was 27.) But that arguably has more to do with play-calling.

Missouri’s defense isn’t the best barometer, to be sure. However, the Tigers had a full two weeks to rest, game plan and practice. They were ready, but the Wildcats still produced.

Stephen Johnson picked Missouri apart when given time by a below-average offensive line. The senior completed 22 of 36 passes for 298 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also showed his toughness, gaining 44 yards on 11 carries.

After starting the season with four lackluster games out of five, running back Benny Snell Jr. finally showed up. Snell, who did have four touchdowns entering the game, had 117 yards on 20 carries. He broke off a 71-yard touchdown run after Missouri had pulled within 13-7, and he added his second when the Tigers had clawed back within three points.

Austin MacGinnis also showed his worth on Saturday. The senior kicker booted four field goals, including a massive 53-yarder that broke a 34-34 tie with 9:40 to go.

What We Learned About Missouri

In some ways, it’s too soon to tell if this is the new Missouri or just the we-got-two-weeks-to-prepare Missouri. Next week’s road game at Georgia probably won’t provide the answer. Either of the aforementioned version would likely lose by 40-plus points to the Bulldogs, who look every bit a top-five team.

Taken with a grain of salt, the Tigers looked lightyears ahead of where they were when they entered their open week. After two weeks of licking their wounds, they finally competed for three quarters in a game that mattered. Still a vast improvement over their previous best of one, which they set against South Carolina.

Drew Lock looked like the quarterback who destroyed FCS Missouri State to open the season. The same Drew Lock who had been absent ever since. The junior piled up 355 yards through the air on a patently inefficient 22-of-42 passing. He threw three touchdown passes and rushed for another—Missouri’s first rushing score in an FBS game.

Ish Witter carried the load for Missouri. He carried the ball 17 times to just 12 for Damarea Crockett, who also lost a fumble. Witter put up 139 yards, and his constant threat up the middle kept the Kentucky defense honest.

That allowed for Emmanuel Hall, Johnathon Johnson and J’Mon Moore to each exploit the Wildcats on long touchdown passes. Hall made just four catches but racked up 129 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown pass just before halftime to pull Missouri within 20-14 at the break. Johnson (six catches, 97 yards) and Moore (seven catches, 86 yards) also scored from 75 and 50 yards, respectively.

But the team’s weaknesses elsewhere were too glaring to result in a victory. The defense continues to show an inability to tackle in the open field—highlighted on Snell’s run and Garrett Johnson’s 64-yard touchdown reception.

Kicker Tucker McCann also struggled in the game. The sophomore made two field goals, but he also missed one badly and had another blocked. Both snaps, though, were less than ideal. McCann actually missed a third field goal. But after getting a somewhat cheap running-into-the-kicker penalty, he knocked the re-try through from five yards closer.

Even with the disappointing loss, the Tigers finally looked like the team fans envisioned in the offseason: bad defense, poor placekicking and enough offense to largely made up for the other two units. We haven’t seen that since Week 1; we’ll see if it sticks.