On Saturday evening (6:00 P.M., FSN PPV), the Missouri Tigers (1-1) play host to the Western Illinois Leathernecks (1-1). Missouri is coming off of a 37-30 overtime loss at Arizona State, in which sophomore QB James Franklin led his team back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to give Missouri a chance to win in regulation.
The Tigers have been hit hard by the injury bug, but are starting to get some of their players back on the field. Before the season got underway, Missouri lost starting left tackle Elvis Fisher and starting kick returner, and back-up TB Marcus Murphy, to season-ending injuries. Back-up WR Gahn McGaffie was injured during camp, and is yet to suit up for the Tigers this season. Back-up TB De'Vion Moore went out against Arizona State, and is expected to miss several weeks. In addition, three starters went down in the season opener, including DE Jacquies Smith, LB Will Ebner, and TB Kendial Lawrence. Smith's return is expected soon, while the others are likely to be out a while.
On the positive side, two projected starters, center Travis Ruth and WR Jerrell Jackson, have recovered from training camp injuries, and are expected to see their first action of the season against Western Illinois.
Through two games, there are a few things that we've learned about Missouri. For certain, there's lots of room for improvement.
"We're real frustrated with the penalties," said senior DT Dominique Hamilton, addressing one area of the Tigers' shortcomings. "We've just got to clean all of that up."
Through two games, Missouri has been flagged 20 times for 195 yards. On Monday, Coach Pinkel said that he has "declared war" on penalties. This week, the staff implemented measures designed to reduce the number of penalties.
"I'm embarrassed by the number of penalties that we've had," said Coach Pinkel. "So, we've kind of declared war on that around here. And, that's probably an understatement."
Coach Pinkel lamented giving up "big plays". Against ASU, the Tigers surrendered 191 yards on just 5 plays. Those were primarily the result of missed assignments and blown coverages. There's been an emphasis in practice this week on players adhering to their assignments, rather than trying to do too much.
"We haven't given up big plays like that for a long time," said Coach Pinkel, referring to the five big plays his team surrendered against ASU.
All week, additional emphasis has been placed on making sure that Missouri's DBs turn their head to find the football in the air. Transgressors are immediately castigated.
Through two games, the Missouri's offense has been abysmal on third downs, converting a measly 21% of their third downs. Offensively, another area of concern for the Tigers is that they're scoring TDs on just 50% of their red zone scoring opportunities.
On the positive side of things, the Tigers are giving up just 2.7 yards/rushing attempt, and hold a 3-1 advantage in the turnover margin. James Franklin has shown himself to be more than capable, with a 63% completion rate, 10.4 yards/completion, 6.6 yards/pass attempt, and a 3-1 TD to interception ratio. Franklin's 302 yards of total offense/game currently ranks fifth in the Big 12.
Henry Josey has stepped into the injury void, and through two games, the sophomore TB is averaging 9.1 yards/carry, and 25.5 yards/pass reception. Another sophomore, WR Marcus Lucas, has stepped up, and is averaging 19.4 yards/reception.
Trey Barrow is averaging 49.5 yards/punt, which ranks third in the conference, and 42.7 net yards/punt, which is good for 4th in the Big 12.
Missouri's starting LBs are leading the Tigers in tackles, and Dominique Hamilton is having a very productive start to the season.
Earlier this week, Hamilton talked about turning things around.
"We just want to go out here and get this win," said Hamilton. "We're really focused, and everybody's hungry. We've got to compete, and we've got to dominate this next game. Everybody's got to go out there and do their job. Everybody's got to do it right. We're going back to fundamentals…………………………. We've got to fix the little things that need to be fixed………………….......... If everybody does their assignment right, we'll be good."
Despite the fact that the Tigers haven't played anywhere nearly as well as they can, they're 1-1, and they had plenty of opportunities to win in Tempe. As frustrating as the start to this season has been, there's also an air of determination around the team, and there's been plenty of positives upon which to build, as the team works toward realizing their potential, and achieving their goals.
The best teams, and the best seasons, are often the product of continued improvement throughout the season.
"I think we're not close to what we can be," said Coach Pinkel. "We can be a lot better than the way that we've played so far."