Missouri sits at 7-2, and 4-1 in conference, entering their second bye week of the 2014 season. The coaches have hit the recruiting trail, and the players are getting healed up and ready for the rest of the season. There are 3 regular-season games, and at least 1 post-season game, remaining. And, with the Tigers currently sitting on a half-game lead over Georgia atop the East Division standings, there’s the potential of more than 1 post-season game. That part is simple. If Missouri wins their 3 remaining regular-season games, they’ll maintain their lead over Georgia, and the Tigers will play in Atlanta on December 6th for the SEC Championship. Georgia sits at 4-2 in the conference, and the Bulldogs hold the tie-breaker over Missouri. Unless Georgia stumbles at home in one of their final 2 conference games (Kentucky, Auburn), the Tigers have no room for error in their quest to play in their second straight SEC Championship.
So, 9 games in to what has been an up and down season that is now re-ascending, ShowMeMizzou.com pauses briefly to consider some of what we’ve seen thus far.
Collectively, Missouri has been brilliant on special teams, or at least just short of brilliant. Marcus Murphy has returned 2 kickoffs and a punt for touchdowns, and he has moved past Jeremy Maclin to become Missouri’s career leader in combined kick return yardage. He's leading the SEC in kick returns. Christian Brinser has been brilliant. And, Andrew Baggett has been excellent on kick-offs. The only part of Missouri’s special teams that hasn’t been absolutely brilliant is in the field goal department, where Baggett’s had some trouble from the right hash, and is just 9-for-13 on field goal attempts.
Missouri began the season with solid wins over their first three opponents, including a 49-24 road win at Toledo, and a 38-10 domination of Central Florida at the ZOU. Maty Mauk and the Missouri offense were flying high, and the Tigers were beginning to receive some national recognition.
Mauk and the Tigers must have been reading about how good they were, because the following week, Missouri overlooked Indiana and got ambushed by the Hoosiers 31-27 in the ZOU. The entire Missouri team appeared to come out flat against Indiana, and the Hoosiers came in fired up, and played what is probably their best game of the Kevin Wilson era. Defensively, Missouri continued to surrender costly big plays on the ground, and gave up the lead at the end as Indiana mounted a come-from-behind two-minute touchdown drive. Missouri didn’t bring their A game, and Indiana did. Missouri’s offensive problems were compounded, even primarily caused, by numerous debilitating errant snaps from center Evan Boehm that crippled the Missouri offense. When combined with Indiana’s blitzes, and Missouri’s poor offensive line play, the errant snaps seemed to unsettle Mauk, and he’s struggled to regain his mojo ever since.
Missouri came out the following week and quickly took the lead at South Carolina. Then, the Missouri offense went dormant for more than three quarters. Fortunately for the Tigers, their defense kept them in the game, kept them in the game, kept them in the game. Finally, midway through the 4th quarter, after the Tigers had fallen behind 20-7, Mauk and the offense came alive for half a quarter, and grabbed a 21-20 lead. This time, the Missouri defense closed it out.
Missouri went to 4-2 on the season and 1-1 in SEC play, as the Tigers lost their conference home opener to Georgia. Mauk committed 5 turnovers, although to be fair, only 2 of them were really on him. But the result was that Missouri sustained very little offense, and Georgia’s average starting field position was the Missouri 41-yard line. Aided by a 5-0 turnover margin, Georgia had blanked Missouri 34-0 in the ZOU, but it wasn’t as dominant of a performance between the lines as it appeared to be on the scoreboard. The positive takeaway from this disappointing, embarrassing loss was that the Missouri defense had played better. The Tigers didn’t give up any 20+ yard plays on the ground to Georgia, and they actually held the Bulldogs to well below their season averages in yards/play, yards/carry, and points/game.
The following week, Missouri went to Florida. Murphy scored a pair of special teams TDs, the defense created 6 takeaways, and scored twice, and the Tigers led 42-0 late in the 3rd quarter when Coach Pinkel pulled back on the reins. Mauk and company hadn’t done much, but they hadn’t had to, and they hadn’t had much opportunity to, as the Tigers scored 4 TDs with the offense on the sideline. But Mauk and the Missouri offense did cash in on a couple of short fields before Coach Pinkel went “ultra, ultra conservative”.
A more conservative offensive approach and a rapidly improving defense carried the Tigers to home wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Following the Wildcats’ 20-10 loss at Missouri, Kentucky QB Patrick Towles, who had thrown for a career-high 390 yards, and had accounted for 4 TDs, in a career-best performance the week before against #1-ranked Mississippi State, told reporters that the Missouri defense was the best he’d seen this season. Moments earlier, Shane Ray had sacked Towles to end the contest and to set a new single-season sack record (12) at Mizzou.
Towles’ assessment of the Missouri defense is objectively valid. Heading into the bye week, the Missouri defense sits atop the SEC in three essential statistical categories. In conference play, Missouri ranks first in the SEC in these three defensive categories; yards/carry (2.90), yards/pass attempt (5.39), and yards/offensive play (3.99).
What’s most exciting about the Missouri defense is that they’re getting better. Since mid-season, the guys that were playing well are playing better, and most of the young guys have really elevated their play, as well. Since Kenya Dennis has taken over the starting corner position, he’s just continued to improve, as have many of the defensive players who are seeing extensive playing time for the first time in their careers.
The defensive improvement has come at a time when it was especially needed, because Mauk and the offense have struggled.
It hasn’t just been Mauk, but he has gone through a rough stretch. Coach Pinkel referred to it as the first real adversity of Mauk’s football life. And, he said that Mauk will be better for having gone through it.
Specifically, Mauk just has to get better at a lot of little things, and maybe some bigger things. He’s elevated his arm slot from where it was when he first arrived at Missouri, but it’s still too low, and that shows up when he has to bend the ball over defenders and drop it in on screen passes, and other short to intermediate throws. It’s not a problem for him on his deep throws. That’s what he does best. His accuracy on the deep ball is uncanny. But he simply has to improve his overall completion percentage.
Playing quarterback involves reading the defense, and reacting to what the defense is giving your team. As much as anything, that’s the responsibility of the QB. Mauk’s learning to take what they’re giving him, but he’s still missing a lot of his reads, in the run game as well as in the passing game. He's working on it.
Lately, Mauk has taken off and run up the field when he doesn’t quickly find an open receiver, rather than attempting to remain behind the line of scrimmage and trying to extend the play with an on-the-run throw. That’s been working a lot better, and it has given opposing defenses fits. Another thing that has helped of late is that Missouri appears to be more committed to the run. Of course, opponents are also more committed to stopping Missouri’s running game. But that has made it a little easier for Mauk and the Missouri offense in their passing game.
Since the debacle against Indiana, when Anthony Gatti went down and was lost for the season, Missouri has patched together an improving performance out of their offensive line. There's no question they’ve gotten better, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
Of late, the Tigers are beginning to get more out of some of the true freshmen who have played this season, particularly WR Nate Brown and RB Ish Witter. And, red-shirt freshman TE Jason Reese has been playing a lot more, as well. On the other side of the ball, true freshman safety Thomas Wilson has been seeing more action.
Coach Pinkel always says, “Those who win in November will be remembered.”
Following the win over Kentucky, Coach Pinkel talked about his team getting back to work, and continuing to get better. That sounds like a formula for continuing to win this November, and being remembered as back-to-back East Division champions. It would also provide a second straight opportunity to win that SEC Championship. And I always say of the conference championship game, you can’t win it if you’re not playing in it.W