What to watch for: Arkansas State

Missouri opens the much-anticipated 2004 season with a visit from Arkansas State on Saturday. Check inside for a quick peek at the Indians, along with a breakdown of the matchups that will decide the season opener.

Nobody, on either side, would dare say it, of course.

Saturday's matchup should be the closest thing to a guarantee Missouri will have this season. It is an extreme understatement to say Arkansas State is inexperienced on defense, so the Missouri offense should hit on close to all cylinders against the Indians.

Of course, injuries, weather and any other combination of issues could make this a competitive game. If the Tigers do not lead by at least two touchdowns at halftime, though, something has gone wrong.

Tiger offense vs. Indian defense

Advantage: Missouri

Junior QB Brad Smith should have a field day. Fourteen of the 22 players on ASU's two-deep have never played a Division-1 game. Only three starters return from a defense that allowed over 33 points a game last season.

The argument that the defensive youth will want to make a statement in their debut could be made, but the likelihood of this ragtag unit slowing down Smith and the rest of the Missouri offense seems remote. If the game goes as planned, the first-team offense should be contained to the sidelines by the beginning of the fourth quarter.

That presents an opportunity for a handful of players on the second-team to impress the coaching staff. If given the chance, sophomore QB Brandon Coleman needs a good showing, reaffirming to himself and the team that he can lead the Tigers if the unthinkable happens. The three receivers on the second unit--sophomore Andrew Hoskins and freshman Jason Ray and William Franklin--could also get a chance to showcase their skills to their coaching staff and their fans.

As for the ASU defense, senior LB Steven Tookes is the team's top returning tackler. The Indians use a 4-2-5 base look, and the starters on the defensive line, especially at tackle, are undersized. This group should present a good first opportunity for Missouri's restructured offensive line. The passing game should flourish, as three of the five Indians in the secondary are freshmen. SS Alex Peoples is the only senior in the secondary; if Smith (and/or Coleman) keeps an eye on Peoples, the passing game should prosper.

Indian offense vs. Tiger defense

Advantage: Missouri

This is the much more interesting match-up. Both teams have question marks here, and both will be a step closer to answering them after Saturday night.

The most notable occurrence for the Indian offense this off-season was the loss of QB Elliot Jacobs, who gave up football to focus on baseball. Jacobs had started for the past two years, leaving a group of new faces in his wake.

The ASU coaching staff said earlier this week that it will likely use more than one quarterback Saturday. Junior Nick Noce gets the starting nod, but his limited experience (and struggles in those times) makes him an unknown entering the game. Junior Brian Hicks and transfer Devin Hollins could play, depending on how Noce fares.

The Indian ground game is also up in the air. Junior TB Antonio Warren beat out incumbent junior Shermar Bracey, who led ASU with 558 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season, for the starting job. Warren also saw his share of the ball last season, racking up 418 yards on 101 attempts and one touchdown. Chris Easley, who ranked second on the team with 508 rushing yards last season, will miss Saturday's game with an injury.

Without Jacobs, the Indian passing game is a gigantic question mark. ASU returns two of its top three leaders, with senior Jerome Stegall, who gained 364 yards on 27 receptions for three scores last season, as the top threat. Senior Chuck Walker also made 26 catches for 267 yards and one touchdown. Senior TE Mike Brooks is a short-yardage threat; he caught just eight passes last season, but two of them went for touchdowns.

The Indians use a pro set, employing two receivers, a tight end and fullback in their basic offensive set. This formation should test Missouri new 4-3 defense. ASU's offensive line is one of the team's stronger points, as there are four seniors starting on the unit, and all five players weigh at least 280 pounds. Still, Missouri's defensive line is more talented; if the front four can get into the ASU backfield, the pressure on the rest of the defense should relax considerably.

Missouri should have a good start toward coach Gary Pinkel's goal of 30+ turnovers forced; look for at least two Tigers to intercept a pass.

Special teams

Advantage: Push

The Indians have more experience here, but not necessarily more talent. Sophomore P Jarod Little, a starter as a true freshman last year, should see plenty of action. Junior K Eric Neilhouse may not get much of an opportunity to show off his ability.

Missouri has question marks at both specialist positions. Senior P Brock Harvey had a good fall after a difficult junior season; he likely will not see too much action Saturday, but a deep punt or two would solidify the coaching staff's faith in him. Junior K Joe Tantarelli needs a strong outing. The placekicking job is his, for now, but a poor performance opens up the debate all over again. The most important factor may be extra points; if Tantarelli makes every try he attempts, he should be in good shape.

Warren is the top kick returner for the Indians. He will be joined by junior transfer James Johnson, who will also handle the punt return duties. Senior CB Shirdonya Mitchell has the speed to be a quality returner for the Tigers; Saturday, he will get his first chance to prove he has the hands and awareness for the job.

Intangibles

Advantage: Missouri

The Tigers have the deck stacked in their favor. Although these two teams have never faced each other and neither coaching staff can be completely sure about what its opponent has in store, the Tigers clearly have superior talent and depth. Add in the atmosphere at Memorial Stadium--the MU Athletic Department expects to welcome 60,000+ fans Saturday--and the Indians may be forced to concern themselves with moral victories instead of real ones.

Then again, if the Tigers struggle early, the atmosphere could change entirely. If the Indians can score first or take the lead into the locker room, we could be in for a contest. Missouri has struggled with these cream puff nonconference match-ups before, as recently as last year, when the Tigers needed overtime to dispatch Middle Tennessee State.

This Missouri team should not have that problem, but stranger things have happened.

Final Prediction: Missouri 41, Arkansas State 10


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