Tigers reach the quarter pole

After beating Ball State, the Tigers wrapped up nonconference play 2-1. The one loss was disappointing, but Missouri is close to reaching the point fans and prognosticators expected them to be at before the season began. Check inside for a look at some of the Tigers' top performers and how they have fared against InsideMizzou's expectations.

Sept. 4: Arkansas State at Missouri

Preliminary prediction: Tigers 48, Indians 10
Final prediction: Tigers 41, Indians 10
Actual result: Tigers 52, Indians 20

The Tigers exceeded my expectations offensively, rolling out to a big lead before watching it shrink before halftime. They rolled to a big win, but the game raised concerns about Missouri's new defensive look.

The Indians threw for 350 yards and converted several third-and-long situations, frustrating the Tigers and confusing their fans. Perhaps it was the kind of effort needed to wake up the defense, as Missouri has slowed down opposing offenses significantly over the past two games.

Sept. 9: Missouri at Troy

Preliminary prediction: Tigers 31, Trojans 18
Final prediction: Tigers 31, Trojans 24
Actual result: Trojans 24, Tigers 14

Enough has been written about this game to fill a book, but a few more thoughts couldn't hurt. The offense stumbled after two dominating early drives, raising significant concerns about the direction the unit was heading. Some of those questions were answered last week, but the jury is still out on how the Tigers fare against a high-quality defense.

As a whole, the Missouri defense was strong. Several big plays, including an extraordinarily fluky fumble return touchdown by a Troy offensive lineman, sank the unit, but it showed an ability to clamp down when it needed to. That consistency carried over to the next week…

Sept. 18: Ball State at Missouri

Preliminary prediction: Tigers 35, Cardinals 7
Final prediction: Tigers 44, Cardinals 17
Actual result: Tigers 48, Cardinals 0

As you can tell, this reporter was down on the Tigers after the loss at Troy. The Tigers redeemed the faith of the believers, romping over a Cardinal team that struggled to do anything offensively.

After a slow first quarter, the Tigers dominated the second, rolling up 28 points, including two touchdowns in 17 seconds late in the quarter. The second-team offense controlled play in the fourth, scoring a quick touchdown on a long reception by freshman receiver William Franklin before coach Gary Pinkel called off the dogs and would not let the Tigers score half a hundred.

The defense, which sported a slightly different look against the Cardinals, was dominant. Junior cornerback Marcus King got his first start, while senior Henry Sweat saw a lot of time at the middle linebacker position. Both turned in strong efforts, as did sophomore Dedrick Harrington, whom Sweat replaced. The Missouri defense established itself as a force, but, like the offense, has yet to face a top-notch offense.

Surprising players

Freshman TE Martin Rucker: Rucker was the surprise leader on the post-training camp depth chart and immediately proved how he managed it, catching a touchdown pass in the first quarter against Arkansas State. Rucker is a physical specimen, a huge target with great hands that Smith has found repeatedly. His run blocking has also been strong, allowing the coaching staff to keep him on the field for the majority of the snaps. Senior Victor Sesay also has performed well, refusing to let frustration over losing his job affect his play.

Freshman C Adam Spieker: Spieker and fellow redshirt freshman T Tyler Luellen were gigantic question marks coming into the season. Luellen's performance has been acceptable, but not strong enough to stop Tony Clinker from grabbing the starting job against Ball State. Spieker, meanwhile, has been consistent and has only had a few wayward snaps. He and junior QB Brad Smith have been on the same page; the Tiger rushing game, which has garnered 578 yards already, has prospered because of it.

Junior K Joe Tantarelli: Tantarelli has been perfect this season, making all 18 kicks he has attempted. Tantarelli converted all 15 of his extra points and hit a season-long 38-yard field goal against Ball State. It's hard to ask for much more than he has given the Tigers so far, especially after he entered training camp as one of four players battling for the job.

Disappointing players

Sophomore WR Brad Ekwerekwu: Ek has been a non-factor all season long. After bursting on to the scene after the coaching staff pulled his redshirt midway through last season, Ekwerekwu has struggled, unable to establish himself as a high-end receiver. Freshman William Franklin has stepped up in Ek's place and is heading toward a starting spot soon. Senior Thomson Omboga has also struggled, but has fared well returning punts.

Sophomore LB Dedrick Harrington: After a strong performance against Ball State, it may be unfair to put Harrington here, but he has struggled overall. Harrington is still adjusting to his new position, after moving to the mike position after playing rover in the Tigers' 4-2-5 defense last year. Harrington's struggles have allowed senior Henry Sweat to get a lot of playing time, making a more than adequate duo. A fired-up Harrington could add even more teeth to a strong Tiger defense.

Sophomore DE Brian Smith: Smith has contributed off the bench after leading the Tigers with eight sacks in 2003. Still a little undersized to play every down, Smith has not shown the burst off the edge that made him such a threat last season. Senior Zach Ville and sophomore Xzavie Jackson have fared very well in his place, but Smith needs to step up if the Tigers' front four wants to match up well against Big 12 Conference offensive lines.

Players to watch

Freshman WR William Franklin: Franklin had two long catches against Ball State, including his first touchdown in the fourth quarter. Pinkel has raved about Franklin's athleticism since training camp opened, and we're starting to see flashes of that now. If Ekwerekwu and Omboga continue to struggle, Franklin could slide into the starting line-up soon. At the least, he will be a dangerous deep threat in four-wide sets.

Junior DT C.J. Mosley: Mosley and senior Atiyyah Ellison have dominated the middle this season. Mosley leads the team in sacks, including two against the Trojans, and is getting better and better every day, saying recently that listening to the coaching staff more has allowed him to develop quickly. The defensive line might be Missouri's most athletic unit; it must perform well if the Tigers want to win all of the conference games their fans are expecting.

Freshman TB Marcus Woods: Woods has been somewhat of a disappointment but had a strong effort against the Cardinals, coming a last-gasp tackle away from his first collegiate touchdown. While junior Damien Nash has solidified himself as the starter, Woods is still a threat, especially in third down situations. He is also strong as a receiver out of the backfield, and while Pinkel might not employ the two-back set he hinted at in the spring, both backs will get chances to perform. If Woods can step up his play (and hold onto the ball), the Missouri offense will be even more dangerous.

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