What went wrong: nonconference play

On Tuesday, InsideMizzou presented its thoughts on the successful aspects of Missouri's nonconference season. Today, check inside for a look at the Tigers' struggles, including inconsistency from the receiver corps and turnover concerns.

A 2-1 record before conference play was not what anybody connected to the Missouri football program expected. The Tigers set up one of the nation's easiest nonconference schedules, with two creampuffs at home and a non-BCS team on the road.

Troy's Trojans shattered Missouri's plans with a 24-14 upset win on Sept. 9, knocking the Tigers out of the rankings in a nationally televised shocker. Missouri rebounded with a trouncing of Ball State nine days later, but questions remain about the quality of the squad.

Here are a few issues that need corrected as the Tigers enter Big 12 play.

The receiver corps has had one consistent contributor: junior Sean Coffey. After him, nobody has been able to turn in more than one strong effort.

Ironically, Coffey was the biggest question mark at the position entering the season, as he has struggled behind more experienced players during his Missouri career. Senior Thomson Omboga and sophomore Brad Ekwerekwu were expected to be the go-to guys, particularly Ekwerekwu, who showed a fantastic quickness after his redshirt was pulled last season. Those two have combined for just 14 catches and 117 yards and no touchdowns. Omboga has contributed as a punt returner, but Ek has done little to prove he deserves to keep a starting job.

Freshman William Franklin is the only other receiver to make a name for himself, catching three passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. Franklin showed off great patience and athleticism against Ball State, recording two catches of more than 30 yards, including his first touchdown. He will likely see more playing time as the season progresses, but the Tigers need their experienced receivers to improve, too.

***

Many expected growing pains from the linebackers this season, as the three starters consisted of a fifth-year senior, a transplant from rover and a tailback-turned-backer. Those worries proved true, as sophomores ex-rover Dedrick Harrington and ex-tailback David Richard have struggled in their new positions. Richard's suspension for suspected marijuana possession earlier this month only muddled the situation further.

With Richard gone, the coaching staff restructured the unit, moving sophomore Marcus Bacon into Richard's spot. Senior Henry Sweat, who had taken a lot of Harrington's playing time at middle linebacker, moved over and will back up Bacon, but could still see extended time at both, or all three, positions. Those changes alone might not be enough to boost the play of a struggling unit.

Harrington had a strong game after Sweat started in his place against Ball State, recording seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Missouri needs more outings like that to match what senior James Kinney, who is second on the team with 26 tackles, has done on the outside.

Richard started but played sparingly against Ball State, finishing the game without a tackle. He has recorded just six stops through three games and might have played himself out of the starting lineup, even without the arrest.

***

Questioning the game plan without complete knowledge of the situation is troublesome, but there were clearly issues against Troy. Missouri surged to a 14-0 lead, moving the ball downfield with ease during its first two drives.

Then, something went wrong. The Missouri offense stalled and the Trojans eventually felt a burst of momentum, used a few trick plays to get on the board and cruised to the biggest victory in school history. Despite a clear talent disparity, Missouri could not adjust to Troy's improved play and was stifled the rest of the game.

It is difficult to lay all of the blame on the coaching staff, as the Tigers committed three turnovers that killed drives and limited positive momentum swings. Junior QB Brad Smith often had little time to operate, as the Troy front four put on more pressure as the game wore on. The loss exposed the Tigers as tame when Smith cannot move around with ease--a rare occurrence, but one that does happen, as seen in last year's debacle at Kansas.

Still, the Missouri coaching staff was unable to lead the team past a Troy club that clearly was not the more-talented group. The loss took a lot of wind out of the Tigers' sails; it will take more than the Ball State win to erase that memory.

***

An issue that hurt the Tigers against Troy and continues to be a concern is turnovers. Missouri gave the ball away just 13 times last season, making them one of the most ball-conscious teams in the nation.

For whatever reason, that has not carried over to this season. Missouri turned the ball over five times in its first two games, before squeezing it tighter against Ball State. The three giveaways against Troy were turning points in that loss and allowing Arkansas State to take the ball away twice is distressing.

Smith has thrown an uncharacteristic three interceptions already, after throwing just seven last season. This can be expected, since the coaching staff has expanded the passing game, meaning Smith would attempted more passes than in the past. Still, improving Smith's decision-making continues to be an ongoing process, one that will only improve as Smith gets more repetitions in game situations.

Freshman TB Marcus Woods fumbled on his first touch and has continued to show a little carelessness with the football. Coach Gary Pinkel will not tolerate that and will give Woods fewer and fewer touches if fumbles continue to be an issue.

Turnovers, along with a strong offense, have placed the Tigers last in the conference in time of possession, holding the ball for just 27:31 a game.

***

There are a few special teams issues that remain troublesome. Missouri had a punt blocked against Troy, a mistake that did not cost the Tigers any points but certainly affected field position.

Kickoff coverage has also been a concern occasionally. Sophomore K Adam Crossett has shown a good leg and has recorded a number of touchbacks, but the Tigers have allowed 349 yards on 17 returns, a 20.5 average good for eighth in the Big 12.


Black & Gold Illustrated Top Stories