Running on empty

Despite its comfortable 30-10 win against Baylor on Saturday, Missouri struggled to establish its running game and averaged just 3.4 yards on 52 attempts. That inefficiency was overcome by a strong passing game, including three touchdown tosses by junior QB Brad Smith. Still, so few yards per attempt against the worst rush defense in the Big 12 raised some eyebrows.

Averaging 176 rushing yards per game puts a team in the middle of the Big 12 pack, just behind Kansas State‘s 188 yards per game.

Conversely, allowing 176 rushing yards per game places a team near the bottom of the conference, ranking just ahead of Baylor, who gives up 210 yards per game.

In the grand scheme on things, Missouri's 176-yard effort against Baylor on Saturday was not that disappointing of an effort, especially since it was only 20 fewer yards than it has averaged this season. Games are not won by having the most yards at the end of the game, so the 30-10 outcome was all that mattered.

Still, when you are as committed to the running game as the Tigers are, carrying the ball 52 times and finishing with that total is distressing. That's an average of 3.4 yards per carry, well below what one would expect from a team that boasts experienced and athletic talent like TB Damien Nash and QB Brad Smith.

So what happened, Mr. Nash?

"The offensive line put up a fight, that's all I can say," Nash said. "They had eight, nine guys in the box, more than we can actually block. They were sending everybody."

Bringing so many players so close to the line of scrimmage is a nightmare for offensive linemen, as they must react immediately to the multitude of players coming their way. It becomes an issue of getting a piece of every defender running toward you, instead of guiding them aside to open holes for the ball carrier.

Safe to say, that makes life difficult for the featured back. Nash still had a decent outing against the Bears, finishing with 87 yards on 27 carries, which is not a bad result when you have nowhere to go all game long.

"We definitely have to get things going on the O-line," junior guard Tony Palmer said. "We just gotta get more movement up front. If we control the line of scrimmage, the holes will open up more."

It's not so easy to do that when the defense knows you are committed to the running game. Since Missouri controlled the ball for over 36 minutes against the Bears, the Tigers had plenty of time to scrape out the tough yards and first downs. Nash said he did the best he could, given the circumstances.

"We just had to make some tough yards," he said. "I just went out there and tried to run as hard as I could, knowing it would be blitzes and different kinds of schemes and movement at the defensive line. I just have to go out there and be ready to take some punishment, and give some."

Being able to stop, or at least slow down, so many defenders at the line of scrimmage simply comes down to expecting such an aggressive rush.

"Preparation is the key," Palmer said. "If you're prepared and you know your assignments, things like that shouldn't be abnormal. We have to be over-prepared this week, knowing that teams will start doing that more. We definitely have to take the right steps and lock up on the right man so the right read is made and, hopefully, big plays, because we have great backs to do it."

The Missouri offense was rather vanilla against Baylor, as coach Gary Pinkel might have been saving some of his flashier plays for No. 9 Texas this Saturday. Still, Missouri did not run many screens or much play action, calls usually employed to burn a defense selling out to the run.

Palmer declined to describe what the Tigers call in these situations, preferring to leave that to his coaches. But generally…

"I just think, if you have that many people in the box, you pass more," he said. "And we did pass more. We had a great playmaker in Thomson Omboga, making big catches for us a bunch of times. Sean Coffey and Martin Rucker, they came up big time for us."

It might be more difficult for the Tigers' receivers to shine this week, as the Longhorns boasts the conference's best pass defense, allowing just 148 yards per game. Conversely, the Texas rush defense is unusually weak, ranking 10th in the conference by allowing 151.2 yards per game. Oklahoma racked up 301 yards on the ground in its 12-0 win against Texas on Saturday, including 225 from freshman sensation Adrian Peterson.

Missouri doesn't have the experience or talent of the Oklahoma offense, but the Tigers need look no further than the Sooners' effort to get their own running game back on track.

"It's gonna be a fight out there," Nash said. "Fighting for yards passing or rushing, it's going to be a fight, no matter what."

"We're gonna be tested all around this game," Palmer said. "We have to get ready. It's gonna be a battle in the trenches."


Black & Gold Illustrated Top Stories