Before the season began, Missouri's most difficult challenge appeared to be Texas. Many marked that game down as a loss for the growing Tigers, and that's exactly what happened. The Tigers were right there at the end of the game; a score and a two-point conversion on Missouri's final drive might have forced overtime in Austin. The Tigers performed well but were limited by two first-half interceptions by junior QB Brad Smith.
Even with the close outcome, several of the Tigers' struggles were on display that afternoon…
In recent years, special teams has become the never-ending struggle for the Tigers. Those fears subsided briefly after junior K Joe Tantarelli grabbed the starting job out of training camp and opened the season strong. They rushed back to the surface when Tantarelli became incredibly inconsistent early in conference play. He and has now made 8-of-12 field goals on the season.
Tantarelli has not completely regained the faith of his coaching staff, but he has not had many opportunities to prove his worth in recent weeks. Tantarelli is just 3-of-7 on kicks of 30 yards and longer, a statistic that must improve if the Tigers are to win close games in coming weeks. Then again, if the Tiger offense were more consistent in the red zone, Tantarelli's struggles would not be much of an issue.
Senior P Brock Harvey broke his collarbone in the conference-opener against Colorado, one of the few sore spots of that win. Harvey's replacement, sophomore Matt Hoenes, struggled at first, but has begun to turn things around, averaging 37 yards per punt. That ranks near the bottom of the conference, but Hoenes must be given some slack; he is the backup and a walk-on, no less.
The ability to seal the deal separates mediocre teams from good ones and good ones from great clubs. A so-called "killer instinct" allows players to pounce on their opponents when they're down, taking advantage of their weaknesses and putting games away as early as possible. This is particularly difficult in the Big 12, but Missouri has not shown that ability at all this season.
Even in the Tigers' two conference wins, their opponent was in the contest for much of the game. Missouri needed a clutch interception from senior CB Shirdonya Mitchell to seal the Colorado win and, a week later, struggled to put away a bad Baylor squad. The Tigers led just 13-3 at halftime before turning it on (kind of) in the second half, putting up 17 points to the Bears' seven. The Missouri offense was less than dominant, racking up just 327 yards in the game.
It goes without saying that the Tigers lacked this quality against Oklahoma State, when they allowed a late second-quarter score by the Cowboys spark a come-from-behind victory. Diplomatically, sophomore DE Xzavie Jackson said the defense let the team down, but the offense was the most lacking. The Tigers gained next to nothing in the second half and didn't get a whiff of a scoring opportunity. Much of the blame for that outcome was connected to…
The offensive play calling has varied between questionable and baffling at times this season. Although coach Gary Pinkel said a third-and-fourth call to run senior TB Beau Viehmann in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma State was signaled in wrong, Viehmann should never have been on the field in the first place. Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen took a lot of the blame for the offense's struggles, but this team has been there before.
The Tigers have one of the country's best athletes under center, but junior Brad Smith has not been allowed to show off his talents this season, resulting in a hot-and-cold offense that can do little if the running game is stifled. Smith has struggled to find running lanes this season, an issue that Pinkel said was connected to opposing defense's bringing more players closer to the line of scrimmage.
Football 101 tells you that, when defenses bring safeties "into the box," you throw downfield from time to time to keep them honest. The Tigers did this a few times in the first half against the Cowboys, but were unsuccessful. The coaching staff seemed to grow frustrated with Smith's ineffectiveness downfield and gave up on the deep pass.
That must change; Smith may not be the best passer in the conference, but he is good enough and has talented receivers to run down wayward passes. Junior WR Sean Coffey has emerged as the Tigers' main deep threat, but it couldn't hurt to send other players downfield from time to time.
Personnel issues tend to surface for every team each year, but the Tigers have had some particularly untimely ones this season. Sophomore LB David Richard was suspended one game after he was arrested for suspicion of marijuana possession, a development that forced the Tigers to shake up the tenuous linebacker positions. Richard has not had much of an impact yet and his absence did not hurt the Tigers much.
More damaging will be the loss of junior TB Damien Nash, who was suspended indefinitely by Pinkel on Monday afternoon. Nash gave a Kansas City Star columnist a few pithy quotes about the offense's struggles after the Oklahoma State loss, leading to Nash's suspension. Nash is outspoken and reporters flock to him because of that; he was simply caught saying something he knew he should not have said.
Nash's suspension forced the coaching staff's hand on freshman Tony Temple, who will shed his redshirt and make his collegiate debut at Nebraska on Saturday. Temple has the skills and athleticism to contribute to a certain degree as a freshman -- how much he can contribute will be determined soon enough -- but asking him to play with just four regular-season games left is unfair. Temple had the option of keeping his redshirt, of course, but it would be expecting too much of him to keep it. Like fellow freshman WR William Franklin, Temple will lose his redshirt in favor of extremely limited playing time.