In the wake of Missouri's nerve-racking win over Bowling Green at Faurot Field on Saturday evening, there's plenty to discuss—some good and, uh, some not so much. Call it one of those "learning experience" type of games.
Considering the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the Tigers' performance at their 2009 home debut, I'll highlight those things that factored prominently in the come-from-behind win. Unfortunately, though, I'm forced to break down how each of those very things contributed to Missouri's lackluster play during the game's first two and a half quarters.
Here we go:
Growing Pains Under Center
What a difference a week makes, huh? After looking immortal in the season opener, Blaine Gabbert saved his deer-in-headlights look for an encore to his sterling theatrics against Illinois.
Granted, porous offensive line play is to blame for a number of Gabbert's struggles, but the sophomore played with an uncertainty and tentativeness more consistent with his age, leading to several misguided throws and a potentially devastating turnover.
The poise and calm with which Gabbert operated in the pocket in his debut were suddenly gone. Even when pressure was feeble, Gabbert's set of happy feet carried him outside of the tackle box and into the path of Bowling Green defenders.
On one such play late in the first quarter, Gabbert appeared to have room to step up and make a throw downfield. However, with Bowling Green's rush collapsing the left side of the MU line, Gabbert quickly scrambled to his left and was soon dragged down from behind by Falcon linebacker Cody Basler.
Instead of throwing the ball into the third row and avoiding the costly sack, Gabbert committed his first turnover of the young season, fumbling deep in MU territory and giving Bowling Green a gift field goal to make it 10-0.
At halftime, Gabbert had thrown for a measly 44 yards and the Tigers had failed to convert a single third down. Luckily for Missouri, a player of Gabbert's caliber is too talented to play so poorly for an entire 60 minutes.
Assisted by a physical running game in the second half, Gabbert settled down and appeared less tentative and cautious than in the first, navigating the Tigers on scoring drives of 87, 72, and 61 yards in the game's final 25 minutes to seal the victory.
Gabbert (right) and his teammates made plays when they had to
Though it may have come as bit of a shock considering the opponent, a game like this is but a part of Gabbert's maturation process as the leader of this team. And especially considering the awesomeness of his numbers against the Illini, it was only natural to suspect that Gabbert would come crashing back down to Earth at some point. We just didn't know when.
Afterward, Gabbert acknowledged his struggles and unabashedly assumed responsibility for the offense's awful first half. And it's that sort of mentality that may make him a truly great quarterback.
The Boys Upfront
There's no way to sugarcoat this: Missouri's offensive line played like garbage for the first 30 minutes Saturday. Whether the unit underestimated the opponent or simply was caught reveling in its season-opening mediocrity, the five guys in the trenches were thoroughly whipped by a much, much smaller (an average of three inches and 45 pounds smaller, to be exact) Bowling Green defensive front.
Faced at times with what amounted to a three-man front, the five-man wall of right tackle Dan Hoch, right guard Kurtis Gregory, center Tim Barnes, left guard Austin Wuebbels, and left tackle Elvis Fisher nearly collapsed, allowing Bowling Green defensive linemen to often put significant pressure on quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
And then there were the mental gaffes. Wuebbels was flagged for two penalties totaling 25 yards, including a 15-yard personal foul on the Tigers' third play from scrimmage. Barnes airmailed a snap. Fisher's poor pass protection was partially responsible for Gabbert's aforementioned fumble. And Gregory's holding infraction halted a promising drive early in the third quarter.
What was definitely considered to be one of the team's greatest assets after the season opener, if not at the conclusion of preseason camp, appeared out-of-whack and utterly confused.
The line's lack of physicality aside, the overall lapse in focus and concentration was perhaps more disconcerting, despite the fact it may have lasted only two quarters. The offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half against Bowling Green, possibly even more so than it had at any point during the Illinois game.
With the Tigers' finally taking advantage of their size advantage upfront, running back Derrick Washington ran wild en route to 120 yards on a career-high 23 carries. Meanwhile, true freshman Kendial Lawrence ran for 49 yards on seven carries.
Thanks to offensive coordinator David Yost's dedication to the ground game, Bowling Green was forced to creep its defensive backs up closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, opening up passing lanes for Gabbert and his receivers— both of whom were the beneficiaries of the line's stingier pass-blocking.
Barnes—the man responsible for making pre-snap calls and adjustments—vehemently regretted the paltry first-half performance of he and his fellow linemen, but as one of the line's two elder members, he vowed the unit would return back to form as the Tigers inch closer to conference play, when anything less than four solid quarters on either side of the ball can be a recipe for disaster.
“We were all so frustrated from the first half,” the junior center said. "Whenever your offensive line accounts for holding, a bad snap and a personal foul, especially in the first critical drives, that’s not very good. That’s not going to happen again. I’ll make sure of that.”
Vanilla Once Again the Defensive Flavor of the Day
For the second consecutive game, the Missouri defense was unspectacular yet solid, and for the second straight week, that was enough to get the job done.
Call it jitters. Call it nerves. Maybe it was the hype and anticipation surrounding the home opener. Maybe it was the crowd of nearly 70,000 at Memorial Stadium. Regardless of what it may have been, the Tiger defense looked a little antsy at times against Bowling Green.
The fact the defense allowed Bowling Green to march 73 yards in nine plays and less than three minutes to open up the second half with a touchdown was troubling. But it could have been much worse. Much worse.
On two occasions, the defense held the opposition to a field goal after a turnover gave Bowling Green the ball inside the Missouri 20-yard line. Then, following the Falcons' score to take a 20-6 lead early in the third, defensive coordinator Dave Steckel and his unit stifled Bowling Green on five straight possessions, including a turnover on downs that sealed the win.
Defensive end Aldon Smith made his presence known once again
As was the case against Illinois, the Tigers utilized a stripped-down scheme that seldom featured more than four pass-rushers and was predicated upon each player knowing his responsibilities.
For the second week in a row, the MU defense didn't allow a 100-yard rusher (Geter finished with 99 yards), nor did it surrender more than 210 yards by a notable quarterback.
In Week One it was Juice Williams; on Saturday it was Sheehan, who threw for nearly 6,000 yards and 43 touchdowns from 2007-08 as one of the MAC's best.
One of the more befuddling storylines of Missouri's season thus far has been the non-existent pass rush. Following the Arch Rivalry game—in which the Tigers racked up each of their three sacks during mop-up time late—I wrote that the lack of pressure upfront from the defensive line may have been a byproduct of Steckel's scheme.
Against Bowling Green, however, that may not have been the case. Missouri tallied two sacks against the Falcons, one of which came from defensive end Aldon Smith during a key defensive stand late in the fourth quarter. By the way, Smith, a redshirt freshman, now leads the team with two sacks this season.
But the point is, shouldn't have Missouri's defensive line, particularly the ends, generated a bit more pressure against what was presumably a lesser skilled offensive line of Bowling Green? Or is Steckel enamored with keeping his ends from getting too far upfield, which could arguably open up lanes for even a slow-footed quarterback like Sheehan? Whatever the case, I could be nitpicking.
It's hard to knock a defense that essentially won the ballgame by putting the clamps down when it really mattered. After allowing 162 yards in the first half, the Missouri defense tightened while the offense began to get on track. Bowling Green gained 158 yards in the second half, but almost half of that came on its scoring drive to begin the third quarter.
A few other notes before I get outta here
During his weekly Monday morning teleconference with Big 12 media, which you can listen to here, head coach Gary Pinkel covered many topics, not the least of which was the latest injury report.
The latest injuries are as follows:
- Backup running back De'Vion Moore (high ankle sprain) is listed as questionable for Saturday's game against Furman at Faurot Field. Moore, who was replaced by Lawrence against Bowling Green, will wear a red pullover jersey all week in practice.
- Reserve linebacker and key special teams player Jeff Gettys will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. He is expected to undergo surgery once the swelling in his knee has subsided.
- Senior strong safety Hardy Ricks (ankle) saw limited action against Bowling Green, but Pinkel said he expects Ricks to be back at 100 percent by the weekend.
- Reserve safety Jarrell Harrison (dislocated elbow) has been cleared to play, but it is uncertain whether he will see action against Furman this Saturday. Harrison has been sidelined since suffering the injury during preseason camp's final scrimmage back in late August.
If you're one of the many MU fans who have been howling over the shaky win over Bowling Green, as well as the Tigers' subsequent drop in the AP poll, then consider this: the Falcons have a chance at a number of quality wins on their schedule that could greatly enhance Missouri's body of work come season's end.
After a road date with Marshall this Saturday, Bowling Green will take on Boise State, currently ranked No. 10, at home. Then, after a few non-threatening conference games, the Falcons will collide with Central Michigan, a team currently receiving votes in each of the two major polls after edging Michigan State on the road last week.
To top it off, though this may be a bit of wishful thinking, Bowling Green faces Toledo in its season finale. Remember, the Rockets already have one noteworthy win over a BCS team to their credit—albeit against a lifeless Colorado team—and have a legitimate shot to at least give Ohio State a scare this weekend in Toledo.
Photo Credit: Nick King/Columbia Daily Tribune