On Oct. 8, Missouri will welcome Nebraska to Columbia for a crucial matchup to open Big 12 play.
In the 12 days between now and then, the Tigers will have ample opportunity to prepare for the No. 25 Cornhuskers, a team that many consider to be the frontrunner for the North Division title. But as the Tigers head into their bye week following Friday night's 31-21 win over Nevada, the extra preparation may prove to be timely in more ways than one.
A perfect 4-0 following the conclusion of non-conference play, Missouri (ranked No. 21 in the Coaches' poll) is far from a perfect team. Winning will mask some of the deficiencies, but those that have popped up during each of the Tigers' four victories won't go unnoticed during the rigors of in-conference battle, nor will they be without consequence.
No one expected a repeat of last season's 69-17 undressing of the Wolfpack in Reno on Friday, but lapses on both sides of the ball made the game closer than it should have been. And the mistakes are becoming uncannily familiar to Missouri fans.
With inexperience defining a number of skill positions on offense, the philosophy of new offensive coordinator David Yost for 2009 was establishing a reliance on the running game to minimize pressure on first-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert and a set of young receivers. The premise was to put the load on the shoulders of a talented and physical offensive line and veteran running back Derrick Washington, who often got lost among Missouri's plethora of playmakers in recent seasons.
However, save for a productive second half against Bowling Green, Tiger running backs have found little room with which to operate. And the answer may lie within Missouri's spread scheme.
For years now, Missouri fans have flooded call-in shows and clamored on message boards to express displeasure with the staff's reluctance to incorporate more of a power running game. But the cries for change have been met by deaf ears, as Yost and the Tigers have been steadfast in the option-read style of running the ball, which appears to move in slow motion at times and has proven to be ineffective when closing games by chewing up the clock.
For the season, prior to Friday's game at Nevada, Missouri had rushed for 164.7 yards per game and a modest 4.2 yards a carry, both of which rank near the bottom of the Big 12. And the relative ineptitude can be shared among many players on the Missouri roster.
An underutilized Washington, who has averaged only 17 carries a game, has seldom had sufficient room to run, yet he has often been hesitant to hit the hole with authority, resulting in plays that go for little or no gain. Fueled by a career-high 23 carries against Bowling Green, Washington gained 120 yards, but he hasn't come close to eclipsing the 100-yard mark in any other game this season. Against Nevada, the junior back ran for 75 yards, his second-highest total, but 42 of those yards came on a single run early in the fourth quarter.
But the main issue has been with a Missouri offensive line that has been a weakness rather than a strength. Again, the five players up front aren't short on talent, but the line has been inconsistent with its lateral movement—a staple of any good spread offense.
Packing more of a combo of bulk and skill than in past seasons with first-year starters Austin Wuebbels and Dan Hoch, Missouri's offensive line has the power needed to run block with conviction. Nonetheless, the non-conference schedule has exploited its spotty ability to move down the line of scrimmage, as smaller but quicker defensive fronts have managed to beat Tiger blockers to a spot to bottle up the running game.
At least to this point in the season, run blocking doesn't seem to be the offensive line's most outstanding attribute. Gabbert has endured nervous times in the pocket, but the line has done an exemplary job of blocking when Missouri has done what it does best: throw the ball. Through four games, the offensive line has allowed only five sacks on 143 pass attempts.
This is not to imply that Yost and Missouri need to suddenly morph into a power-running team and ditch its potent spread in time for conference play. But wrinkles to the offense and a slight tweak to the scheme may be needed to compensate for the quicker, stronger, and more athletic defenses of the Big 12, which will feast on MU's shortcomings up front and the telegraphed nature of an up-and-down ground game, especially in the waning moments of a close game.
Unless some changes are made—and by no means do they have to be major—Missouri's sputtering running game and lack of a physical mentality in the trenches will cost them at least two games against Big 12 teams.
Put Gabbert under center. Forget the pull and trap blocks. Whatever. Run the read-option to death, I don't care.
But, in doing so, blow some people off the ball. At some point or another, the Tigers will have to protect a lead against a worthy defense, and the only way to do so will be to put opposing defenders on their butts. And that means going north and south versus east and west. In the Big 12, throwing the ball definitely works, but not 40 times a game.
Yost implemented his offseason run-heavy mindset for a reason, and despite Gabbert's hugely successful career start, he and the Tigers can't afford to stray from it. Washington and the offensive line are the workhorses of the MU offense, and the impact of No. 2 tailback De'Vion Moore and the emergence of true freshman Kendial Lawrence give this team plenty of options with which to run. Plus, Gabbert, as poised and mature as he is for a sophomore, can't be expected to win every game.
Each of the Tigers' first four opponents hasn't exactly disguised its gameplan, which has been to dare Gabbert to throw the ball while devoting extra defenders to the box against MU's running game. But as Gabbert's stock has risen, teams have been forced to respect his ability, giving Missouri's offensive line and backs an open invitation to carry the offense. Yet, the Tigers haven't cashed in on the opportunity.
Prior to the season, the last thing pundits predicted was for the Tigers to run the table en route to a perfect start. But as impressive as the body of work has been thus far, it has been constructed against an overall level of competition that pales in comparison to what lies ahead.
And don't get me wrong, I'm not choosing to pick on Missouri's inability to run the ball. The defense hasn't been all that stout, which, after stifling Illinois in the opener, has given up some yards to not only Bowling Green and Nevada, but FCS opponent Furman as well. The linebackers appear to be playing way too deep and a shabby pass rush hasn't helped out a rebuilt secondary. Furthermore, the unit has created only six turnovers through four games.
But Missouri's ability to control the line of scrimmage and dictate the game along the offensive line may be the difference between a third consecutive Big 12 North title and a third-place finish behind Nebraska and Kansas.
Obviously, the Tigers are much more effective when Gabbert incurs less of the offensive burden and the defense spends minimal time on the field. And there's no better way to achieve both of those goals than to run the ball with purpose while punching the other team in the mouth.
But, through four games, the Tigers have thrown soft jabs, not devastating roundhouses.
We'll find out in 12 days if that is bound to change.
Lead photo: The Maneater
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