Four up, four down. Not a bad start to a season during which many thought the Missouri Tigers would stumble out of the gate with at least one loss.
Instead, the Tigers dodged their way through a series of season-opening tests, finishing the non-conference schedule unblemished for the fourth consecutive season and running their winning streak to 14 games over non-Big 12 teams. Missouri's last non-conference defeat was to Oregon State in the 2006 Sun Bowl.
Now, with one-third of the schedule complete, head coach Gary Pinkel and his team will relax a bit before preparing for Oct. 8's Big 12 opener versus Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Columbia. And, despite the shiny 4-0 record, suffice it to say there's plenty for the Tigers to work on before the Cornhuskers roll into town for a nationally televised clash between bitter rivals.
Friday night's 31-21 win over Nevada was a nice exclamation point on non-conference play, but the Wolfpack, like the three teams before them, were able to expose a number of chinks in Missouri's far-from-impenetrable armor. Usually, I reserve this particular segment for all things positive, but I thought it might be a nice change of pace to rear back and accentuate the negatives for once.
Running game can't get out of neutral
It's one of the more baffling and utterly frustrating disappointments of an otherwise fantastic season thus far. I've talked about it at length; now Pinkel is voicing his displeasure over Missouri's annoyingly lethargic running attack.
"You know, spread offenses are designed to open up running lanes, but then how much you want to throw” with “your quarterback, your young quarterback, all those issues, those dynamics, we’re dealing with," Pinkel said Monday during his weekly teleconference. "But, we’re going to work to try and make it better. But I would agree we’re not running the ball as well as I would have liked."
If you take his comments at face value, it appears Pinkel is not as urgently concerned about the stagnant nature of the running game as others, or perhaps not as up-in-arms over the matter as some fans would prefer him to be some 10 days prior to conference play.
But, for good reason, Pinkel's never been one to disclose too much information regarding his team's weaknesses, and he'll be the first to acknowledge how vital an effective ground game is to an offense. And behind closed doors, off the record, I'm sure he'd tell that the Tigers not running the ball as well as he would have liked is a monstrous understatement. Because, honestly, it can't get much worse.
Through four games, Missouri ranks 10th in the Big 12 with 572 total rushing yards (143 per game) and 3.8 yards per carry; respectively, those numbers rank 58th and 70th nationally. Of the Tigers' 17 touchdowns this season, only four have come via the ground, although it should be noted that Missouri has made the third-fewest trips (15) to the red zone in the conference.
If you want a silver lining, Missouri's rushing total increased over the first three games of the season (vs Illinois, 117; vs Bowling Green, 181; vs Furman, 196). Sadly, that lining gets ripped to shreds the second the stat sheet from the Nevada game makes an appearance, at least as far as the running game is concerned.
Gary Pinkel is well aware of his team's woes running the ball (Icon SMI)
Granted, the Wolfpack have some decent defensive linemen, but there's still no excuse for the lowly output, which wasn't much of an issue thanks to Nevada's pathetic pass defense. If you take away Derrick Washington's 42-yard scamper late in the fourth quarter, which is MU's longest run from scrimmage to date, the Tigers averaged 1.05 yards on 33 attempts.
I don't want to rehash what I've already proposed as a remedy to Missouri's rushing problems. There's not enough time. If not a small alteration in scheme, maybe a mix-up in personnel is forthcoming. Or maybe we won't see any changes at all. With little experienced depth behind the starters along the offensive line, what you see is what you get. Which just so happens to be five talented players currently underachieving.
He might take a bit longer to hit the hole, but Washington won't be supplanted as the starter at running back. However, that doesn't mean he's not interchangeable. Washington will never be mistaken for a burner, nor will he ever make a living planting a foot in the ground, making a cut, and accelerating through the smallest of holes.
But backups De'Vion Moore and Kendial Lawrence do have that ability. Whereas Washington possesses savvy and a knack for making big plays at exactly the right time, the speed of Moore and Lawrence is raw, meaning they have the ability to run in and through creases in the defense faster. The result is happier linemen, who suddenly don't have to hold their blocks nearly as long.
For all the areas of uncertainty that surrounded this team prior to the season, it's the one aspect in which MU fans had total confidence that is the most perplexing. Few thought Blaine Gabbert would be this good this quick, even fewer thought the defense would improve this much with so much turnover, and absolutely no one thought the new kicker would connect on each of his first 10 field goals. But everyone had faith in the running game. The coaching staff preached about its importance in preseason camp.
The running game was supposed to be Gabbert's security blanket. Now, it's the opposite: When things are in doubt, the mentality is to just throw the damn ball. And that's likely to be a recipe for disaster during Big 12 play.
All things defense
Am I the only one who gets an uneasy feeling about the defense throughout much of each game, only to realize that this young group is light years ahead of 2008's veteran-filled unit?
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I get mixed feelings about Missouri's defense. On one hand, defensive coordinator Dave Steckel's simplistic approach and emphasis on the basics has made an impact. The Tigers have allowed 62 points, or 15.5 per game, which is one more than has been surrendered by No. 2 Texas.
After getting undressed on a number of occasions last season, the pass defense has been relatively solid, allowing 218 yards per game and three touchdowns. The best part? The defense has yet to allow a single play of 25 yards or more, which is a scenario that completely crippled not only last season's unit, but the team's championship hopes in 2008.
But there's another side to the story. It's entirely possible the inspired performance against what is becoming an awful Illinois team raised expectations a bit too high. Over the last three weeks, three rather pedestrian offenses have all found a way to expose flaws in the Missouri defense.
Bowling Green did it via both the pass and run, churning out 320 yards, although much of it came during the first half. Seven days later, FCS opponent Furman exceeded that number, tearing through the Missouri D for 398 yards, including 305 through the air from quarterback Jordan Sorrells. And then, last Friday, a Nevada offense that had averaged 10 points gained nearly five yards every time it ran the ball, leading to a 218-yard rushing day. The Wolfpack's leading rusher, Luke Lippincott, a sixth-year senior less than a year removed from major knee surgery, ran wild for 114 yards on 23 carries.
More specifically, a number of trouble areas have popped up that will have to be overcome if the Tigers plan on taking the Big 12 North again.
One, whether by Steckel's design or indecisiveness on behalf of the players, the linebackers appear to be playing too deep. It was particularly noticeable in Reno last Friday. When Missouri wasn't sending Sean Weatherspoon and/or Will Ebner up the middle on blitzes, it seemed as if those two and fellow linebacker Andrew Gachkar were content setting up camp a good five to seven yards off the line of scrimmage. The result was a huge day for the Nevada running game.
But the Wolfpack's field day on the ground is not lost on the struggles of the linebacking corps.
As has been the case for much of the year, the run defense's spotty performance is largely attributed to the soft under-belly that is the interior of the defensive line, where the absence of fellow Tiger great and current Pittsburgh Steeler Ziggy Hood is glaring. Again, scheme could be to blame, but too often it appears that senior leader Jaron Baston and sophomores Terrell Resonno and Dominique Hamilton fail to get significant push up the middle to disrupt an opponent's running game, despite the rotation that is meant to keep each of them fresh throughout the game.
Aldon Smith has been a terror on opposing QBs (Reno Gazette-Journal)
Speaking of the defensive line, let's talk about not getting to the quarterback. This unit is arguably the most talented on the team, but the potential has not translated to success. Other than redshirt freshman Aldon Smith, who is first on the team and seventh in the Big 12 with three, no other Missouri player has more than 1.5 sacks this season.
As a team, Missouri has just eight sacks, the second-fewest in the conference. Add to that the fact the Tigers just spent the last three weeks playing presumably the smallest and least-gifted offensive lines they'll see all season, and the low sack production becomes even more puzzling.
And we can't overlook the secondary, which has performed admirably this season but undergoes more stress than it deserves when the other two-thirds of the defense doesn't do the job. It would be interesting to see what the numbers would look like if the defensive backfield wouldn't have had to make some of the tackles it has in the run game. Unto that point, how successful would this pass defense be if the pass rush were even a bit more potent?
To its credit, the defense has done a good job of enacting Steckel's philosophy of preventing the big play, which has kept MU in games, particularly during those times when Gabbert and the offense haven't been sharp. But how long will it be before the right team comes along and nickel-and-dimes the Tigers to death? Will Steckel stick with the same scheme against teams from the Big 12, or will he incorporate some more aggressive wrinkles in the gameplan?
With Big 12 play on the horizon, history suggests the defense will tighten up when it matters most. In each of the last two seasons, Missouri's defense improved once the team reached the conference portion of its schedule. Last season, after the disastrous opener against Juice Williams, the Tigers finished ranked second in the conference in points allowed per game, at 26.6, behind only Texas (22.5). In 2007, Missouri boasted the third-best defense in the Big 12, allowing 22.6 points per game after surrendering an average of 25 during non-conference play.
Statistically, the 2009 defense is ahead of its two predecessors at this point in the season, but the bigger challenges are yet to be encountered.
Past teams aside, the truth remains: Other than Weatherspoon, this defense is still developing bona-fide playmakers at the BCS level. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Missouri's defense won't exactly be confused for that of Oklahoma or Texas. Or maybe even Nebraska. Maybe not. Perhaps I'm being too harsh on the defense, but what I see is a unit that has talent and speed, just not enough of both to be a group that has the ability to change a game.
But, if the first four games of the season are any indication, the Tigers' defense won't necessarily have to win many games all by itself. Unlike last season, Missouri has been equal parts offense and defense in 2009, with each performing well enough to get the job done. However, if Missouri hopes to defy expectations this season and retain its title as a contender in the Big 12, the defense, like the running game, will need to elevate its play.
Freshman Ashton Glaser, the No. 3 quarterback, did not accompany the team to Reno last Friday after allegedly violating curfew. He is not expected to be punished further. Redshirt freshman Gahn McGaffie, a quarterback in high school, took Glaser's place against Nevada.
Danario Alexander has been named Big 12 Co-Offensive Player of the Week, becoming the first Missouri receiver ever to win the award in conference history. The senior wideout caught nine balls for a career-high 170 yards and two scores against Nevada. He shares the honor with Iowa St. running back Alexander Robinson. Victor Bailey was the last Missouri receiver to earn the distinction, nabbing Big Eight Offensive Player of the Week honors in 1992.
Power Mizzou has a lot of interesting features, but the one that tends to stand out from week to week is the site's fan blog. Following each Missouri game, the PM bigwigs bestow their powers upon one lucky hand-selected fan who then blogs about the win or loss in a fashion he or she sees fit. And today's blog was one of the better ones, brought to us from Rage Dave, a California native and life-long Tiger loyalist, who couldn't get over the number of MU fans that drove half-way across the country for a non-conference game.
Alas, not every PM fan blog can be composed as thoughtfully and eloquently as Rage Dave's. The week prior, after the Furman win, some idiot fraternity lifer blitzed on Keystone Light and arrogance rehashed his tailgating adventures, leading the story off with how he and his parents toned down their pregame drinking for an FCS opponent. To top it off, he repeatedly referred to himself as "Mr. Shizz." Awesome.
Lead photo: Reno Gazette-Journal