Texas Bowl Letdown Not Indicative of Problems Ahead for Missouri Tigers

Ryan FallerAnalyst IJanuary 2, 2010

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 28:  Danario Alexander #81 of the Missouri Tigers runs with the ball during the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at Arrowhead Stadium on November 28, 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Before much of the sparse crowd had settled in at Houston's Reliant Field on Thursday, Missouri sprinted out to a 7-0 lead with only 24 seconds elapsed.

For an offense that is built to score at times with lightning-quick ease, it was typical fashion.

But what followed over the remaining 59 minutes and 36 seconds represented all that is wrong with Missouri's double-edged sword of an offense.

Waves of outrage have flooded Missouri blogs and message boards in the wake of the Tigers' 35-13 Texas Bowl undressing at the hands of the Navy Midshipmen.

Not-so-subtle rants have insinuated that head coach Gary Pinkel should consider hunting for a new defensive coordinator. Others have hinted at the possibility that quarterback Blaine Gabbert has lost a step because of a little holiday weight. Still others feature incessant pleading for the Tigers to tweak their spread system and institute a straight-up power running style.

You can pin the loss to Navy on just about anybody. The performance was pitiful in that MU was whipped in all three phases of the game.

But since adopting the spread after the 2001 season, the Missouri program, with an ensuing influx of noticeable playmakers, predominantly has hung its hat on its offense. Thus, when things don't go according to plan, that side of the ball often bears the brunt of the criticism.

It took all of one Navy possession for anyone to realize that the Tigers' defense was simply not equipped to handle the Midshipmen's razor-sharp—and almost alien-liketriple-option offense. Missouri has simply not evolved to the point where it has a number of impact athletes on defense that are capable of taking over a game.

MU defenders looked skittish while dodging Navy's maddening avalanche of cut blocks. Run support on the perimeter to defense against Navy's assortment of pitches and sweeps was non-existent.

And when defensive coordinator Dave Steckel—who is a true disciple of discipline, a main ingredient in defending the option—wasn't barking out directions in disgust, players were shrugging shoulders and pointing fingers.

The option is an offense seldom used in today's college game, and the Missouri Tigers could very well be used for generations to come as the defensive guinea pig that stars in instructional videos on how to run the antiquated scheme to perfection. Assignment football resides only in the days of yore.

Clearly, from a Missouri standpoint, the Texas Bowl quickly took on the look of a game that had to be won by the offense. I think that's what most people were expecting anyway.

And after Gabbert played pitch-and-catch with receiver Danario Alexander for a 58-yard score on the second play from scrimmage, there was no reason to believe the Tigers' expansive quick-strike arsenal wouldn't continue to roll and therefore outlast anything the methodical, less impressive, and deliberate Navy offense came up with.

It's not so shocking that even with all the extra preparation, MU was unable to contain Navy's ground attack. It's also not surprising that the Tigers were porous on kickoff coverage, which only repeatedly gave the Midshipmen short field after short field.

Don't get me wrong, I am not giving the defense and special teams a pass. But, on some level, you could sense that Navy's precision offense would have no trouble running through a Missouri defense that is often caught out of position.

The fact the Tigers failed so miserably to exploit their skill, size, speed, and athletic advantages over the Midshipmen on offense is troubling. The Missouri offense versus the Navy defense, though statistically strong in several areas during the season, was supposed to be a matchup of men versus children.

Gabbert may very well one day be a bona-fide NFL prospect. Navy only has one starting linebacker that exceeds 220 pounds. At 6'5" and 225 pounds, Alexander is three inches taller and 20 pounds thicker than any defensive back that suits up for the Midshipmen.

And then there's the trenches, where the MU offensive line, with an advantage of close to half a foot in height and nearly 40 pounds in weight, was supposed to steamroll its counterparts.

It's my assumption that if you polled Missouri fans, nine out of every 10 would tell you a power running approach would have meant a Texas Bowl win. After all, Navy begged the Tigers to run by playing only two down linemen and dropping nine players into zone coverage.

Like many MU faithful, I have expressed concern over the Tigers' unwillingness to incorporate even some semblance of a power running package into the spread offense. Without it, I find it hard to believe MU will ever have the game to beat teams like Texas, Oklahoma and, to some extent, Nebraska to capture a Big 12 title.

Even when the Tigers' spread is operating at maximum efficiency, we've seen that at times near-perfection is still not good enough to topple the elite teams.

But a smash-mouth mentality wasn't necessarily needed to beat Navy. True, in the instances Thursday in which Missouri lined up man-to-man against Navy, good things did happen.

Following Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs' botched center exchange on 4th-and-goal, with their backs against the wall, the Tigers gained possession at their own four and proceeded to run consecutive plays with Gabbert under center.

The result was two carries by running back Derrick Washington for a first down on 11 yards, or nearly six percent of MU's 62 total yards rushing.

We've seen in the past, however, that Missouri can run the ball with reckless abandon from their traditional spread formations on a bowl stage.

The Tigers rode Tony Temple and his Cotton Bowl-record 281 yards to a dominating win over Arkansas just two years ago. Plain and simple, the Razorbacks begged the Tigers to run, and Missouri happily obliged, tearing huge holes in the Arkansas three-man front while employing as many as four wide receivers in the formation.

By all accounts, the Tigers should have achieved similar results at the Texas Bowl. So, then, what was the problem?

Don't use the tired "Pinkel and his staff didn't make adjustments at halftime" argument. That's been overdone. Pinkel insists he and his staff constantly make adjustments within the game, not just in the locker room at the half.

"All they did was take a defensive lineman out and put a linebacker in," Pinkel told reporters of Navy's funky alignment on defense. "We knew what they were doing. Once they did it, we adjusted. But it was not that profound. But I don't want to take anything away from what they did design-wise or anything because they did an exceptional job."

Is it not crazy to imply that all this came down to good ol' fashion execution, which was only one-third of the grand equation that also included Navy outplaying and outcoaching Missouri?

Based on what Navy was doing defensively, Missouri knew what it had to do on offense. The Tigers had chances to make plays, but didn't execute those chances properly. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground with the Missouri offense: it either executes or it doesn't.

To MU's credit, though, it didn't let Navy's defensive tactics alter its offensive identity, but the fact that the Tigers played arguably their worst overall game of the season as a favorite has people asking questions.

Missouri didn't capitalize on opportunities in the red zone. Receivers dropped balls. Washington's failure to secure the ball deep in MU territory led to a fumble and, ultimately, the game-winning score for Navy in the second quarter. Missouri offensive linemen were poor in consistently holding their blocks against the smaller Navy defenders.

And don't forget about a pair of underthrown balls from Gabbert in the direction of Alexander, the first of which may have been the difference between the Tigers entering the half tied instead of down four. The latter resulted in the first of Gabbert's two interceptions and killed MU's potential to carve into Navy's two-score lead early in the third quarter.

I am no less infuriated by the butt-kicking as anybody else, but I am less inclined to suggest Pinkel should make hasty decisions regarding his coaching staff based on one game. Maybe Steckel should go, but you don't fire the guy because his defense got chewed up for 385 yards by the nation's third-ranked rushing team.

Offensive coordinator David Yost deserves some blame, but the man who has been a part of Pinkel's staff since the beginning shouldn't be thrown out on the street because his offense endured a day of rare deficiency.

You can also throw dreams of the MU offense becoming a I-formation/spread hybrid out the window. A change in offensive structure is just as likely to happen as Pinkel littering his staff with pink slips.

The Tigers are about as good as anybody between the 30 yard-lines. But this Missouri teams seems to struggle when the field shrinks, down by the goal line. Chalk it up to inexperience, faulty schematics, or both.

Pinkel has a hardened stance on the issue, and he refutes any suggestion that a wrinkle or two would be beneficial by citing his team's past success with the same plays, formations, etc.

In the days, weeks, and months that follow this disappointing loss, Pinkel will enact his annual procedure of evaluating his program from top to bottom. Changes could be forthcoming, but drastic moves may only undermine a majority of the progress he and his assistants have made in their time in Columbia.

This team will be back. Much work remains, but a recruiting class that has been ranked by some services to be in the top 15 nationally is on the way. To some it seems now like the sky is falling, but I like to think the Tigers have advanced past the point of returning back to their days of wallowing in mediocrity.

Several Tigers accomplished esteemed goals in defeat. Gabbert, with 291 yards passing against Navy, finished his first season as the MU starter with 3,593 to exceed his predecessor, Chase Daniel, who threw for 3,527 yards in his first season under center.

Alexander, who caught six passes for 137 yards on Thursday, ends his career as the school's all-time leader in receiving yards with 2,778, surpassing the mark of 2,659 set by former teammate Chase Coffman. Alexander finishes his senior season with 1,781 yards receiving to lead the nation.

Also, freshman defensive end Aldon Smith set the MU single-season sack record of 11.5 with his half-sack against Navy.

The silver lining is never easy to see, especially following a performance the likes of which you didn't see coming.

But that's what one bad game will do.

Photo credit: Nick King/Columbia Daily Tribune

You can find this article and more at my page at Examiner.com.


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