For many reasons, some of them mystifying, Missouri is a far cry from the team that won consecutive SEC East titles in 2013-14 and escaped with a one-point win at Williams-Brice Stadium two years ago by scoring a pair of touchdowns in the final seven minutes.
Currently winless in conference play, Missouri (2-6 overall, 0-4 in SEC) is just 3-12 since downing the Gamecocks, 24-10, last October in Columbia, Mo., on a weekend best remembered in the Palmetto State for the catastrophic flooding that struck many areas of the region.
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Worse, Missouri is mired in a 10-game conference losing streak. The Tigers’ last SEC win? That two-touchdown win over the Gamecocks in the Show Me State. Missouri lost its final six conference games last season, forcing Gary Pinkel to resign after 15 seasons.
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom was named head coach in December, but little has improved from a won-loss perspective. If anything, things have gotten worse.
Despite finishing 5-7 a year ago, Missouri was second in the SEC in total defense (302.0 ypg) behind Alabama, losing games by scores of 9-6, 10-3 and 19-8.
Entering Week 10, Missouri is last in the SEC in total defense (475.6 yards per game) and rushing defense (240.0), and 11th in scoring defense (30.4) and pass defense (235.6 ypg). The Tigers are allowing almost 174 yards and 16 points more per game in 2016 compared to last season.
Little wonder Odom took over defensive play-calling two weeks ago, yanking the responsibility from defensive coordinator and linebackers coach DeMontie Cross. However, the results on the stat sheet looked eerily familiar, at least for the first week, as Missouri surrendered 582 yards to Kentucky in an ugly 35-21 loss at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington.
Losing leading tackler Michael Scherer to a season-ending ACL injury won’t aid Odom’s efforts to turn around the performance of the Missouri defense. Scheer, a linebacker with a nose for the football is ranked in the top 10 of the SEC in tackles. He was averaging 7.6 tackles per game when he was injured. Scheer had 93 tackles last season, and back-to-back 90+ tackle seasons on his career resume.
“They have had a lot of injuries on the defensive side of the ball that has certainly set them back,” Muschamp said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “But they have some very talented players.”
Odom, who intends to retain the defensive play-calling duties this week, has reportedly reverted the Tigers back to the simpler 2015 scheme with no more pre-snap reads of the offensive formation by the defensive linemen. Instead, the Tigers seek to focus on the ball and aggressively fire off the snap.
Very basic in most aspects, but it worked like a charm last season.
“Coach Odom taking over the defensive play-calling creates a little angst for us from the standpoint of whether they are continuing to stay with what they are doing or are they changing what they are doing,” Muschamp said. “Those are the things you have to go through as a coach and vett out as far as the film goes. You have to see what they did when he called the game. There is always a little difference depending on who is calling the game.”
Charles Harris is Missouri’s top pass rusher with 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss with four quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. Missouri leads the SEC with 11 interceptions, three each by senior cornerbacks Aarion Penton and John Gibson.
Penton leads the SEC and is seventh nationally in passes defended (12). Last week, he was named a Midseason All-American by Pro Football Focus, one of two cornerbacks to make the team.
“Charles Harris is as good of a pass rusher as there is in our league,” Muschamp said. “Aarion Penton is as good of a cover guy as there is in our league. They have played very good defense at Missouri, and will certainly play well Saturday.”
Missouri’s overall offensive rankings look a little better as the Tigers are situated in the upper half of the SEC in all four major categories – scoring offense (33.1), total offense (490.1), passing offense (295.1) and rushing offense (195.0)
Appearances, though, can be deceiving.
Over 50 percent of Missouri’s total yardage has come in three nonconference games – Eastern Michigan (W 61-21), Delaware State (W 79-0) and Middle Tennessee (L 51-45). Against SEC opponents, the Tigers are averaging just 17.2 points (12th in SEC) and 371.2 yards (9th in SEC) per game.
A year ago, Missouri’s Drew Lock, a heralded local product from Lee’s Summit, Mo., and the Gamecocks’ Lorenzo Nunez locked horns in the first ever matchup of true freshman quarterbacks in SEC history.
Almost 13 months later, under the tutelage of first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel, Lock is second in the SEC in passing (276.9 ypg) and third in total offense (294.2) with 18 touchdown passes and 2,215 passing yards.
“Drew Lock can make all the throws,” Muschamp said. “Some of the vertical balls he throws down the field, he has tremendous arm strength. They have good skill guys on the outside that run extremely well. We are going to need to cover down. They are probably going to take 10 to 12 shots down the field in the game, so we need to defend those shots and stay on top of the receivers down the field.”
Although completing just 53.8 percent of his throws (155-288), Lock is one of three SEC quarterbacks with more than 2,000 passing yards in 2016, joining Chad Kelly of Ole Miss and Austin Allen of Arkansas in that exclusive company as the calendar turns to November.
Missouri has run the most offensive plays in the SEC – 632 in eight games, an average of 79 per game. South Carolina has run 110 fewer plays in the same number of games. So, the Tigers are lining up and snapping the ball quickly on offense.
“They are playing really fast with a great tempo,” Muschamp said. “They are averaging taking the snap with 25 or 30 seconds left on the play clock. That’s about 10 seconds between each snap. That tells you the kind of speed they are playing with. We haven’t exactly been the most mentally in tuned and focused defense at times. We really have to be dialed in to what we need to do to be successful on game day against this bunch.”
Missouri has started four true freshmen this season, second only in the SEC to the Gamecocks, who have started seven, most in the nation.
One of them is running back Damarea Crockett, a key figure in Missouri’s rushing attack over the past three games. Crockett ran for 156 yards and four touchdowns in the high-scoring loss to Middle Tennessee two weeks ago. Last Saturday, he added 55 yards on 13 carries at Kentucky.
Crockett is Missouri’s leading rusher with 601 yards and seven touchdowns on 96 carries, an average of 6.3 yards per carry. Junior Ish Witter is second with 471 yards on a team-high 107 carries.
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SEC WEEK 10 SCHEDULE (Nov. 5)
Georgia Southern at Ole Miss, noon (ESPNU)
Vanderbilt at Auburn, noon (ESPN)
Texas A&M at Mississippi State, noon (SEC Network)
Florida at Arkansas, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
Missouri at South Carolina, 4 p.m. (SEC Network)
Tennessee Tech at Tennessee, 4 p.m. (SEC Network Alt. Channel)
Georgia at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Alabama at LSU, 8 p.m. (CBS)
SEC EAST STANDINGS (After Week 9)
Florida 4-1 (6-1)
Kentucky 4-2 (5-3)
Tennessee 2-3 (5-3)
South Carolina 2-4 (4-4)
Georgia 2-4 (4-4)
Vanderbilt 1-3 (4-4)
Missouri 0-4 (2-6)
Skai Moore was cleared for full lifting yesterday. Won't be cleared for contact until January. Plan is still to redshirt this year.— GamecockCentral.com (@GamecockCentral) November 1, 2016