Monday, October 29, 2012

Missouri gets first SEC win, prepares for trip to Swamp

Missouri earned its first Southeastern Conference win last Saturday at Faurot Field, prevailing 33-10 over Kentucky. Years from now, if you’re telling future generations about the historic win, you have my permission to embellish just a little to pretty things up.

In reality, it was an ugly win. A strong wind made simply fielding punts an adventure, snaps were botched, and offenses sputtered. Two teams winless in SEC play looked the part for a good chunk of the afternoon.

But Saturday certainly had highlights for Missouri (4-4, 1-4 in SEC play), such as defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson stripping the ball and returning it 60 yards, thwarting a potential Kentucky score on the first drive of the game.

After Corbin Berkstresser threw two third quarter interceptions with Missouri trying to hold a 17-10 lead, James Franklin came into the game, despite being too injured to make his usual start at quarterback. With Franklin in, the Tigers ran the ball 20 times and passed it nine times. This was precisely what Missouri needed to do to put the game away. The Tigers ran the ball 47 times Saturday, led by Kendial Lawrence (108 yards), Marcus Murphy (43 yards) and Russell Hansbrough (37 yards).

Feeble Kentucky (1-8, 0-6) was not a threat to come back so long as Missouri stopped turning the ball over, which the Tigers eventually did. After the first quarter, Kentucky posted just 59 yards of offense.
Field position was huge Saturday, as it seems to be each week in the SEC. Just look at Missouri’s scoring drives against Kentucky: 25, 12, 52, 34 and 12 yards. Missouri needs to win the field position battle to have a chance to win; the Tiger offense needs short fields.

Winning will be a tall order on Saturday, when the Tigers travel to “The Swamp” to take on No. 8 Florida (7-1, 6-1 in SEC play) and its stout defense. The game is at 11 a.m. on ESPN2.

Florida is second in the SEC in points allowed per game, at 12.8, trailing only otherworldly Alabama. Safety Josh Evans, linebacker Jonathan Bostic and tackle Sharrif Floyd lead the nasty Florida defense.
Florida has had some offensive struggles of its own, however, on display in its 17-9 loss to Georgia last Saturday. The Gators are 11th in the SEC in offensive yards per game; Missouri is 12th.

Despite Florida’s occasional offensive struggles, the Gators have some weapons in speedy dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Mike Gillislee, who has ran for 729 yards and seven touchdowns this season.

Florida is no doubt smarting from that loss to rival Georgia, which will likely cost the Gators the SEC East title, and Missouri is a 16-point underdog. At Missouri, coach Gary Pinkel is 3-17 against top-10 teams, with none of the three wins coming in a road game.

The Swamp can be daunting, but it would be nice to see Missouri at least be competitive, establish the ground game and have its defense keep the game close. The Tigers have an SEC win, but life in the conference rolls on with yet another tough test against one of the nation’s better defenses.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Tigers look to get back on track vs. Kentucky

Having a bye the week after playing ultra-physical Alabama, the top-ranked team in the nation, seems appropriate. The Saturday without a game gave the Tigers (3-4, 0-4 in Southeastern Conference games) a chance to rest their bodies and refocus near the middle of what has been a challenging season.

Missouri returns to action at Faurot Field on Saturday with the Homecoming game against Kentucky (11 a.m. on ESPNU). Playing the Wildcats (1-7, 0-5 in SEC play) at home presents a great chance to get for Missouri to get that elusive first SEC win. With it being Homecoming, this game should have a bigger, more enthusiastic crowd than your average matchup of teams with no conference wins.

Kentucky’s struggles this season have put coach Joker Phillips on the hot seat, but the Wildcats did put up a competitive fight against South Carolina and Georgia, both talented SEC East teams.

For any SEC team, particularly this year, losing to Kentucky in football is disaster.

To ensure that doesn’t happen, Missouri would do well to get ahead early. When a team loses frequently, there’s usually a “here we go again” feeling when they fall behind. Also, Kentucky doesn’t really have the passing game to come from behind. An early lead would also get the crowd going, which can be a problem in 11 a.m. kickoff games.

But let the Wildcats hang around, even fall behind to them? Then Missouri would feel the weight of the aforementioned disaster looming overhead, and Kentucky could start to believe. With Missouri being the “new kid” in the SEC East and 0-4 in SEC play, Kentucky could view this as one of its better chances to notch an SEC win this season.

Beyond putting Kentucky in its place early on, it would be good for Missouri to put a lot of bodies near the line of scrimmage to shut down the Kentucky running game and dare the Wildcats to beat them with the pass. With starting quarterback Maxwell Smith out indefinitely with a torn ankle ligament, the Wildcats’ passing offense has struggled. (Not that their rushing attack has been much of a prize, either.)
Getting this win is necessary for the Tigers’ push to make it to 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game.

Making a bowl is a fairly minimal standard given the bloated slate of bowls, but it would still be big for Missouri to make it to one given the struggles of this season. The Tigers have made it to a bowl in seven straight seasons, and they would dearly like to keep some momentum going by making it eight straight.

The two remaining home games, Saturday against Kentucky and Nov. 17 against Syracuse, are must-haves to reach a bowl. If they get those two, the Tigers would need one win in the three remaining road games to get to 6-6. The Nov. 10 game at Tennessee is probably the best chance, followed by the season finale at Texas A&M. The Nov. 3 game at No. 2 Florida is likely out of reach, however.

But before that, it all starts with getting a win against struggling Kentucky on Saturday.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Three things we've learned in Missouri's first SEC season

Last Saturday at Faurot Field, Missouri’s game with No. 1 Alabama had a metaphorical thunderbolt on the second play, as Crimson Tide running back Eddie Lacy rumbled 73 yards for a touchdown. In the second quarter, just as Alabama scored to go up 27-0, an actual thunderbolt relatively near the stadium delayed the game, as though the weather was Missouri’s boxing trainer, throwing in the towel in a fight that was out of hand.

Missouri (3-4, 0-4 in Southeastern Conference games) did get a Marcus Murphy kick return for a touchdown after the delay, but Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) added a couple of second-half touchdowns for a 42-10 win. Alabama outgained the Tigers 533-129 in total yards.

Alabama is one of the best teams Missouri has faced in coach Gary Pinkel’s 12 seasons, and they have dominated every opponent this year, so this loss doesn’t generate outrage.

Fortunately, Missouri has a bye week after facing physical Alabama. As the Tigers regroup, here are three things we’ve learned from the first half of Missouri’s inaugural SEC campaign.

1. SEC fans are as zealous as advertised
It seems arbitrary to me to say SEC fans care more than those in other conferences. As Missouri fans can attest through the years, it’s pretty important to folks in Nebraska and Oklahoma how their Huskers and Sooners fare. Nebraska, after all, is the one with the ongoing record for consecutive sellouts, dating to the Kennedy administration.

But SEC fans do seem particularly crazy and zealous in how they live out their passion for their teams. This fall I’ve already heard about Tennessee fans with their team’s logo on their glass eyes and Alabama fans who survived an emergency private plane landing only to abandon their aircraft and hitchhike to the game. SEC fans also seem eager to tell their tales of fanaticism, as part of the conference’s culture.

2. Sheldon Richardson is having an outstanding season

From saying Georgia played “old man football” early in the season to being heard screaming in the locker room after Missouri’s loss to Vanderbilt, the defensive tackle has had an eventful season off the field. But despite that, and Missouri’s on-field disappointments, it’s undeniable Richardson is having an outstanding season on the field.

Just watch a Mizzou game and notice how often big No. 34 is the one making the tackle, or pressuring the quarterback, or forcing a fumble. The only drawback is Richardson is playing well enough that he is likely gone to the NFL after this season.

3. Missouri has work to do to compete in the SEC

Missouri is 0-4 in conference games for the first time since 1999.

I don’t think the gap between the SEC and the Big 12 is the Grand Canyon, but the conferences do feature different styles of play. Missouri will probably need to build depth on its lines to compete in the SEC. Getting a back who can grind out the tough yards would help as well.

But five games of this season still remain, starting with the Homecoming game against Kentucky on Oct. 27 (11 a.m. on ESPNU).

Monday, October 8, 2012

Struggling Tigers await No. 1 Alabama

Well, forget what I wrote last week. Forget Missouri gaining momentum in October. Forget the Show Me State’s weather being great in this month.

Last Saturday’s 19-15 loss to Vanderbilt brought a jarring end to those notions. The weather did not feel like the idyllic crispness of a Missouri October; it was a cold, raw, in-your-face night. And the Missouri Tigers (3-3, 0-3 in Southeastern Conference games) did the opposite of generating momentum.

Missouri and Vanderbilt have to fight and claw for the scraps of wins available to them in this tough league. Vanderbilt seemed hungrier Saturday, and they were willing to shake things up with some trick plays down the stretch.

Missouri started out with two nice drives ending in field goals to go up 6-0. But quarterback James Franklin suffered a knee sprain on his only carry of the game, and backup Corbin Berkstresser struggled. The first eight drives for Berkstresser: fumbled snap, safety on a punt attempt, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, punt, punt. None these drives went farther than 23 yards.

Berkstresser and the Tigers put some points on the board late, helped by a long touchdown on a coverage breakdown by Vanderbilt, but the Commodores held on. Berkstresser completed just 9 of 30 passes. He was hurt by some drops, but that completion rate simply won’t win many games.

Playing quarterback for Missouri right now is like driving on a mountain road with no guardrails, and Berkstresser took some big hits behind an offensive line struggling with youth and injuries against tough SEC defensive lines.

Now, reader friend, I’ve waited as long as I can without mentioning it, but we must talk about what lies ahead for these Tigers.

On Saturday, No. 1 Alabama (5-0, 2-0 in SEC play) comes to Columbia to take on Missouri (2:30 p.m. on CBS). Franklin is out with his knee sprain, giving Berkstresser the task of going against the ferocious Crimson Tide defense.

Since Alabama blew a big lead to bitter rival Auburn at the end of the 2010 season, the Crimson Tide defense has been otherworldly, not allowing more than 14 points against any Division I-A opponent since, a streak of 18 games. This year, Alabama has won by scores of 41-14, 35-0, 52-0, 40-7 and 33-14.

Besides that dominant defense, Alabama has an outstanding offensive line and a veteran quarterback, A.J. McCarron, who has not thrown an interception this season. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon highlight a punishing running game.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, appropriately born on Halloween, given how he terrorizes the SEC, was teammates with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel at Kent State in the early 1970s, but don’t expect pity.
It should still be an experience for Tiger fans to see their team take on the storied Crimson Tide. But Missouri is 0-3 in conference play for the first time since 2002, Pinkel’s second year. The last time the Tigers started 0-4 in conference games was 1999.

Missouri has looked wobbly in the first half of the season, and the Vanderbilt loss means Missouri will have to pull an upset just to make a bowl game. With a team as good as Alabama, this week probably won’t be that upset.