Saturday, September 21, 2013

Missouri heads to Indiana for first road game

If you love college football shootouts, find a comfortable chair and settle in for Saturday’s Missouri-Indiana football game. The Hoosiers have a high-scoring offense and a shaky defense, meaning the final score of the game could more closely resemble a final from the basketball games for which Indiana is known.

Saturday’s game (7 p.m. on the Big Ten Network) should provide an interesting test for Missouri (2-0), as the first road game usually does. The Hoosiers have not been good in recent years, but they improved from one win in 2011 to four wins last year. Now, with 19 starters back from last year, Indiana could be poised for a breakout season.

The Hoosiers have a talented young quarterback in sophomore Nate Sudfeld and one of the best receiver groups in the Big Ten. Of the conference’s top eight returning players by receiving yards, three are Hoosiers, Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Shane Wynn. Indiana’s offense is ranked sixth nationally in scoring after three games, at 50.0 points per game.

The Hoosiers have played all home games this year, beating Indiana State, losing to Navy, and beating Bowling Green. In trying to slow down Indiana, Missouri will miss linebacker Andrew Wilson, who will miss the first half after he was penalized for “targeting” a player with a high hit in the second half of the Toledo game. The new rule outlaws targeting defenseless opponents with hits above the shoulders, and players are ejected for it. They cannot play in the first half of the following game if the violation takes place in the second half.

The first half could be a white knuckle affair as Missouri attempts to keep the potent Hoosier offense at bay without its leading tackler from last year. Even if Missouri lets Indiana move the ball, the Tigers can still get the job done by bearing down in the red zone. Indiana struggled to punch the ball in from inside the five-yard line against Bowling Green, and holding teams to field goals instead of touchdowns may be the key to this game.

When the Tigers have the ball, they should be able to run up some points of their own. Avoiding turnovers and, as mentioned, finishing off drives with touchdowns instead of field goals will be crucial.
Indiana has been dismal of late, going a no-adjective-necessary 14-66 in Big Ten play over the last 10 years, including 5-35 over the last five years. Since 1993, the Hoosiers have just one bowl appearance. But ESPN College Gameday analyst Lee Corso used to coach there, so that’s something.

But that history means Indiana fans are hungry, and many think this is their year to get back to a bowl. That, plus the Saturday night setting, plus an SEC opponent coming to town should make for a great atmosphere. Missouri carries that SEC patch, which doubles as a target for other teams looking to make a statement.

I expect a competitive game with plenty of momentum shifts, but in the end I think Missouri’s edge defensively should get the Tigers the win.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tigers defeat Toledo heading into bye week

Missouri’s 38-23 win over Toledo last Saturday began to provide more of a look at what kind of team the Tigers will be this year. More, anyway, than the easy win against Murray State to open the season.

Assuming one kept the sweat out of the eyes on another steamy gameday at Faurot, what did we see?

Missouri (2-0) struggled to run the ball for much of the game against a fairly middling Toledo defense, and the game remained in doubt until well into the fourth quarter. Russell Hansbrough had just 31 yards on 10 carries, and Henry Josey had just 26 yards on nine carries.

But the Tigers got quarterback James Franklin more involved in the ground game in the second half, often running the option, including on a key 4th-and-3 conversion in the fourth quarter to help put the game away.

Franklin also dished out a jarring hit to a Toledo defender near the sideline. It prompted cheers from the fans who stayed at Faurot Field through the heat, but the Missouri coaches would surely like to see fewer big collisions involving their quarterback.

Indeed, Franklin’s health is crucially important to the Tiger offense, and he provided the spark on Saturday. Missouri probably doesn’t want him to carry the ball 17 times every game, as he did against Toledo, but the situation called for it as the Rockets closed to within 24-23.

But to offset the ground game struggles, Missouri’s receivers made some big plays. It was the position group where the Tigers’ talent advantages were most obvious.

Toledo actually outgained Missouri, 387 yards to 384. But Missouri used three interceptions, one of which was returned 70 yards by Markus Golden for a touchdown, to keep Toledo at bay. Missouri may not have a rugged defense that churns out three-and-outs, but the Tigers might find success in making other teams take several plays to drive the field. More plays means more chances for offenses to derail themselves with a turnover or key penalty, and that happened plenty of times to Toledo.

In any event, it’s still mid-September and we’re just beginning to learn about this team. The Tigers have a bye this week before a road game at Indiana on Sept. 21. Indiana has been bad for a while, with one bowl appearance in the last 20 years, but some writers and analysts think the Hoosiers could be better this year.

Indiana scored 73 in a rout of Indiana State to open the season, but then lost 41-35 at home last Saturday. They host Bowling Green at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPNU if any fans want to get a look at the Hoosiers.

It will be nice to have the extra week to prepare for what will be a pivotal early-season game. With four manageable nonconference games before the SEC grind, the schedule is set up to generate some early momentum. But to do that the Tigers will have to get this first road win of the season.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Missouri rolls Murray State, tougher test awaits in Toledo

Missouri running back Henry Josey, who missed all of 2012 after a devastating knee injury late in the 2011 season, had the moment of the night in Missouri’s season opening 58-14 win over Murray State last Saturday at Faurot Field.

Josey got a nice ovation during pregame introductions, and then in the third quarter he raced 68 yards for a touchdown, toward the north end zone and along the east sideline, running right over the spot where his knee was injured.

After diving into the end zone, the rebuilt Josey raised his arms skyward in front of the rebuilt rock M, mobbed by teammates and cheered by the crowd.

There were some tense moments early in the game. Murray State, from Division I’s lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision, scored first and led 14-13 after the first quarter.

Missouri’s defense seemed powerless to stop the Racers’ passing attack early on, even getting bamboozled on a receiver pass back to quarterback Maikhai Miller, who spun away from Kony Ealy and high-stepped into the end zone. On a weekend full of FCS teams beating Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Missouri fans may have been sweating a bit, and not just from the sweltering, near-100-degree heat.

But Missouri took charge from there, outscoring the Racers 45-0 over the final three quarters for the 58-14 win. The Tiger pass defense got much better, even picking off three of Miller’s passes in the game, including two picks by E.J. Gaines and one by Braylon Webb.

Missouri’s offense did what it does against FCS teams through the years, rolling up 694 yards of offense. The Tigers averaged 8.0 yards per carry on the ground, and Russell Hansbrough and Josey each had over 100 yards rushing.

Missouri will get a tougher test this Saturday when they take on the Toledo Rockets (2:30 p.m. on ESPNU). Gary Pinkel coached Toledo for 10 seasons before becoming the head coach at Missouri.
Toledo opened its season with a 24-6 loss at No. 10 Florida. That’s a respectable effort, especially given that the Rockets converted just one of their 13 third downs for a first down against the stout Gator defense.

Florida can make a lot of teams look bad, but Toledo is still a team to be taken seriously. The Rockets went 9-4 last season and return 13 starters, including nine on offense. Senior quarterback Terrance Owens has some scrambling ability, and Toledo returns its top five receivers from last year.

Senior running back David Fluellen ran for 1,498 yards last season, and is a threat behind Toledo’s veteran offensive line.

Toledo’s defense took more of a hit from graduation and is more of a mystery. Kick and punt returner Bernard Reedy had four return touchdowns, and kicker Jeremiah Detmer made his last 17 field goals last year, giving Toledo a very good special teams unit.

While Toledo will provide more of a challenge than Murray State, Missouri should still be able to handle the Rockets. I could see this one being close for a while, but then Missouri pulling away late, maybe winning be a couple of touchdowns.