COLUMBIA, Mo. • At the end of Saturday’s 41-19 victory over Arkansas State, Missouri’s football season officially finished one phase and began another. After a cushy nonconference slate, Southeastern Conference play is here.
As Missouri (4-0) gets ready for Saturday's league opener at Vanderbilt (3-2), it’s natural to wonder if the Tigers’ play against Murray State, Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State will carry over against the likes of Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida and the rest of the SEC foes on the schedule. It’s natural to remain skeptical of Mizzou’s September successes and natural to expect some struggles in October and November.
But all that aside, here’s something I’ve noticed about this team, and it came to light Saturday. They appear to enjoy playing with each other. When things go bad, like they did for much of the first three quarters Saturday, you don’t sense much bickering or finger-pointing or panic. That hasn’t always been the case at Mizzou — and certainly wasn’t the case at times last season. On some level, it’s a chicken-or-the-egg dynamic. Is chemistry good because they’re winning? Or are they winning because chemistry is good? Who knows, but these two postgame comments, sparked by different questions to different players, caught my attention.
First, defensive end Kony Ealy: “We don’t argue. We don’t fight amongst each other. It’s come a long way from last year. Us getting it together and getting on each other to make sure we give each other positive encouragement … that’s what we’ve been doing. That’s what we need.”
“You seen what happened last year,” he continued. “I don’t have to remind you. Some games, we just weren’t’ really together. We had a whole lot of potential on that team. But we weren’t together. This team, this year, a lot of seniors are stepping up. Juniors. Sophomores. You see people like Shane Ray, Harold Brantely, Mike Sam, Marvin Foster. Everybody’s stepping up and doing their job and actually (playing) a role for us and playing a role for our team in general.”
Next, quarterback James Franklin: “As a whole we’re doing really good coming together, not blaming each other or getting upset at one side of the ball or the other. I know a couple times in the past that could become an issue. We’d come in the locker room and guys are frustrated, letting their anger out. We’ve really done a great job this year holding ourselves responsible for executing our own plays and our individual responsibilities.”
Maybe it’s nothing, but you didn’t hear Ealy, Franklin or anybody else make those points while Missouri’s season was circling the drain last year. That speaks to improved leadership and accountability. Over the next two months, Missouri’s going to face some second-half deficits like it did Saturday night. Having survived a few brief scares this year — Toledo and now Arkansas State — could pay off when it happens again.
A few awards …
• OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: Who else, but quarterback James Franklin? In completing 21 of 30 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns, Franklin posted a season-best QB rating (174.7). Since becoming the team’s starter in 2011, he’s topped that figure only twice previously against FBS competition: vs. Iowa State in 2011 (179.2) and vs. Syracuse in 2012 (204.5), a game in which Franklin left early with a concussion.
Runner-up: All three tailbacks averaged at least 7.5 yards per carry and L’Damian Washington caught a career-best six passes. But the offensive line deserves mention here for keeping a clean pocket most of the night and opening holes for a running game that averaged 8.5 yards per attempt.
• DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: I’ll explore this later in the week, but Mizzou’s edge rushers put together a strong game breaking through the line of scrimmage, especially Shane Ray, Markus Golden, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, who combined for 19 tackles, three sacks and six tackles for loss. ASU quarterback Andy Kennedy made his share of plays, but Missouri’s defense wouldn’t have survived without the effective pass rush. Golden's rush forced the goal-line stand on the final play of the first half, easily one of the MU's biggest defensive plays of the young season.
Runner-up: Arkansas State’s running back David Oku averaged just 1.9 yards per carry and the ASU running game overall averaged just 2.9 yards per pop. Linebacker Andrew Wilson was a big reason. He finished with a game-high and career-best 17 tackles.
A few more thoughts:
• How long until Missouri admits it has a kicker problem? Andrew Baggett has been fantastic on kickoffs, booting six of seven for kickoffs Saturday. But he missed a 24-yard chip-shot field goal in the first quarter, putting him at 3 for 6 on field goal tries this season. “You have that long drive there, 80-yard drive, and you walk away with no points and you feel like you’ve been hit in the gut,” Gary Pinkel said of the early miss. “You lose all the momentum you had.” Pinkel has historically given his proven kickers a long leash in terms of fixing their problems in practice. After Saturday's game he said several times that Baggett has to kick better in practice. I wouldn't anticipate a change unless the accuracy issues continue for a few more weeks.
• On the other hand, Christian Brinser put together a fine day putting the ball, averaging 48.7 yards on three kicks, including one downed on ASU’s 3-yard line.
• For parts of Saturday's game, Missouri’s offense was in feast-or-famine mode and didn’t give the defense much of a rest on the sideline. MU’s first two scoring drives last only 1:35 and 1:31, and they also had non-scoring possessions that lasted all of 45 seconds, 7 seconds, 1:30, 1:10.
And that, folks, is the scary downside to the no-huddle offense. "Some people would say when you’re a spread offense and you’re fast-paced, that’s one of the Achilles’ heels,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson said after the game. “So I think you’ve got to find a balance there. Or you’ve just got to get really good at scoring a whole lot really fast. That’s the flip side of it. But I feel like when we’ve gotten in those situations this year, we’ve been able to finish the game.”
Franklin and the offense did just that Saturday with a 94-yard TD drive that ate up 6:35 off the clock and an 87-yard TD drive that melted away another 3:18. The Tigers didn’t abandon their no-huddle identity on those drives but they dialed down the tempo and — most important — converted all three third downs on those two series.
• No matter how many yards Franklin racks up, Missouri's defense has to stop missing tackles. Perimeter players were wrapping their arms around gusts of winds way too many times Saturday, which helped extend four ASU drives that lasted 10 plays or more. You can win playing some bend-but-don't-break defense, but the blown tackles are going to haunt this defense at some point.
• I also wonder how much of MU's tackling issues are related to the targeting penalties, of which MU has now earned two with cornerback Randy Ponder's first-half flag. According to the letter of the law, this one appeared to be targeting as Ponder led with his head and struck J.D. McKissic in the back of the neck/head region. But .. and here's the big but ... even more so than Andrew Wilson's targeting penalty three weeks earlier, Ponder's hit illustrates what's wrong with the rule. Any other season his tackle would be considered an excellent, physical football play.
• Lastly, Missouri picked up a verbal commitment over the weekend, getting a pledge from Berrien Springs, Mich., defensive end Jhonny Williams, who was in town on an official visit. Williams (6-6, 230), was initially committed to Toledo but opened his recruiting this summer. He also holds offers from several mid-major programs, including Ball State, Bowling Green and San Diego State, and has recently drawn interest from Nebraska and Michigan State, he said Sunday. “I pretty much like everything about Missuori and their program,” he said, “and what they can do to prepare me as a defensive lineman.” He’s the 24th player to commit to Mizzou’s 2014 class.