COLUMBIA, Mo. – According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus who study game film and churn out countless statistics each week, Wyoming running back Xazavian Valladay ranked among college football’s leaders last week with 102 rushing yards after contact against Missouri.
Which begs the question: Where was this supposed contact?
Midway through Mizzou’s dreadful second quarter last Saturday, Valladay charged through the Tigers’ defense like a battering ram — but with nothing to batter. With eight defenders crowding the tackle box, nobody nudged Valladay off course on his 61-yard dash to the end zone. Safety Jordan Ulmer got blocked into linebacker Cale Garrett while safety Joshuah Bledsoe left the middle of the field exposed when he tracked down a fake receiver sweep.
If the Tigers requested a mulligan, they were denied. On Wyoming’s next snap from scrimmage, quarterback Sean Chambers chugged through an open alley past a diving Garrett, then delivered a stiff arm to Bledsoe that sent the safety sprawling to the turf. He was in the end zone 75 yards later.
Two runs, 136 yards, 14 points.
Stopping the run wasn’t a problem for the Tigers in 2018, when they held opponents to fewer than 136 rushing yards in eight of 13 games. But poor angles and missed tackles sabotaged Missouri’s opener, a shocking 37-31 loss that reignited concerns about the head coach’s ability to produce the kind of defense he oversaw as a coordinator.
The Tigers counted 13 missed tackles in their postgame evaluation. Garrett was otherwise spectacular with 16 tackles — more than any other Power 5 player through the first week of the season — but missed a crucial stop on Chambers’ go-ahead touchdown that put Wyoming in front for good.
“I’m not raising the level of concern,” Tigers coach Barry Odom said this week as the Tigers (0-1) shifted their attention to Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff against West Virginia (1-0). “I need to see a little bit more of the body of work to see where we stack up. … Did we tackle as well as we wanted to? No, we didn’t. Hopefully, we see a better effort in those areas in this second game.”
Odom was a soothsayer a week earlier, when he pointed out that Missouri didn’t do much live tackling during preseason camp, a strategy to keep players healthy on both sides of the ball, especially at linebacker, where injuries have already tested the team’s depth. The Tigers added more live tackling drills to practices this week with hopes that it pays off against the Mountaineers.
Was it natural to expect some rusty tackling in the opener?
“It’s easy to make that excuse but (tackling) comes with the job,” Garrett said. “We’re supposed to be able to do that regardless. I expect more out of myself and everybody else. We’ve got to be better and we will be better.”
Considering how well the Tigers played against the run last season — MU ranked No. 22 nationally, allowing 126.5 yards per game — they figured to handle a one-dimensional Wyoming offense that rarely puts the ball in the air. Outside of the two long runs, Garrett helped suffocate the Wyoming attack for stretches, making 13 tackles on running plays that picked up 3 or fewer yards. For the game, Missouri held 28 of Wyoming’s 42 runs to fewer than 4 yards, though two of those carries were short-yardage third downs that moved the chains and another 1-yard touchdown. The two long runs accounted for nearly 46 percent of Wyoming’s 297 yards on the ground.
The Tigers played exclusively with its base three-safety package on the field, though one of those safeties, usually Khalil Oliver, lined up near the line of scrimmage as a third linebacker. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters insisted the night’s undoing wasn’t a matter of schematic mistakes.
“Those two plays counted for like half the yards,” Walters said. “You give up those two plays and they don’t have a lot of yards, especially with where those happened on the field. We had a lot of other plays where we fit it up well and got guys down. We started off the game pretty good and I thought we settled in there after the second quarter and gave us a chance to win. We kept fighting. But you have those two types of explosive plays back to back, it’s a killer especially with momentum on the road against a good team like Wyoming. They were physical and they outplayed us and made more plays than us. That’s the bottom line.”
It’s only the first week of September, but the Tigers’ season could hinge on how long the Wyoming hangover lasts. Walters liked what he saw in the team’s first practices once the Tigers returned to Columbia. If it’s any consolation, West Virginia’s running game barely got past the line of scrimmage in its 20-13 win over James Madison. The Mountaineers ran 24 times for just 34 yards — and don’t feature a mobile quarterback or a fleet of tight ends to recreate the blocking schemes Wyoming used to bamboozle Walters’ defense.
One game down and Walters hasn’t lost faith.
“I don’t want to overreact after one outing,” Walters said. “I’ve got to believe what my eyes have been telling me since the spring. The kids are still confident. They’re embarrassed. They’re disappointed. But they’re still confident. We’ve got a lot of football to play. It’s a long season. We can make it right at 11 o’clock on Saturday.”