COLUMBIA, Mo. - A week after wondering if Missouri’s offense would ever be the same as Kelly Bryant writhed in pain on Faurot Field, the Tigers unleashed their most complete offensive performance of the season on Saturday in their 38-27 win over Ole Miss.
We’ll hand out the weekly awards here shortly, but first, a nod to offensive coordinator Derek Dooley. As if Derek Mason and the Vanderbilt Commodores didn’t have enough issues this week, now they’ve got some wrinkles to study from Dooley’s collection of plays and playmakers.
First, welcome to the world of pre-snap shifts and motions. Dooley had his backs, tight ends and receivers moving all over the place before the snap on Saturday. Dooley moved one of his most important chess pieces all over the field, slot receiver Johnathon Johnson. Twice on MU’s first series, Johnson went in motion out of four-receiver sets, once running behind Kelly Bryant deep in the pocket and snagging a short pass in the flat. A few snaps later, Johnson ran in front of Bryant before the snap and grabbed a shovel pass. The two plays only moved the line of scrimmage 5 yards, but the eye candy gave the defense something to think about the rest of the night every time Johnson lined up.
Second, Dooley got creative with some unique packages. First, the biggie, the five-wide, empty backfield set that led to Mizzou’s first touchdown. Left tackle Yasir Durant lined up in the right slot, flanked by Jalen Knox on the outside and Albert Okwuegbunam on the inside. Tight end Logan Christopherson replaced Durant at left tackle, with wideout Jonathan Nance and tailback Tyler Badie in a stacked formation to Bryant’s left. Bryant faked a bubble screen to Durant on the wide side of the field—the big O-lineman sold it well—then turned back to his left and hit Badie with a screen. He snaked behind a convoy of blocks from left guard Tre’Vour Wallace Simms, center Trystan Colon-Castillo and Nance to reach the end zone.
Later, we saw Dooley go with an incredibly rare 22 personnel package (two running backs, two tight ends). Larry Rountree lined up directly behind Bryant in the pistol with Badie to their right as an off-set H-back. At the snap, Bryant faked a handoff to Rountree just as Badie reversed course and ran behind the quarterback, took a toss and raced 14 yards outside for a first down.
Badie is a true difference-maker in this offense. Through six games he leads all SEC running backs with 19 catches for 210 yards. In the second half, Badie ran a wheel route to the wide side of the field, getting a matchup with 25-pound linebacker Sam Williams. Badie hauled in a 49-yard pass.
“He’s like a scatback,” Bryant said. “His favorite player is Alvin Kamara. He kind of reminds me of him. You can line him up in the slot at receiver and he’ll make plays downfield. Also you can just him out on the perimeter and he’s going to make a guy miss and go 60-70 yards.”
Late in the game, Dooley broke out a rare three-tight end formation. With Niko Hea and Daniel Parker Jr. in to block, Bryant found Okwuegbunam deep for a 36-yard pass.
This is a loaded offense that produced a season-high 562 yards of offense in the only game during its five-game homestand that wasn’t over by halftime. The Tigers averaged 7.2 yards per play — the team’s most in an SEC game since 2017 against Tennessee.
STATS THAT MATTER
That’s how many rushing yards per game the Tigers averaged. It marked a season-high against FBS competition. Even more impressive, it came against a sound Ole Miss defense that had been strong against the run coming into Columbia. The Tigers went heavy with lots of two-tight end formations and ran the ball almost exclusively with the tailbacks, only calling a couple designed runs for Bryant. Perhaps by no coincidence, this was the first game Missouri stuck with the same starting five along the O-line.
That was Saturday’s announced attendance, the first time the announced crowd matched Memorial Stadium’s capacity since the 2014 Arkansas game. It would be naïve to throw out a blanket statement that Mizzou has won back its fans after the disastrous 2015, but Saturday’s crowd gave some credence to Jim Sterk’s comment back in June that MU had started to “gained back the trust” of its fans.
PLAYER(S) OF THE GAME
This list has to start with Bryant. You’d never know he was playing with a sprained left knee and wearing a brace for the first time in his career. He was crisp with his decision-making, short of one bad read on the fourth-quarter interception, accurate with his passes and moved well in and outside the pocket. Shortly after he came to Mizzou in January, everyone recognized his athleticism and charisma. What couldn’t be measured until this fall was his toughness. A-plus so far.
In the wake of last week’s knee injury, Odom was impressed with Bryant’s first full practice last Tuesday. Odom couldn’t believe how good the QB looked. Would he look that good come Saturday?
“I was hoping … and a little bit of prayer, a little bit of crossing your fingers and all the above,” Odom said. “I saw what I saw and I believed. From Tuesday on, he didn't miss a beat. I mean it's a little bit amazing to me with that injury that was able to come back and not miss a rep of practice. It says a lot about the type of person he is.
“He made some big-time throws. I know he wants to have that one back in Cover 2 when the corner sunk off and got in the lane and made the interception, but you talk about a competitive son of a gun. He did a heck of a job.”
Bryant took two hard shots to the head, both drawing targeting penalties.
“I don't know that I've been around a tougher dude because he pops right back up,” Odom said. “When I'm trying to get a read (from him) like, ‘Kelly, you all right?’
“‘I'm good, Coach.’ That's what he says every time. ‘I'm good, Coach.’”
Runner-up: Johnson didn’t have his best night on special teams. He muffed a punt early in the game and later inexplicably downed a kickoff inside the 5-yard line. But he put together one of his best games at receiver, catching eight of the 10 balls Bryant threw him for 110 yards. Five of those eight went for first downs. He beat Ole Miss’ coverage on a couple corner routes for 23 and 20 yards. He took a post 29 yards and later shook off a safety on a slant for 11 yards. With the clock ticking down on MU’s final possession, he converted a third-and-6 with a 17-yard grab to clinch the victory.
“He was special tonight,” Bryant said.
“Big-time kind of performance,” Odom said. “Huge performance. He's a great player. And he's made a lot of plays for Mizzou over the years and tonight was one of his biggest nights.”
With six regular-season games left, Johnson has 2,171 career receiving yards. That’s good for sixth place all-time, trailing only Danario Alexander, Justin Gage, Chase Coffman, J’Mon Moore and Jeremy Maclin. He needs 608 yards to surpass Alexander as the team’s career leader. That’s probably a stretch considering the number of targets on this team, but Johnson should be a lock to finish in the top four or five all-time. His 149 receptions currently rank 10th, one behind Tommy Saunders. If he doubles his production from the first half of the season, he’ll finish with 174 catches, putting him in seventh place.
Runner-up II: Jordan Elliott continues to wreck havoc along the defensive line. He had five tackles, two for losses and two hurries. For the season, he’s eighth in the SEC with eight tackles for loss, third-most among SEC defensive tackles. Through six games, Elliott has played as well as any Mizzou D-tackle since Sheldon Richardson’s All-SEC season in 2012.
“His stat line might not be as (impressive), but he makes a lot of plays when he's not making a tackle,” Odom said. “He's a really, really good defensive tackle.”
• Nick Bolton continues to play at an All-SEC level. He was the first defender at the point of attack on both third and fourth down during the goal-line stand at the end of the first half. And to think some schools passed on Bolton because he’s not tall enough to fit the prototype. Fortunately for the Tigers, low man wins in those scrums on the goal line. Bolton finished with 10 tackles and impacted at least another dozen other plays with his pursuit and physicality. Injured Cale Garrett still leads the SEC with 8.6 tackles per game, but Bolton is right behind him in fourth place with 7.7.
• Dawson Downing finally got his moment of glory with his 54-yard charge to the end zone. He would not be denied a touchdown as he dragged Ole Miss’ Williams the final few yards and stretched for the goal line. It sounds like he’s going to remain a third cog in the tailback committee. Good luck, tacklers.
• Fine work by the O-line all night. Durant was rewarded Monday as the SEC’s co-offensive lineman of the week.
• Okweugbunam is breaking more tackles this year than ever before. He’s always been fast but he’s added a new element of power.
• Does anyone talk more trash than Jarvis Ware? The sophomore cornerback got into it with some Rebel players before kickoff along the Ole Miss bench and was lucky he wasn’t penalized after throwing a punch. Bad look … but he backs up the yapping on the field, rarely giving up an inch in coverage.
• Just two penalties for the Tigers. That’s tied for their fewest in a game under Odom.
NEEDS SOME WORK
• What’s up with Tucker McCann on the PATs? He missed a couple but was perfect on four field goal attempts.
• Johnson might be done as a punt returner. After his first-quarter muff, the staff turned to walk-on receiver Cade Musser, who cleanly caught all his chances, including a 9-yard return. Johnson’s decision to take a knee after corralling a kickoff on the 2-yard line was an obvious brain fart. That’s a rookie mistake by a veteran player. “He thought it would be placed at the 25,” Odom said. “We’ve got to do a better job coaching that and making sure we’re absolutely clear on what you’ve got to do.”
• Ole Miss’ only real threat at wide receiver is slot man Elijah Moore and Mizzou matched him against free safety Joshuah Bledsoe most of the night. That’s a tough matchup for the safety. Bledsoe has been disruptive in the pass game all year and deflected two more passes Saturday to give him seven for the season — the most by any safety in the SEC — but Moore got by him several times on the way to eight catches for 102 yards. Give Ole Miss credit for taking advantage of the mismatch.
• Somehow defensive end Isaiah McGuire got stuck covering tailback Scottie Phillips on a wheel route on Ole Miss’ game-opening 21-yard touchdown pass. Perhaps a blown assignment there by someone on the back end.