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Mizzou football at Auburn: 5 things to watch in MU’s first trip to The Plains

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Abilene Christian Missouri Football

Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz watches his team warm up before the start of an NCAA college football game against Abilene Christian Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Columbia, Mo. 

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Here are five things to watch when Missouri (2-1) makes its first trip in program history to Auburn (2-1) in both teams' SEC opener, Saturday at 11 a.m. on ESPN.

1. Time for change along O-line?

What’s happened to the Missouri offensive line? The Tigers have struggled to get a push up front for the running game against three nonconference opponents, while penalties and negative plays have consistently doomed the offense. Mizzou’s running backs ran for 140 yards on 32 carries against FCS Abilene Christian last week — and, far more alarming, picked up just 39 yards (1.2 per carry) before contact. Translation: The Tigers’ blocking scheme couldn’t keep FCS defenders out of the backfield. All the negative yardage on six O-line penalties and busted blocks only makes things more difficult for an already inconsistent offense. MU coach Eli Drinkwitz said he’d use Tuesday and Wednesday’s practices to evaluate the depth along the O-line to determine who starts at Auburn. The updated depth chart indicated a possible change: Incumbent right guard, Connor Wood was listed with an OR along with Mitchell Walters. Wood has started each of the last three games. Wood had two penalties Saturday and leads the O-line with four through three weeks. Walters, a 6-foot-8 sophomore from St. Louis and Mehlville High, has played 30 snaps off the bench this year at guard and as an extra tackle in unbalanced formations.  

2. More road woes for Mizzou?

Now in his third season at MU, Drinkwitz has guided the Tigers to just two wins on an opponent’s home field: 2020 at South Carolina, in front of a severely reduced crowd during the pandemic, and 2021 at Vanderbilt. Overall, Mizzou is just 2-8 in true road games under Drinkwitz with six of the losses decided by 17 points or more. The Tigers suffered their second-most lopsided loss of the Drinkwitz era two weeks ago at Kansas State, a 40-12 bloodletting marred by turnovers, special teams breakdowns and listless play along the line of scrimmage. The crowd noise at Kansas State clearly bothered the Tigers. Bad news: Auburn has averaged more than 85,000 fans at three home games this year — about 33,000 more than the capacity crowd at K-State. Mizzou’s ability to overcome a loud, hostile crowd will be critical. “Everybody keeps telling me how much of environment Auburn is going to be,” senior safety Martez Manuel said. “So being in a stadium like that, we’ve got to lean on each other and realize it's just us in there.” Here’s some promising news for Mizzou: Auburn is No. 130 nationally in turnover margin at minus-8 and is one of only four teams that hasn’t forced a turnover all season.

3. What’s Auburn’s plan at QB?

Mizzou’s defense has prepared for multiple quarterbacks this week. That’s because Auburn has played two this season, T.J. Finley and Robby Ashford, and has a third, Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada, who led an upset of Alabama last year. But news broke Tuesday that Finley is expected to miss the game with an injury, adding a layer of intrigue to Mizzou’s defensive plan. If Auburn turns the offense over to Ashford, MU’s defense will have to be prepared for quarterback runs. Ashford, a transfer from Oregon, has rushed for 158 yards in limited action this year with more than 70% of his yardage coming on designed runs, per Pro Football Focus, with the rest coming on scrambles. Five of his 24 runs have gone for at least 10 yards with three going for 20 or more. As a passer, he’s completed only 51.7% of his attempts with a touchdown and two interceptions. If Calzada sees some action, it’ll be his second straight year facing Mizzou: For Texas A&M last year, he threw for 148 yards and a couple TDs in Columbia. 

4. MU front four under pressure

No matter whom Auburn plays at quarterback, Mizzou needs more production from its defensive line, especially the veteran edge rushers. Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat are coming off two quiet games at defensive end. They combined for just two tackles against Abilene Christian, none behind the line of scrimmage. The D-line has just four tackles for loss through three games and just one by a defensive end the last two weeks. “I think as a defense, not just the defensive ends, we've got to create more havoc,” defensive coordinator Blake Baker said. “The last two weeks, that's not us. That's not our style.” Abilene Christian used extra blockers to max protect its quarterback, who then neutralized the pass rush by releasing the ball on an average, Baker said, of 2.1 seconds after the snap. Still, Mizzou expects more carnage from the front four. Auburn could be vulnerable: Penn State pillaged the Tigers for 11 tackles for loss last week, including six sacks. And don't forget, Baker worked under Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz when they coached together at Miami.

5. Can Luther Burden III explode again?

Drinkwitz plans to get Luther Burden III more involved last week paid off with a busy afternoon for the freshman playmaker. He returned four punts, including a 78-yarder for a touchdown, caught six passes for 58 yards and took a few snaps out of the wildcat formation. The Tigers will need that kind of day, maybe more, from the rookie wide receiver in Auburn. Burden had just one catch, zero carries the last time Mizzou left Columbia. Auburn knows what’s at stake. “You try to do it all for that guy,” Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said. “Mix it up, play man coverage. At some point someone's got the match-up on him. That's the one thing that's a challenge for us. You got to match up on a guys sometimes. You’ve got to cover 1-on-1. You can only get in the zone so often.” Auburn hasn’t allowed a punt return through three weeks but can be exposed for big plays from scrimmage. In the SEC, only Arkansas and Vanderbilt have allowed more 20-yard plays than Auburn’s 14.

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