COLUMBIA, Mo. — There’s a common thread among the Missouri football team’s three losses: an inefficient run game. Now the Tigers travel to Athens, Ga., coming off back-to-back road losses to face the nation’s No. 4 run defense.
The Georgia defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown, and through eight games has held opponents to a Southeastern Conference-best 77.6 rushing yards per game. If the Tigers (5-3, 2-2 SEC) have any hope of earning their first road win of the season at No. 6 Georgia (7-1, 4-1), they’ll have to stop their most troubling trend.
“Georgia is one of the best defenses in the country,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said this week. “Their line of scrimmage and the way they play … they have a tremendous scheme and coaches. They’ve got athletes all over the field. It’ll be a tremendous challenge. We’ve got to make sure somehow, some way we find ways to extend the drive.”
Inability to extend drives was a key to Missouri’s downfall at Kentucky two weeks ago and the week prior at Vanderbilt. At UK, the Tigers were 4 of 14 on third-down conversions and 0 for 2 on fourth down. The Tigers logged a season-low 34 rushing attempts and averaged fewer than 4 yards per attempt.
Before the loss at Vanderbilt, the only times Missouri averaged fewer than 4 yards per rush was in its victory over South Carolina, a game in which the Tigers ran for 194 yards on 54 carries (3.6 yards per carry), and in the season-opening loss at Wyoming (2.7).
“Sometimes there’s going to be a (defensive) guy open in the hole and we’ve got to make him miss,” Odom said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’m not saying we have to run for 250. That’s not what I’m saying. We have to be able to extend the drive so that every third down can’t come down to third and seven and you’ve got to complete a pass. We get into third and short, we’ll have an opportunity to get more of those conversions.”
In the loss to the Wildcats, Missouri’s only touchdown came on a 74-yard screen pass to running back Tyler Badie, who’s been the No. 2 option behind Larry Rountree all season. After his freshman season last year, Badie packed on 15 pounds and focused on running stronger. At 5 feet 9 and 190 pounds, he is still Missouri’s smallest back, but running backs coach Cornell Ford said the offense has to work on opening up space for him.
“We still want to see (Badie) play better behind his pads,” Ford said. “He’s done some good things for us on the perimeter. Now we’ve just got to keep that going, and then get more plays out of him on the inside, a little bit less dancing and a little bit more pad-level and downhill-type of running.”
After a strong finish to 2018, Rountree has been less productive than expected, particularly in those three road losses. In the loss at Vanderbilt, Rountree rushed for just 29 yards on 12 carries. Badie couldn’t pick up much of the slack, totaling 47 yards on 10 attempts. Third-stringer Dawson Downing logged just two carries for 5 yards.
Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley prides himself on a balanced offense but said it’s hard to compensate when the run game isn’t working. While the balance was present for most of the year, it’s dropped off since the start of this three-game road stretch.
“We’re not a good offense when we can’t run the ball,” Dooley said.
Ford said there’s no one place to put the blame for the lack of production. He said it’s a combination of needing better protection from the offensive line, harder running from the three backs and better play from the quarterbacks. Center Trystan Colon-Castillo said after the Kentucky loss that he didn’t know what to make of the breakdowns.
“We really pride ourselves since I’ve been here on running the football,” he said. “So you go back-to-back, two weeks in a row laying eggs in the run game and not being able to run the ball whenever and impose your will. That’s not our identity as an offense, especially our offensive line. Something doesn’t add up. I don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely demoralizing.”