Missouri football players carried more than the disappointment of their season-opening loss to Wyoming around campus this week.
New to their pockets were business-card-sized reminders aimed at reversing the team’s minus-3 turnover margin.
“TURNOVERS = VICTORY!!” read the slips of paper Barry Odom distributed as his team turned its attention toward Saturday's home opener against West Virginia.
Props have become a big deal in college football. Miami tosses its turnover chain around the neck of any player who secures a football for the Hurricanes. Tennessee once had a turnover trash can, back before the coach who started that trend got canned. Florida State used to celebrate with a turnover backpack, but this season swapped it out for a big-play mask.
The Seminoles might be onto something. The Tigers need masks.
Not for the big plays they create. For the big plays created against them.
If bedridden Liberty coach Hugh Freeze can have a dental chair installed in a visiting team’s press box, surely someone from Mizzou’s medical school can plant a massive oxygen tank and breathing masks on the Memorial Stadium sideline. The more, the merrier. The bigger, the better. Paint them black and gold.
Every glance at the contraption during the game would remind Odom and his players of the thin air of Laramie, and what the end result will be if they don't take the time to catch their breath and clear their heads when the cowboy chips hit the fan.
And when something inevitably goes wrong — because in football something always goes wrong unless you are Alabama — Odom can call a timeout and gather his players at the breathing station to regroup.
Feel free to come up with a better idea.
But something has to change.
Since the Tigers’ deflating loss at Wyoming, a lot has been said about Odom’s teams starting slowly, and Odom’s teams not playing well when they have a long time to prepare for an opponent, and while these are fair topics, they seem to miss the biggest issue.
Odom’s teams have a bad habit of curling into the fetal position when something goes wrong in a game.
"I thought I had pretty good feel on kind of how we would respond to some of those situations," Odom said this week. "And I was wrong. We didn't respond very well. But it's an opportunity for us to teach from it."
In baseball terms, the Tigers have become the nervous infielder who botches a grounder, still has time to make the play but rushes and throws the ball over the first baseman’s head. Then, during his next trip to the plate, he strikes out because he can't get over the errors.
Mizzou turns a bad play into bad plays, turns bad plays into bad quarters.
Bad quarters are the black marks on Odom's worst losses.
His teams tend to fall apart for too long, then rush to put the pieces back together before it's too late. Problem is, sometimes it's too late.
To suggest the Tigers overlooked Wyoming implies that the opponent makes a difference. It doesn’t. Mizzou can self-destruct against any team. Fixing it is going to require work between the earholes, not just on the practice field.
How else can one explain a Kelly Bryant fumble turning into a landslide that did not stop until the Cowboys had turned Mizzou’s 14-3 lead into a 34-17 UW advantage and eventual win.
The Tigers did not struggle to start fast. They were up by two touchdowns after their first two drives.
The Tigers were not tired. They outscored Wyoming 14-3 in the fourth quarter and had a chance to win the game on the last play.
The big questions remain: Why can't the Tigers snap out of their spirals sooner? Why can't someone — coach or player — produce the play that stops the bleeding?
Let's review that miserable second quarter in Laramie. Bryant fumbled. Receiver Jonathan Nance could have minimized the damage if he'd made a tackle, but he whiffed. The offense went three-and-out the next possession. The defense collapsed on a 61-yard touchdown run. The offense could not turn second-and-goal at the five-yard line into a touchdown and had to settle for a field goal. The defense collapsed again on a 75-yard touchdown run. Another fumble lost, this time by Larry Rountree one yard short of the end zone. Bryant, the only Tiger alert and engaged enough to chase down the player attempting to turn another Mizzou turnover into a touchdown, happened to pull down Alijah Halliburton by his collar, creating a penalty that gave Wyoming an easy field goal headed into halftime.
If it felt familiar, it was.
Last Saturday marked the fifth time an Odom-coached team lost a game it once led by multiple possessions. The worst examples occurred within the Tigers' past 10 games. That's concerning for a fourth-year coach.
A 23-14 Mizzou advantage over South Carolina at halftime of last season’s game unraveled to become a rain-soaked 37-35 loss that flipped on the Gamecocks outscoring the Tigers 17-0 in the third quarter despite playing their backup quarterback. That quarter was marred by a promising MU drive that reached the Gamecocks’ 11-yard line before three MU penalties and a lost fumble squandered a great chance to score. The Gamecocks returned an interception for a touchdown that same quarter. Mizzou missed its field goal. South Carolina made one.
A 14-3 Mizzou lead against Kentucky midway through the fourth quarter of last season’s game turned into a 15-14 loss after the Wildcats capitalized on a Mizzou pass interference penalty in the end zone to win on the game’s final play. The call was debatable, but the meltdown that created the opportunity for it was not. Mizzou failed to get a first down after halftime, gave up a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown and failed to convert a third-and-2 on an attempt that would have iced the game.
And now there is the Wyoming Wipeout.
In each example, mistakes multiplied. Panic spread. If the Tigers snapped out of it, they did so too late.
Tackling better, strengthening the turnover margin and blowing fewer assignments are the fundamental improvements that will free the Tigers from more heartbreak.
None of those addresses the biggest flaw of Odom-coached teams to this point.
They forget to breathe.