Like many experts (and so-called experts), my opinion of the Missouri Tigers changed dramatically last Saturday night. My observations of the Tigers have been limited to just a few games, and in those previous games, I frankly wasn't impressed. Missouri had to fight back from a ten point halftime deficit to defeat Illinois, and likewise needed a last minute 68 yard touchdown reception by T.J. Moe to avert an upset loss at home to San Diego State. And, of course, who could forget how the Tigers dorked around with Colorado earlier this month. So last Saturday night, I sat down and expected to the Sooners explode all over the Tigers.
In August, starting running back Derrick Washington was suspended and then dismissed from the team after being arrested for two separate assault charges. In his place, De'Vion Moore and Henry Josey have picked up the slack. Earlier in the season in limited viewing, Missouri's running game appeared to have the same issues noted in the bowl game loss to Navy last season. Sure, they didn't give up the run, but they had all but abandoned running inside. Defenses gave the Tigers the middle of the field, but the Tigers weren't biting, preferring to run sweeps outside.
But Saturday night, I saw a different offense. The Tigers ran the ball effectively...and up the middle, no less. It forces defenses to defend the whole field, and it opens up the passing game. Missouri ran 38 times for 178 yards against Oklahoma, though they rank ninth in the Big XII with 138.4 yards per game and rank last with only 220 rushes for the season. Blaine Gabbert ranks in the middle of the Big XII statistically this season, but the impressive statistic is that he's spreading the ball around with his receivers. Moe, Michael Egnew, and Jerrel Jackson all rank in the top ten in the Big XII in receiving this season.
Missouri's defense has received a lot of credit for the Tigers' success this season. The Tigers rank first in the conference allowing 13.1 points a game. They rank second in the conference in rushing defense, and fifth in pass defense. They lead the conference in Red Zone defense, allowing only 11 scores in 21 opponent trips inside their 20 yard line. They've allowed 7 touchdowns in the red zone, but have forced 1 fumble and three interceptions to end scoring threats.
Defensive end Aldon Smith missed three games with a broken fibula, but returned against the Sooners to end an Oklahoma scoring threat with a 58 yard interception return. But nose tackle Dominique Hamilton is out for the rest of the season with a broken ankle suffered early against the Sooners. Kenji Jackson has taken over one of the safety positions and leads the Tigers with two interceptions this season.
After the jump, you can review our entire preview of the Tigers from this summer.
Going into the fourth quarter last October, Missouri looked like they were going to win their third straight game against the Huskers until lightning figuratively struck in the monsoon. Zac Lee found Niles Paul twice for touchdowns while Blaine Gabbert found Ndamukong Suh and Dejon Gomes...and the Tigers victory was flushed down the drain. The Tigers went on to finish 8-5, losing to Oklahoma State, Texas, and Baylor over the next month.
Many Tiger fans wonder "what if" things didn't happen that rainy night in Columbia. Rock M Nation's Bill Connelly wrote for "Cornhusker Kickoff" that injuries to Gabbert and cornerback Carl Gettis led to Missouri's collapse. In fact, he points to those injuries as reasons why Missouri struggled last season. Gabbert only completed 44% of his passes in three games after being injured, with 5 interceptions and only one touchdown, while completing 63% of his passes in the rest of his games with 23 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions.
The Columbia Daily Tribune's Dave Matter wrote last week that while Nebraska was a unanimous pick to win the Big XII North, he thinks that "if the Tigers had showed up against Navy and won the Texas Bowl, my guess is Nebraska and Missouri split the first-place votes evenly." Maybe he forgot that the Nebraska/Missouri game was in Lincoln, much like his fellow Missourian, Mike DeArmond of the Kansas City Star.
Much of the optimism in Columbia revolves around Blaine Gabbert, who had a fine sophomore season for the Tigers. 3,593 yards, 24 touchdowns, and only nine interceptions was an impressive debut season. So impressive that Sports Illustrated listed him ninth on their mock 2011 NFL Draft, meaning that Tiger fans are already worried about who's next. One problem with getting too far ahead of themselves with expectations of Gabbert is that Missouri needs to replace their top two receivers...and considering what Danario Alexander did last season, that's no small task. Alexander was a playmaker last season, making not only incredible catches game after game, but then adding impressive yards after the catch. Just look at Alexander's numbers: 113 receptions, 1,781 yards, 14 touchdowns. This will force Gabbert to refine his game, as he can't simply throw the ball up towards #81 and count on his playmaker to come through once again.
Junior Jarrell Jackson is the most likely candidate to step up and be that playmaker. When Wes Perry was out against Iowa State, Jackson caught eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. Overall, he caught 37 passes for 458 yards in 2009. Wes Kemp is a big receiver (6'4" and 220 lbs) in the Alexander mold who caught 23 passes for 418 yards and three touchdowns in 2009. Junior tight end Michael Egnew is expected to start, but only has caught 7 passes in 26 games so far. Rock M Nation suggests that Missouri's success lies not in finding another Alexander in 2010, but rather whether Gabbert can spread the field and not depend on his top receiver as a security blanket.
Running back Derrick Washington saw his production dip as a junior last season, as did backup De'Vion Moore. Some of it may have been schematic, some of it might have been productivity. If you watched the Texas Bowl broadcast, you were treated to listening to ESPN's Bob Davie's constant criticism of Missouri's game plan as offensive coordinator David Yost refused to run inside, instead running sweeps and pass plays as Navy sold out to cover the wide field. In any event, Missouri will need more production from the backs this season. It'll help to have four offensive linemen back, including tackles Elvis Fisher and Dan Hoch who drew honorable mention all-Big XII honors last season.
Seven starters return on defense, led by sophomore defensive end Aldon Smith, who was the Big XII's defensive freshman of the year. He ranked ninth last year nationally in sacks with 11. The Tigers will need to apply more pressure on quarterbacks in 2010, as last year quarterbacks feasted against the Tiger defense. Junior Jacquies Smith should also be a productive pass rusher from the opposite side. The defensive line was stout against the run, with nose tackle Dominique Hamilton clogging up the middle.
All-American linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is off to the NFL, leaving hard-hitting junior Will Ebner as the leading returning linebacker. 78 tackles last season earned him honorable mention all-Big XII honors. Senior Andrew Gachkar is also a hard tackler as well. Sophomore Zaviar Gooden moves up from safety to fill the open spot at linebacker.
The secondary is lead by senior corners Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, who both earned honorable mention all-Big XII mention last season. Senior safety Jasper Simmons also earned honorable mention all-Big XII mention last season. Despite those honors in the secondary, the Tigers were 11th in the league with only eight interceptions and last in opponents pass completion percentage at 64%. That might explain why redshirt freshman safety Matt White could jump into the starting lineup this season.
If the Tigers can find players to replace the production of Danario Alexander last season, the Tigers will once again contend in the North. But surprising losses to Baylor and Navy last season raise the question whether the Pinkel factor might have just gone dormant during the 2007 and 2008 seasons rather than being excised.