1. A field position disaster
I find myself bargaining at all times while watching the Missouri offense. After every good play, my first thought is, "Well at least they've flipped the field a little bit." I don't expect points because, well, I've watched the team.
Bargaining doesn't always work, of course. When Missouri actually got a solid kick return to start the game, then converted a first down to get near midfield, my first thought was indeed about field position. Russell Hansbrough got stuffed on first down, and a flare pass got eaten up on second down, so it was third-and-13 with an obvious punt coming. Whatever -- Tennessee will be starting inside its 25.
Nope. On a busted play, Drew Lock tried to hand to Hansbrough, who was nowhere around him, then panicked and threw it in the direction of Wesley Leftwich, who wasn't looking for the ball. Interception, ball at midfield.
Here's Missouri's starting field position over the next nine drives: 23, 5, 6, 23, 20, 20, 10, 11, 8. Average: 13.4.
Here's Tennessee's over the same period of time: 49, 44, 60, 48, 37, 22, 36, 24, 56, 40. Average: 41.6.
That Tennessee was only up 19 points after tilting the field at about a perfect 90 degree angle, I have no idea. Okay, I have a very good idea: Missouri's defense always stiffened. But the way that the field position was self-perpetuating was incredible. Usually you tilt the field, and then you score, and a new cycle begins. But for Tennessee, it just continued both because the Missouri offense was failing so quickly (in seven first-half possessions, only two lasted more than three plays, and none lasted longer than six) and because when Tennessee would kick off after an inevitable field goal, Missouri's kick return team would implode. After that initial kick return, Finis Stribling returned the ball 16 yards, then 11 (net: 5 after a penalty). Then Jason Reese* took short kicks 11 and nine yards. After Tennessee's last score, Stribling ripped off an eight-yard return to the 11.
* Jason Reese -- tight end Jason Reese -- is the first up man, a guy who could legitimately expect to field a short kickoff!. Missouri has had guys like Gahn McGaffie and Jimmie Hunt in that spot in previous years. That's how much of a concern the blocking has been.
That's just incredible. Stribling had his issues, but Missouri's blocking on these kicks was [whips out thesaurus] abysmal. Dreadful. Awful. Deplorable. Lamentable. Frightful. Hopeless. Dire. Woeful. Lousy. Crummy. And that was with a tight end as an up man!
Playing so many true and redshirt freshmen has had an obvious effect on the Missouri offense, but it appears to have also destroyed Missouri's special teams unit. Andrew Baggett has been fine, and Corey Fatony was fine until his leg got tired from punting so damn much. But the return games have been worse than I could have imagined. Missouri came into this game ranked 106th or worse in three of Brian Fremeau's special teams efficiency columns (kick returns, punt returns, kickoffs), and as of this morning, the Tigers are 125th in opponents' average kick returns and 127th in kick returns. The Tigers have missed Marcus Murphy desperately this year but have also missed having more sophomores, juniors, and seniors on the coverage and return teams. In theory, that rectifies itself to a degree next year, no matter the coach.
2. I forgave Josh Henson in the third quarter
I don't go overboard with the "questioning a coach's manhood" stuff like a lot of people do when yelling about play-calling. But I came close last night. The first-half play-calling was so timid, so cautious that it was driving me crazy, and for better or worse, I'm more forgiving toward play-calling than most.
Drew Lock's first four completions went for 4, -3, -3, and 1 yards. The first eight Missouri rushes gained 0, 6, 0, 2, 7 (on third-and-11), 2, 0, and 3 yards. When field position shifted in Tennessee's favor, Mizzou's offensive philosophy was basically "just punt it and hope the defense can get a turnover." The Tigers generated plenty of havoc (10 tackles for loss), but the turnovers didn't come. So the "forfeit because of bad field position" approach remained for long periods of time.
It got to the point where I was missing all those organized running back screens from last week. But Mizzou tried a couple of those on the first drive of the second half, and they gained 1 and -3 yards.
At that point, I basically decided that Josh Henson knew what he was doing, or at least that I couldn't come up with anything better. Missouri couldn't run, couldn't get guys into space with short passing, and couldn't protect Drew Lock long enough for him to look downfield. At that point, your play-calling options fall to "maybe eventually try a fake punt or something." (Field position probably wasn't good enough for that either.) The almost hilariously conservative play-calling, which opened up once UT finally went up three possessions (and Lock started doing a better job of avoiding the pressure Tennessee was bringing), helped to assure that the Tigers at least sort of had a chance heading into the fourth quarter.
This Missouri defense is apparently impossible to wear down. In the first three quarters, the Tiger offense had two possessions that lasted longer than two minutes and none that lasted longer than three. Mizzou's D was constantly on the field, and Tennessee's offense is good enough to at least generate some first downs here and there.
But aside from Joshua Dobbs' touchdown run late in the first half, the Tigers stiffened short of the end zone every time. Tennessee's own conservatism helped with that, obviously, but Missouri still answered the challenge it was given. And because Missouri's offense was all but quick kicking but wasn't turning the ball over inside the 10, the Tigers technically still had a chance once they finally scored in the fourth quarter. It was still mostly hopeless, but I guess the approach served its purpose. In the end, Mizzou failed because the offensive players couldn't generate advantages, not because of the play-calling, timid as it may have been.
(I didn't specifically mention awful offensive line play here because it's both mean and redundant at this point, but ... yeah. It was bad. Again. It's been a constant reminder that youth hasn't been to blame for all of Missouri's issues.)
3. Needing a bounce that never came
There were two official fumbles, and Tennessee recovered both. For some reason, Evan Berry's fumble on the second-half kickoff (which UT also recovered) wasn't in the official scorebook -- maybe he was down? -- but UT fell on that one, too, regardless. And I believe Tennessee's punt return man juggled the ball and had it go out of bounds at one point as well. And Tennessee's final scoring drive began with Charles Harris jumping up to break up a screen pass; he nearly came down with the interception, and if he reeled it in, the pick six potential was high. But the ball fell to the ground.
In a game in which Missouri desperately needed a bounce, the Tigers couldn't get it. How many times have I written that this season? One happy bounce would have made the fourth quarter infinitely more interesting.
4. MVP: Michael Scherer
(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)
8.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss. Scherer was all over the place, fighting desperately to keep the Tigers in the game and keep his teammates dialed in. Hell of a game, Mike.