Missouri’s game against Missouri State is interesting for any number of reasons, though almost none of them involve the actual game on the field. For one thing, it’s the first time in almost 100 years that these in-state programs will meet on the gridiron. For another, Stec’s back.
Dave Steckel, a Gary Pinkel assistant at Missouri for 14 seasons (eight as linebackers coach, six as defensive coordinator), is entering his third year as the Bears’ head coach.
How’s Stec doing? Depends on how you set the bar. On paper, things have been a struggle. The Bears are just 5-17 in his first two seasons, and after ranking 162nd or better in the Sagarin ratings for each of the six years before his arrival, they ranked just 226th and 185th, respectively.
In a way, though, Steckel was hired to strip the house to the studs and start over. Mission accomplished in that regard.
For much of its history, Missouri State Football has just sort of existed. The Bears went to two Mineral Water Bowls in the 1960s (losing to Northern Illinois in 1963 and Adams State in 1966), reached the FCS quarterfinals in 1989 and falling in a first-round upset in 1990, and that's about it.
Since the two playoff berths, they have fallen into a rut of forgetability. They have won between four and seven games 22 times in the last 25 seasons, topping out at 7-4 in 1993 and 1996 and going 2-9 in both 2006 and 2011.
Former Kansas coach Terry Allen guided the program from 2006-14, fielding mostly competitive squads but never getting over the hump. Following their bottoming out in 2011, they rose to 143rd in Sagarin in 2012, 111th in 2013, and 113th in 2014. The problem: the competition is stiff in the Missouri Valley. In Allen's last two seasons, the Bears played 11 ranked opponents and went 2-9 against them. They were unlucky, too, going only 2-8 in one-possession finishes.
MSU finally gave up on Allen after a 4-8 finish in 2014, and Steckel was hired to start over and try to build an actual standout program. The first-year youth movement was a predictable disaster -- MSU beat Division II Chadron State by eight points in 2015 but otherwise got outscored 522-87 and finished 1-10. This was a Year Zero if ever one existed.
Last fall, though, you started to see signs of improvement. The Bears knocked off Murray State and No. 24 Indiana State on the road and beat SIU at home on the way to a 4-7 finish. They scared No. 12 WIU at home, too, before falling by three. The MVC was as ridiculous as ever, but the rebound was clear.
The question now is how much further growth MSU is capable of.
The defense in particular still has a long way to go.
The Bears allowed 6.3 yards per play and 35.7 points per game last year despite the presence of All-American linebacker Dylan Cole, who made 17 of MSU’s 102 havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles). Now he’s gone, and the training wheels are off.
Third-year defensive coordinator Marcus Yokeley — a former Mizzou graduate assistant* and Lindenwood defensive coordinator — appears to have the makings of a decent run defense. The Bears allowed just 4.9 yards per carry last year (5.4 without sacks) while leaning heavily on two freshmen (linebacker McNeece Egbim and safety Cameron Price) for support. End Colby Isbell (12 TFLs, 6.5 sacks) heads a pretty experienced defensive line.
The pass defense, however, was a massive issue last year. The Bears allowed a 65 percent completion rate and a 139.3 passer rating. That could be a massive issue against Missouri’s well-seasoned passing game and will probably be the Bears’ undoing.
* Three former Tiger players are on staff as well: safeties coach Kenji Jackson, running backs coach Munir Prince, and receivers coach Jason Ray.
The offense should test Mizzou, however.
MSU returns 6’3 senior receiver Malik Earl (534 receiving yards, 13.0 per catch), tight end Erik Furmanek (27 reception), and return specialist Deion Holliman (246 receiving yards, 120 rushing yards, two return scores) and adds JUCO transfer and spring game star Tyler Currie to the mix.
Mizzou’s cornerback corps needs to strain a bit so we know what it’s capable of; MSU could provide that strain, especially with the addition of JUCO quarterback Peyton Huslig, who led Garden City CC to the NJCAA title last year. Granted, he threw for just 1,140 yards in the process, but his performance in the title game — 192 passing yards, 112 rushing yards — suggests dual-threat capability.
Unfortunately, Huslig might also be MSU’s most effective rusher. The trio of Calan Crowder (6'1, 212, Sr.), Jason Randall (5'9, 185, Jr.), and Nick Masoner (6'1, 216, Jr.) rushed for 976 yards at only 4.4 yards per carry last year. Missouri’s rebuilt run defense should be able to shut this attack down and render the Bears one-dimensional.
This is a big year for Steckel. He has begun to unearth some solid underclassmen like Egbim and Price on defense, and JUCOs Huslig and Currie each have three years of eligibility remaining. But Isbell, Earl, and Holliman are seniors. Steckel appears to have won over the community and bought himself some patience in Springfield, but despite a recent contract extension, patience among the fan base will wear thin without a third-year breakthrough.
The trip to Mizzou is just the start of a brutal schedule that feaures trips to North Dakota State, Youngstown State, North Dakota, and WIU, plus visits from Northern Iowa and South Dakota State. After improving from 226th to 185th in Sagarin, the Bears will need to jump into at least the 130s or 140s to pull off a winning record. It might take even more than that.
By the way, in case you were wondering, Steckel is still very, very much Dave Steckel.
Steckel’s way also remains distinctly hands-on. Try as he might, he can’t be a statue.
“I am the hustle coach,” said Steckel, who recently signed a contract extension through 2022. “I like going around to all of the positions and sticking my nose in there and being a pain …
“I can’t sit back and watch. I try, I try, and then I realize there’s no such thing as a try, and next thing you know I’m in there.”
Yep, very, very Steckel.
I’m fired up for the alumni, for the town, for the state of Missouri. I think it’s great for that school, which is the flagship university, and this school here that’s growing and succeeding. Our enrollment base is so much higher because we’re getting known in the state. It’s great for our alumni. It’s been since 1923 (since the schools last played)? I’m old, but hell, I’m younger than that. So it’s been a long time since they played. It’s great for the state.
I hope and pray Barry just doesn’t kick our ass form pillar to post and run it up on us because it’s going to be a fun game for the state. Even though I talk my talk I know we’re going up against a really, really good SEC team.
Mizzou and Missouri State will kick off at 11:00 am CT on Saturday. The game will be televised on SEC Network, and the program will celebrate the 12-win 2007 team, of which Steckel was a major part, at halftime.