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After early breakdowns, Missouri simplified its defense against Missouri State

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It eventually worked, but what the hell took so long?

NCAA Football: Missouri State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I always try to judge teams based on expectation. From a 20,000-foot view, things could have been much worse for Missouri. My S&P+ projections — which have been quite high on Missouri’s chances to make a bowl this year — said the Tigers would beat Missouri State by about 25 points, and they won by 29. Theoretically, that means there was more good than bad.

The bad was all people wanted to talk about yesterday, though. That’s partially because sports fans are miserable and always want to focus on the bad when possible. It’s also partially because the bad was really, really bad.

On Friday, I talked about the things we might learn about Missouri even if the Tigers won by, say, 29 points. Among them: the secondary.

Missouri State doesn’t have anybody of that caliber, but the Bears have variety and just enough quality to put a little strain on a secondary that will basically feature three first-time starters in corners Logan Cheadle and DeMarkus Acy and safety Jordan Ulmer.

MSU boasts a big, steady target in Malik Earl, plus jitterbug Deion Holliman, tight end Erik Furmanek, and JUCO transfer Tyler Currie. Wherever there might be a weakness in the Mizzou secondary, the Bears could figure out how to exploit it, at least for a while. If the Tigers completely shut down this attack, that might mean something.

It also might mean something if they give up 350 passing yards.

Yeah, they gave up 353. And it probably means something. Early caught eight balls for 163 yards, and Furmanek hauled in five for 91.

Because I am a sunshine pumper, I’ll start with the positive: things got better. After the game, head coach Barry Odom mourned the fact that the game plan was far too complicated.

Odom blamed himself for making the defensive game plan too complicated. That led to man coverage breakdowns against the pass and missed gaps against the run.

“I don’t want to get in many Arena Football scores the more we get in this deal,” he said. “We’ve got to get it fixed on that side of the (ball) and I’m pretty confident that that’s going to happen. You’re not going to get me down.”

I love that he admitted it, though, granted, it’s kinda terrifying to think about them making things too hard for Missouri State when there are much better opposing offenses on the horizon. How the hell are you not coming out with a pretty simple attack for this one? How the hell do you have to wait until you’ve gotten torched repeatedly to simplify things? If you’re looking for a red flag that Odom is still trying to do too much in his new role, that’s pretty clear evidence.

NCAA Football: Missouri State at Missouri
Peyton Huslig
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless, once the coverage was simplified, the breakdowns slowed down. You do have to give them that. After MSU’s Peyton Huslig — an impressive thrower who should have a lovely season in Springfield — began the game a mortifying 11-for-14 for 226 yards, he went only 13-for-21 for 127 thereafter. His last four passes of the first half netted just 14 yards, and his first five of the second gained 15.

The Bears briefly found a rhythm again late in the third quarter, but Mizzou had broken serve by that point and had built a 23-point lead. And after scoring five touchdowns in their first seven drives, they scored one in their final 10.

If this truly was a matter of getting confused about assignments, and issues don’t continue to any major degree moving forward, then we’ll look back at this as a 25-minute blip, a defensive false start to begin the season. That’d be lovely. But let’s just say that what was one of the biggest question marks heading into the season — cornerback play — is even bigger and scarier than we thought.

Put plainly, DeMarkus Acy got his lunch eaten in the first half. Again, the damage slowed down, but hoo boy, that damage. Earl is a solid receiver who will have a really nice year at the FCS level, and if you remove the 89-yard touchdown, he did only have seven catches for 74 yards. It’s not like there were 17 big plays involved. Still, Acy seemed to struggle with pursuit angles at times and just got beat, and if/when he didn’t get the safety help he expected — as was the case on the 89-yarder, when second-stringer Anthony Hines then whiffed on a diving tackle — really bad things happened.

I said in the offseason that Acy was maybe the most important player on the Missouri defense. This became doubly true when fellow sophomore Christian Holmes went down with an injury. It’s, uh, triply true now?

I’m sure when the coaches watch film, they’re going to see breakdowns that went far beyond Acy. But slap on your coach’s hat for a second. What if they watch the film and decide that Acy was the worst cornerback Mizzou had on Saturday? He had the toughest matchup, sure, but after supposedly playing like a standout for most of the offseason, he bombed his first test as the No. 1 CB. What do you do?

Do you rely on your offseason evaluation — which came over an eight-month span, not four hours on a single Saturday — and decide he’s your best chance to match up with South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, who will be in town in a week?

Do you elect to pair Logan Cheadle on him? Cheadle, while mostly covering MSU’s secondary options, had a pick, a breakup, and two assisted tackles. Would that be enough of a sample to make a change?

Do you give more thought to playing guys like Jerod Alton or Adam Sparks? Alton seemed to acquit himself pretty well on a couple of plays in the second half.

Anthony Sherrils had a hot-and-cold day on Saturday. I can think of a couple of smaller breakdowns I felt were on him in the first half, and in the second half he whiffed on a kamikaze charge that could have resulted in a huge loss but very much did not. But between Sherrils, Jordan Ulmer (who seemed to hold his own in his first collegiate game), Cam Hilton (who is gone for the first half of next week’s game after his second-half targeting penalty), and Thomas Wilson, I feel there are still plenty of decent options if some shuffling needs to take place. (That Hines was in instead of Wilson on the long TD reaffirmed that I’m not really sure why Hines is ahead of Wilson, but that’s just me.)

Cornerback, however, doesn’t have too many great options. Acy pretty much has to work out well. Granted, there are more great running backs than receivers on the schedule, but that doesn’t really matter if you can make any receiver look like a star.

Other thoughts on the defense:

The run defense was ... decent?

On MSU's second drive, Mizzou went all out to attack Huslig on a third-and-10, and they left themselves so exposed to a draw play that I could have gained at least 20 yards. As it stood, Calan Crowder was carrying the ball instead of me, and he gained 75. It was a breakdown, but it was a breakdown of the passing downs sort.

In actual run downs, the Missouri defense was fine. MSU rushed 22 times on standard downs and gained 77 yards — 34 on one play and 53 on the 21 others. That’ll do. And after MSU began with seven carries for 99 yards, the Bears gained 57 in their final 30 carries (not including a sack or a late loss on a fumble). The MSU run game was weak last year, and aside from really a single glitch, it looked weak on Saturday.

The early-game passing downs breakdowns were terrifying to be sure, but the first step to fixing passing downs woes is to keep forcing passing downs, and Mizzou didn’t seem to have a problem with that.

See you in a few weeks, A.J. Logan

We finally have a name associated with the academic fraud investigation we heard about long ago: defensive tackle A.J. Logan. He is suspended until the Idaho game.

Logan had been relegated to backup status after starting 2016, and of all the complaints I may have had about the defense yesterday, I can’t say I had any about the DTs. Rashad Brandon was dynamite, logging 4.5 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, Water Palmore contributed 4.5 tackles, and Terry Beckner Jr. added 0.5 tackles for loss. (Kobie Whiteside also made an assisted tackle.)

NCAA Football: Missouri State at Missouri
Jordan Harold and Terry Beckner Jr. record one of Mizzou’s four sacks
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

So in theory, Missouri might not be hurt too much by Logan’s absence. But considering defensive tackle was an “all hands on deck” situation, and considering Mizzou was already without JUCO signee Malik Young, who was deemed ineligible, this certainly isn’t a positive thing from a depth perspective.