Albert Okwuegbunam thought he had his first touchdown of the season.
With his team trailing Wyoming 27-17, Missouri’s star tight end caught a two-yard pass from quarterback Kelly Bryant that seemingly brought his squad to within a field goal a little less than five minutes into the third quarter. After the team had imploded the previous quarter, getting within three points to open the third was more than the Tigers could’ve asked for.
But a whistle and a flag ended Okwuegbunam’s celebration, as he was penalized for pushing off a Cowboy defender prior to making the catch.
The call erased what would’ve ended up being the highlight of Okwuegbunam’s night— one of the lone bright spots from his first game back since a shoulder injury Nov. 3 at Florida ended his 2018 season. Not that the lack of big plays were all his fault— Okwuegbunam was only targeted four times throughout the game— but as someone who’s arguably one of the two most important players for Missouri’s offense, four targets doesn’t seem like nearly enough.
The touchdown could’ve made up for all of it, as the Tigers were just one score away from tying the Cowboys in the 37-31 loss, but Missouri couldn’t complete its comeback attempt without it.
“I had a one-on-one matchup, and he engaged me so I engaged him back and just the way with the push-off, honestly, it could’ve gone both ways,” Okwuegbunam said. “I feel like if he wouldn’t have fallen, it wouldn’t have drawn as much attention. He kind of got tripped up and fell, but I think I just need to be better about using my hands, not trying to use two hands. Maybe just a little flipper or something like that.”
“Down in the red zone there’s always bumping and grinding, and defensive backs are handsy, receivers get collisions and have to be physical to get off of it,” tight ends coach AJ Ofodile added. “I think really looking at it, I don’t think it was anything more egregious than any other contact that happens on any other route down there.”
Okwuegbunam ended up taking the field for 62 of 93 offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, which makes the small number of targets surprising — well, surprising for everyone besides offensive coordinator Derek Dooley. The second-year coordinator said he didn’t expect Okwuegbunam to play that many snaps, especially considering he hadn’t played a real game in over nine months and was in and out of fall camp with nagging injuries. This explains why there was less of a focus on getting the ball his way.
“Frankly, I wasn’t confident he could play that many snaps at a high level,” Dooley said. “So we probably didn’t have as many things that we (usually) would for him.”
The game plan, then, revolved more on getting the receiving corps involved than on trying to get Okwuegbunam his expected targets. Slot receiver Johnathon Johnson and running back Tyler Badie led the team with seven receptions apiece and finished first and second in targets with 11 and 9, respectively.
Wideouts Jalen Knox and Jonathan Nance were also targeted more times than Okwuegbunam (6), while he and backup slot receiver Barrett Banister ended up tied.
Okwuegbunam, though, isn’t worried about his targets the way most of the Tigers’ fanbase is. As a guy who wants to show he’s a team-player, Okwuegbunam expressed to reporters Tuesday his desire to do whatever the team needs him to do. Whether that involves making catches or distracting the defense, he tries to make the best out of whatever the coaches ask of him.
“Defenses have a big focus on me, so they’ll lean their safeties, double-team me... so if I need to be a drain-out or tie down some guys then I’ll do that, no problem,” Okwuegbunam said.
Regardless of how much Okwuegbunam surprised his coaches by playing the amount of snaps he did Saturday, they surely know now what they can expect out of him stamina-wise. Okwuegbunam said he feels healthy and knows he can play all four quarters if he needs to; he’ll do whatever’s necessary to help Missouri have a bounce-back performance against West Virginia in the Tigers’ home-opener.
So with added motivation following its disappointing performance in Week 1, Missouri should end up calling Okwuegbunam’s number more often than not against the Mountaineers.
“Going into it, you just weren’t sure how available he was going to be, so there’s that part of it, and then also the game flows like it flows,” Ofodile said. “...Albert’s a big part of our offense, and as we go forward, things over time kind of play themselves out the way they should.”