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Missouri’s defense isn’t the same without its captain

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While the defense hasn’t completely fallen apart without its captain, the margin for error has disappeared.

Troy v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

There’s a familiar maritime tradition that states, “The captain goes down with the ship.” It’s a fine sentiment that works in almost all sporting cases except for one — what happens when the captain is forcibly removed from the ship?

Over the past two weeks, Missouri has gone from borderline juggernaut to wet paper bag. There’s no one reason to pinpoint this steep descent, though many will immediately point to the coaching. That’s not to say poor coaching isn’t an issue — but when the offense, defense and special teams units all go in the crapper too, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Amongst the myriad of concerns for the Missouri Tigers is a seemingly regressing defense. This was a specific source of consternation for Missouri fans after Cale Garrett underwent pectoral surgery and was declared out for the rest of the year. Garrett, who was playing at an All-American level in his own right, also represented everything good about the defense. He was a veteran, played a smart brand of football and did everything well. His loss was a worst-case scenario.

And while the unit is indeed heading in the wrong direction, you may be surprised to hear that they still rank 14th in the country by Bill C’s metrics. That’s sure to slip a little more by season’s end, but having a Top 25 defense is nothing to slouch at. The offense and special teams on the other hand... we’ll just leave that for another day.

Still though, it’s probably too soon to be guessing at where the Missouri defense might end up. While the overall numbers hold up well, even without Garrett for three straight games, the averages tell a much different story.

Missouri Defense With and Without Cale Garrett

Stat With Garrett Without Garrett
Stat With Garrett Without Garrett
Opp. Off. SP+ 53 69
Yards Per Carry 2.8 4.8
Yards Per Attempt 6.5 7.7
Yards Per Play 3.1 5.7
Points Per Opportunity 2.57 5.4
Havoc Rate 22.8 14.9

As you can see, every statistic listed (and quite a few left out) are headed south.

What really stands out, though, is the quality of team Missouri has faced. Admittedly, the average SP+ is skewed because of SEMO, but it’s hard to say the Tigers have been facing better teams since Garrett’s departure. Two of the better offenses Missouri will face this year were South Carolina and Troy, both of whom the Missouri defense handled quite easily. In both of those games, Garrett made key plays that changed the tide of the game.

The secondhand effects of Garrett’s absence are being felt too. With the defense being held out on the field longer, the offense doesn’t have as much time to get in a rhythm. The struggles of Kelly Bryant, his receivers and the offensive line have arguably been this streak’s most concerning factors, and the best way to get those things fixed is getting the ball in their hands as often as possible. No, the defensive regression shouldn’t be blamed for the offense’s pitfall. But with the margin of error gone, the offense has been either boom or bust, with no room for gradual improvement.

Perhaps the stickiest effect of Garrett’s absence — and this applies to the team as a whole, not just the defense — is the lack of fight and preparation. Garrett has made his reputation on being a cerebral player and dogged prep guy. Even in the Ole Miss win, Missouri has often looked lost or stagnant without Garrett on the field. You can only do so much to motivate your team when your arm is in a sling and you’re dressed in street clothes.

In the end, Missouri’s struggles shouldn’t be blamed entirely on the loss of Cale Garrett. Football is a violent sport, and every team deals with some sort of injury on a scale of “majorly inconvenient” to “catastrophic.”

But it’s hard to argue that Garrett’s lost season has been anything but the worst-case scenario for Missouri. Whereas fans would’ve hoped Missouri’s players could keep the ship afloat, it seems to be sinking while the captain is forced to watch, unable to do much of anything.