With scenes of Missouri’s debacle against Wyoming still fresh in their minds, Tiger fans were on edge heading into the home-opener with West Virginia.
“Will Missouri blow this game?”
“Can Mizzou find a way to Mizzou this one, too?”
The team that showed up to Faurot on Saturday, though, was a different team than the one on the field in Laramie, Wyoming last week.
The issues that plagued the Tigers (1-1) against the Cowboys failed to materialize against Mountaineers (1-1), as Missouri played a clean game on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Kelly Bryant went 17 for 25 for 150 yards and three touchdowns, the running back unit combined for 227 yards on the ground and the pass rush finally put some pressure on the quarterback as the Tigers beat the Mountaineers 38-7 in their home-opener.
“We controlled the game, and I thought we controlled it from the jump,” head coach Barry Odom said. “Now the challenge is to put this one behind us and let’s go do it again next week.”
Bryant was one of the lone bright spots in the Week 1 loss after breaking his own passing yards record, but in some ways, he looked even better against West Virginia.
His 150 yards weren’t the record-breaking 423 yards he piled up last week, but he was more efficient in completing 17 passes while throwing just eight incompletions. He also dealt with pressure in the pocket by looking like the smooth, elusive quarterback Missouri thought it was getting when he committed in December.
“I thought he made some plays, I thought he got us out of some situations at times,” Odom said. “He’s going to be able to extend the play, so he’s going to break tackles, he’s going to make moves (and) he’s going to make throws.”
The biggest area of concern after Week 1 was the play of the front seven.
The pass rush was non-existent, as the defense failed to record a sack or a quarterback hit, but Missouri managed to be even worse against the run, allowing 284 total rushing yards. The Tigers appeared to have that all figured out against the Mountaineers, though, as they produced three sacks amongst 13 total tackles for a loss.
It was so bad for West Virginia that, on 23 carries toward the end of the third quarter, the Mountaineers had totaled negative-5 yards rushing. NEGATIVE 5. They finished the game with 30 total.
And then there’s the pass defense, who ended up picking off the Mountaineers three times, with linebacker Nick Bolton getting two and returning one for a pick-six.
The coaches have emphasized turnovers all week after Wyoming produced three to the Tigers’ zero. The preaching got to the point that Missouri’s defenders all carried around cards reading “TAKEAWAYS = VICTORY!!” this week. Clearly, they took that message to heart.
“It’s kind of up to us to show you all (what kind of defense we are),” Bolton said. “I feel like today it was really what we could be. We came in today at a very high level, everybody did their jobs and we executed pretty well.”
It was a nice change of pace for Missouri, as its Week 1 loss deflated many fans’ hopes for a special season. That special season is still possible, even with a postseason ban still in place, as long as the defense continues to play the way it did Saturday.
The same is true for both tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and running back Larry Rountree III.
They are arguably two of the top three most important offensive players for Missouri, which made their performances against Wyoming all the more puzzling. Okwuegbunam did lead the team in receiving yards with 72, but he only made three catches. Rountree only had 41 yards on 15 carries, and he was benched in the fourth quarter in favor of running back Tyler Badie.
But they both showed their brilliance against West Virginia. Rountree more than doubled his production from Week 1, finishing with 99 yards and a rushing touchdown.
While Okwuegbunam didn’t do much more than he did last week in terms of receptions, he did do what the Tigers expect him to: score.
Okwuegbunam started slow, dropping a pass that stalled a solid drive and forced Missouri to settle for a field goal, but he made up for it by hauling in two touchdown passes from Bryant that put the Tigers ahead to stay.
“It was a really fun day for me just to be out there and score, put up good numbers for my offense,” Okwuegbunam said.
If there’s an area of concern for Missouri, it’s that the team committed 10 penalties for 100 yards. Nonetheless, it was the bounce-back performance the Tigers needed. Now, they’ll look to keep the momentum going as they await a matchup with SEMO next week.