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Two points of emphasis for Mizzou down the stretch

Missouri enters the bye week at 2-3 on the season with plenty to celebrate, but there are two areas that could use some work before the stretch run.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida Gainesville Sun-USA TODAY Sports

If you told me coming into the season that Missouri would sit at 2-3 going into its bye week and fans would feel frustrated at the most recent loss, I would have called you a liar. So before I get into where the Tigers have areas to improve, let’s take a step back for a moment and appreciate where this team finds itself right now relative to where we all expected it to be.

This first half of the season was objectively a success. I don’t care if LSU never wins another football game again, winning that game against the Bayou Tigers was incredible. Putting an end to the five year losing streak against Kentucky was relieving.

And while I do wonder how the game would go if Missouri played Tennessee now rather than in week two, no Mizzou fans realistically expected this team to pull off another upset against Alabama or Florida.

This has been a heck of a start for Eli Drinkwitz. He has an opportunity over the next five games to put together an even better finish. To do so, there are two areas in particular that the Tigers must improve.

1) Missouri needs to start creating more havoc for opposing offenses

The Tigers have been wildly successful on third downs this year, but their inability to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks means they don’t force as many third downs on average as most of the rest of the conference.

The Tigers currently rank last in the SEC in tackles for loss (4.20), 12th in sacks per game (1.40), tied for last in interceptions (1) and find themselves last in the conference in total takeaways (4).

Missouri’s defense is really good when they get to third down, but it is far too limited at creating big plays that lead to obvious passing downs or game-changing plays that give the ball back to the Tigers’ offense in a positive situation.

Much of this is due to the lack of production by the defensive line. You’ve probably noticed in recent weeks an uptick in the amount of pass rush we’ve seen from Nick Bolton. That’s by design. Missouri’s linebackers have two of the team’s seven sacks. Trajan Jeffcoat has three on the year. Every other Missouri defensive lineman has combined for two sacks.

It’s the same story when it comes to tackles for loss. Missouri’s defensive linemen have combined for just nine of the Tigers’ 21 tackles for loss on the season. To put that in perspective, Jordan Elliott and Kobie Whiteside combined for 15 tackles last year.

Missouri’s defensive line isn’t creating enough havoc. Opposing quarterbacks have far too much time to find open receivers. Those quarterbacks aren’t being forced into early throws often enough. Takeaways are few and far between. The Tigers either need an uptick in production from the defensive line, or defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is going to be forced to boost up the pressure with even more blitzes in the weeks to come.

2) Missouri needs to improve in the red zone

This applies to the offense and the defense. Missouri is scoring on 86 percent of its red zone opportunities. That’s good! Just 46 percent of those red zone drives result in a touchdown. That’s quite bad.

The story is similar on the defensive side of the ball. Missouri is allowing opponents to score on 90 percent of red zone drives, with 16 of the 19 opposing red zone drives resulting in a touchdown.

To put this plainly: Missouri needs to score more touchdowns when it gets into the red zone, and it needs to prevent those touchdowns when its opponents get inside the 20-yard line.

I know, easier said than done. But it’s true. For all of the talk about Missouri needing “touchdown makers,” it feels like they still haven’t found enough of them. The Tigers have scored a touchdown on just seven of 15 red zone opportunities this year.

Here’s a quick recap of how Missouri’s drives that reached the red zone over the last two weeks ended:

  • 1-yard touchdown run by Larry Rountree III
  • 18-yard field goal by Harrison Mevis
  • Turnover on downs after Connor Bazelak sacked on 4th & 1 from the 7-yard line
  • 1-yard touchdown run by Larry Rountree
  • 18-yard field goal by Harrison Mevis
  • Missed 31-yard field goal by Harrison Mevis
  • 29-yard field goal by Harrison Mevis
  • 5-yard touchdown run by Larry Rountree

That’s four field goal attempts, three touchdown runs and a turnover on downs in eight red zone attempts over the Tigers’ last two games. That’s simply not good enough.

This is where the hidden points come into play. There are certain parts of the game that matter more than others. Converting on third downs extends a drive. Forcing turnovers dramatically increases a team’s chances of winning. Converting on scoring opportunities is a must.

These things become even more important when you’re a team like Missouri competing in the best conference in America.

There’s plenty to celebrate about the way Missouri has played through the first five games. The second half of the season presents even more opportunities for Drinkwitz to add fans to the bandwagon, but it’s going to take the defense creating more havoc and both sides of the ball improving in the red zone for that to happen.

Bye weeks are for internal scouting. Based on what we’ve already seen from Drinkwitz and his staff, I have no doubt they’ll do what they can to get these trends turned around.