The emotional roller coaster of being a college football fan is part of what makes it so rewarding to watch your team when it’s at the top. If you were a Missouri fan during the 2007-2013 era, you know what I’m talking about. That was your Shawshank Redemption moment. You crawled through all of the crap and came out clean on the other side.
We’re back to crawling again.
Missouri is in a full-blown rebuild. There were times last season in which it didn’t feel that way. The defense still had three NFL players in Nick Bolton, Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe. Those guys are gone, and the replacements aren’t up to par.
What we’re witnessing right now is the result of years of the former coaching staff recruiting below its standards. There is no quick-fix. If Missouri’s performance against Tennessee was any indication, it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better.
Enough of the big picture talk. Let’s dive into the takeaways from the loss against Tennessee. Oh boy, here we go.
1) Missouri’s defense is somehow even worse than we thought
That game was over by halftime, so let’s start by breaking down what Missouri accomplished (or didn’t accomplish) in the first half.
Tennessee’s first six offensive possessions each resulted in a touchdown. The Vols’ first third down attempt resulted in fifth touchdown on the day. Their 275 first half rushing yards matched Boston College’s rushing total from the week prior. Tennessee averaged 10.6 yards per carry in the first half. Tennessee’s 45 first half points were the Vols’ most in any half in more than 20 years.
And one more. 39 can’t keep his edge, 11 takes on lead blocker so, 25 should fill the gap, 1 should be running the alley.— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) October 2, 2021
It’s breakdowns on every level. pic.twitter.com/gyF8dwJq0z
However bad you thought that defensive performance would be, it was somehow worse. Let’s take a look at some of the defensive superlatives, shall we?
The last time Missouri allowed at least 60 points at home was October 8th, 1932. The last time Missouri allowed at least 400 rushing yards at home was September 29, 2001. Saturday was the first home game in at least the last 20 years in which Missouri has failed to force a punt, according to Sports Reference.
This was, statistically, one of Missouri’s worst defensive performances at home in program history.
2) Well, we saw a defensive adjustment. It... didn’t work.
The worst part about Missouri’s defense is I don’t know how to fix it. And it’s becoming clear Steve Wilks doesn’t, either. Missouri lacks talent on the defensive side of the ball. It also seems to lack much of a plan.
The Tigers’ base defense is a 4-2-5. Well, it was. Until the second drive of the game against Tennessee. Suddenly Missouri’s defense was lining up in a 3-3-5 with a defensive lineman playing middle linebacker. First it was Jatorian Hansford in those reps, and eventually Mekhi Wingo got some opportunities at linebacker, too.
But they weren’t really playing linebacker. They were essentially lining up two yards off the line of scrimmage and screaming into the line right after the snap. In other words, all it did was give the defensive lineman a running start at the offensive line. It never gave the Tennessee any trouble. The results were every bit as bad as Missouri’s base 4-2-5.
Eventually the Tigers went back to the 4-2-5. The in-game adjustment didn’t work. That’s fine. But what I don’t understand is why that was the adjustment. Linking up a defensive lineman at linebacker is a gimmick. The Tigers’ issue right now is stopping the run, but they seem completely disinterested in adding more bodies to the box. There were a few plays late in the first half in which Martez Manuel lined up in the box. It’s anecdotal, of course, but the results seemed to be better. If you can’t stop the run with six in the box, eventually you have to pull in a seventh. If you can’t stop it with seven, then eventually you have to bring in an eighth.
That’s going to leave the corners one-on-one. It might result in more man-to-man assignments for safeties against tight ends and slot receivers. So be it. Teams are moving the ball at will on the ground. You have to earn the right to stop the pass. And Missouri isn’t doing that right now.
3) I don’t know how anyone can be certain Steve Wilks is the answer at defensive coordinator
And they’re fair. I’m the last one to call for a job. I’m not going to do so now. But asking if Wilks is up for this job is a fair question to ask, at this point.
It's a valid question. Defense is getting worse. Talent and depth are not close to SEC standard but nothing is working. https://t.co/TEy4OIguaK— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) October 2, 2021
Missouri’s main issue defensively is a lack of talent, both on the defensive line and at linebacker. The secondary isn’t great, but it’s talented enough to get by in an SEC schedule. The same can’t be said of the front six/seven.
But the talent gap shouldn’t be this wide. Missouri doesn’t just look bad against the run. It looks incompetent. It’s so bad that Gene Chizik was losing his mind during the SEC Network halftime show in regards to the Tigers’ lack of run fits.
Far too often it looks like the linebackers don’t know where they’re supposed to go. There were too many plays in which the defensive line and linebackers were looking to the sideline at or near the snap of the football because they didn’t have or know the defensive play-call as the Vols rushed back to the line of scrimmage. The Vols’ up-tempo offense gave this defense fits from start to finish.
I don't think the talent is this bad. It's not great but not this inept. https://t.co/uvOajnrYUB— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) October 2, 2021
I don’t know if this defense would be better with a different defensive scheme and a different defensive coordinator. But it’s hard to imagine it would be worse.
I hope Wilks is able to get this turned around. But I think it’s fair to ask at this point if he’ll get that opportunity.
4) Connor Bazelak is having a very tough time with pressure
One of the biggest “wins” for Missouri’s offense this year has been its ability to limit pressure against Bazelak. Some of that is a result of the quick passing game Drinkwitz likes to run. Some of it is a result of the offensive line winning up front.
Unfortunately, much of Bazelak’s time on Saturday was spent under pressure. He didn’t adjust particularly well.
Bazelak, like many quarterbacks, prefers to play with timing and rhythm. When he’s pressured, it throws everything off. There were far too many moments against Tennessee when he had an opportunity to make a play but he sped things up and made an errant throw as a result. It was tough to watch. Bazelak has been solid for much of this season. He had a couple bad throws against Boston College, but his performance from start to finish against Tennessee was his worst of the season.
5) The goals for this season have officially shifted
Coming into this season, I thought 7-5 was possible. I still believe it was, given the results. But a 7-5 season would have required victories against Kentucky, Boston College and Tennessee. The Tigers are now 0-3 in those three games.
It’s time to adjust our expectations.
Mizzou’s remaining opponents are: North Texas, #15 Texas A&M, @ Vanderbilt, @ #2 Georgia, South Carolina, #10 Florida & at #8 Arkansas.
That’s four games against top-15 ranked opponents, two games against opponents Missouri should beat and one game that will serve as the final “swing game” on the schedule, against the team from the other Columbia.
Even if Missouri wins both of its expected wins and the swing game against South Carolina, that’s only a 5-win season. That seems like the ceiling for this team. This team’s margin for error was slim entering the season and it eliminated all margin for error when it went 0-3 in its first three pivotal games of the season.
The losses at Boston College and Kentucky were frustrating. The loss against Tennessee is disheartening.
At least the games against Boston College and Kentucky were on the road. At least both were one-score losses. This was at home against a team we all assumed was at a similar point in its rebuilding process as Missouri and it resulted in an absolute shellacking.
I typically try to finish off my five takeaways with something positive. I wish I had something for you today, but I don’t. This is likely to get worse before it gets better.
At least they play North Texas next week?