Not many people expected a Missouri team that went 5-5 against an all-SEC schedule in 2020 to be sitting where they are entering week ten of the 2021 season. As coach Eliah Drinkwitz suggested a couple weeks ago, perhaps Missouri overachieved last season, and perhaps he got the fans a little too excited for this 2021 campaign.
It appears that was the truth, as the Tigers now sit at 4-4 with their only Power 5 win coming against Vanderbilt (barely).
Any Missouri fan that has watched a game this season knows exactly what the main culprit for this disappointing campaign has been. Sure Connor Bazelak has been banged up and struggled at times, and sure the receiving core has been iffy. Still, it’s hard to have a weakness more glaring than what the Mizzou run defense has been this season.
If I didn’t know any better, I would think that the Tigers still played in the Big 12 with how they get run over game-in and game-out. The struggles led to defensive line coach Jethro Franklin being fired and replaced by defensive analyst Al Davis following the blowout loss to Tennessee, and there have been plenty of grumblings in Columbia about the safety of first year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ job.
Still, this team continues to allow gaudy numbers on the ground no matter who they play against. Out of 130 teams at the FBS level, Missouri ranks 130th in yards per game allowed on the ground (283.9). Yes, dead last, and by a considerable margin too. Arkansas State is at 129th in allowing 275 YPG, but after that the number dwindles to 251. For more insult to injury, that team is Kansas. Yep, the Jayhawks are better than Mizzou in football at something.
On top of that, Missouri ranks second to last in yards allowed per carry with 6.3, with Arkansas State allowing 6.9. This means that a team could, on average, run the ball every play of the game and never be stopped by this Missouri defense. They have forced a meager 3 fumbles this season, and are one of only three teams to have allowed over 2,000 rushing yards up to this point (you guessed it, Arkansas State and Kansas are the other two).
To be mentioned in the same sentence as Kansas regarding football should be sign enough that something is seriously wrong, but there is more.
Against Power 5 opponents, teams are averaging 323 yards on the ground per game against this defense. Following the opener when Central Michigan went for 174 rushing yards (the lowest Mizzou has allowed this season) it was easy to tell that every team was going to make a point out of pounding the rock until the Tigers could stop it. Low and behold, they could not.
Kentucky ran it 52 times, Boston College opted for 49 carries, Tennessee a whopping 59, TAMU tried it 47 times, and Vanderbilt a mild 37. Missouri has had teams run the ball against them a total of 363 times this season. Only five programs have had teams run the ball against them more. To compare, in ten games in 2020, teams ran the ball 358 times against Missouri.
The Power 5 numbers are disturbing, but to be allowing Central Michigan, SEMO, and North Texas to run for a combined 656 yards is just abysmal. Alas, teams took notice early on, and there has been little change between these outings.
Let’s take a look at the past to get a true sense of what is going on. In terms of run defense (yards allowed per game), the Tigers would have ranked second to last in the country in 2020, the same spot in 2019, and the same in 2018. In fact, you would have to go back to 2014 to find a time in which the Tigers would have ranked any higher than that.
In terms of comparing this unit to past Mizzou run defenses, it is equally as ugly. Since joining the SEC in 2013, Missouri has only allowed over 200 yards per game on the ground once (2016, 232 YPG). Otherwise, they have ranked in the top half of the conference nearly every season. In a conference that prides itself on line play and running the football, that is certainly impressive.
So, what did these other defenses have that the 2021 one does not?
Answer: The gritty defensive linemen and linebackers of Tiger past. There is no true leader of this defense in the front seven. No game-changing linebacker like Cale Garrett, Kentrell Brothers, or Nick Bolton, and no force up front like Michael Sam, Markus Golden, or Shane Ray was.
In that 2016 season, Garrett was but a freshman, and there were no true stalwarts to stifle opposing rushing attacks. 2021 is eerily similar.
Blaze Alldredge has not panned out to be the leader and tackling machine that people thought he might be coming from Rice, and Devin Nicholson has not taken the step up in Bolton’s absence that many thought he would. Kobe Whiteside has not been an intimidating presence, and Trajan Jeffcoat has been underwhelming to say the least. A lack of stars or even solid contributors has plagued this run defense, and it continues to be a rotation of players in the front seven with no true lineup in sight.
Mizzou faithful have also pointed to coaching as one of the main issues. Steve Wilks is in his first season after a hiatus from football, and perhaps the collegiate game is just not where he strives. A change at defensive coordinator is almost set in stone unless something drastic changes, so this is a moot point.
Could it also be an effort thing? Covering gaps and getting off blocks can only be drilled by coaches so much. At a certain point, it comes down to defenders having the drive to want to stop the opposing team from running the ball down their throats. Every player and coach will say there is nothing more demoralizing in the game of football than that, but it appears at times that this Mizzou team is more than willing to roll over and let that happen.
I am obviously not the one with the solution (otherwise I’d apply for the DC job), but something clearly has to change. Whether it be personal, coaching, or culture, not just for this season but for the future success of this program under Drinkwitz, there needs to be major change.
A safe place to start is recruiting. Getting more talent and bodies in the trenches is an easy way to dampen the issue and start winning some more battles up front. Recruiting, of course, is a long-term fix that takes time, meaning that tough times like this may persist for a bit. I have a feeling that after this season, Drinkwitz is going to be looking for a lot more standout ends and tackles on the defensive line, as well as linebacker.
Georgia will almost assuredly run for over 250 yards against Missouri this weekend, but maybe that is not the end of the world. This Tigers program has the opportunity to watch and learn from one of the greatest defenses of all time, one of the best defensive players in the nation in Jordan Davis (who I would sell my soul to have on this Mizzou team), and a coach who has perfected the art of recruiting.
They may be a division rival and all that, but there is plenty of be gained from a Bulldog program that has a lot of pieces Mizzou is missing. If I was the coaching staff, I’d bring an extra notepad with me to Athens.