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Can Missouri Close the Gap Against Kansas State?

Last year the Tigers were demolished in week two against the Wildcats. What has to happen to flip the script in 2023?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Missouri at Kansas State

Missouri started off the 2022 football season with joy and optimism in a Thursday night blowout of Louisiana Tech. The offense created big plays and the new-look defense was generating havoc all over the field. The Tigers hung a 50-burger, the “Narco” trumpets rang out, and Dave Steckel was eating Luther Burden potato chips in the broadcast booth.

And then the bubble burst on a rainy, disastrous afternoon out west in the Little Apple. Kansas State dismantled Eliah Drinkwitz’s outfit; the Wildcats owned all three phases of the game in a 40-12 win that wasn’t even as close as the final score appears.

So what went wrong that fateful day – besides “everything” – and with the Wildcats looming in week three this coming season, what can the Tigers do to close the gap against this former conference foe?

When Missouri has the ball

The biggest opportunity for Missouri to close the gap will be offense – any offense at all, any competency, at any position. Mizzou’s offense struggled in 2022, but was absolutely dreadful that day in Manhattan, producing only 222 total yards and collecting only one touchdown in one of the most flagrant “garbage time” scores you’ll ever see.

The Tigers ran for 2.7 yards per carry, completed fewer than half of their passes at 4.1 yards per attempt, and threw four interceptions. Yes, the weather was bad and this was the game where Brady Cook hurt his shoulder, but nevermind those reasons; this was a dreadful performance. We will get an early litmus test if the offseason tinkering will lead to immediate results. Kirby Moore’s playcalling, Brandon Jones’ coaching, the impact receiver transfers, or a new quarterback – or some combination of the above – will need to show some proof of concept in this matchup.

The task should be easier in 2023, as Kansas State will likely take a step back on defense. Chris Klieman helms an excellent program, but it is still one built on development. They rebuild, a la the great Gary Pinkel teams, not reload, like a Georgia or an Ohio State. With only 52% of production returning from last year’s defense – ranked 94th in the country on that side of the ball – the Wildcats could still be figuring things out in early September. A number of key contributors in the secondary depart, as well as pass-rushing menace Felix Anudike-Uzomah. Ideally, Missouri’s improvements are real and can make a difference in closing the gap against the Wildcats who will be establishing new rotations.

When Kansas State has the ball

As was the case in many games last year, Missouri’s defense outperformed their teammates. The Wildcats' offense scored four touchdowns, but the Tigers held them well below their season average for yards, and forced field goals on two short-field possessions after interceptions. Missouri’s defense returns eight starters and is ninth in the country in returning production: this unit should be excellent again.

But they will face a different Kansas State attack than the one they saw last September. Against Missouri, Klieman started Adrian Martinez at quarterback and the game plan looked like his old North Dakota State days: get an early lead and run, run, run the ball. Martinez completed only 9 of his 20 attempts for 101 yards while the Wildcats poured in 235 on the ground. But Martinez was injured midseason, and Will Howard replaced him and opened up the pass attack as a more traditional pocket presence. Howard will be starting this fall, so the Tigers will need to be ready to defend a much more versatile offense than the one they faced last year.

The Wildcats will be replacing a pair of big-play stars in running back Deuce Vaughn and receiver Malik Knowles, but have all five starters back from an excellent offensive line. If there’s any kinks to be wrinkled out with Howard and new skill position players, it will be countered by stability in the trenches and at coordinator, where Collin Klein also returns. This offense should again be strong, despite some new names making plays. Missouri’s depth up front should serve them well, and their excellent secondary should be up to the task against Howard and company — as long as the offense doesn’t repeatedly put them in disadvantageous positions.

The bounce of the ball

Missouri’s 2022 season was defined by three razor-thin SEC losses where high-variance, fluky plays went against it (Auburn, Kentucky, and Florida). Flip a few plays in those close losses and the record accurately reflects the quality of football played by its defense.

In Manhattan, the same thing happened; those bad breaks did not cost the Tigers a potential win, but they did widen the margin in an uncompetitive game. Kansas State, on aggregate, was not 28 points better than Missouri last season; but they were that day, because Kansas State was sharp and Missouri was decidedly not.

Drinkwitz and his coaching staff need to eliminate the swingy plays that plagued his team: giving up big kick returns, costly turnovers, and crushing penalties. Good teams play sharp football and create their own breaks. Simply put, Missouri will not close the gap if they again give away the ball four times, take procedural penalties on 4th & 2, or give up a special teams touchdown.

Get out to a fast start

Throughout his tenure in Columbia, Eli Drinkwitz has preached “finish strong.” No matter what happens early in a game or season, his Tigers fight until the end. There were clear points in all three of his seasons where other teams might have folded up shop.

But considering his teams’ propensity to dig an early hole, maybe he should adopt a motto of “start strong.” Against Kansas State, the defense allowed a pair of early touchdowns before buckling down, and the offense didn’t gain a first down until midway through the second quarter. (Similar scripts played out against Auburn, Florida, and Kentucky).

After opening the season as big favorites against FCS South Dakota and Middle Tennessee State, the Tigers will need to avoid an early deficit in the third game of the season. This will be crucial to keep Kansas State away from leaning on their run game with a lead, but more importantly, to keep the home crowd engaged in what has a chance to be the breakthrough game in the breakthrough season.

Eli Drinkwitz has built excellent culture and hype around Missouri football in the offseason, thanks to quality high school recruiting, aggressive work in the portal, and savvy coaching staff hires. But so far, he has only delivered .500 football in his three seasons. Missouri has the potential to capitalize in 2023 with a breakthrough season; a 5-0 start is possible with a win over Kansas State. And even if they do not dethrone the defending Big 12 champions, the Tigers must be competitive in this game to avoid bursting another early-season bubble.