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The good and the bad from Mizzou’s offensive line on Thursday night

The Tigers found plenty of success on the ground, but the O-line also racked up too many penalties.

NCAA Football: South Dakota at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the biggest question mark facing the 2023 Missouri Tigers was how an offensive line that struggled mightily in 2022 was going to take the necessary steps forward to tread water against SEC defensive fronts. Transfers Marcellus Johnson (Eastern Michigan) and Cam’ron Johnson (Houston) were brought in to bolster the depth, and the return of veteran left tackle Javon Foster also provided a boost to the unit.

The O-line was expected to flex its on-field improvement against South Dakota on Thursday night, and, for the most part, they did just that.

A lineup of Foster (LT), Xavier Delgado (LG), Connor Tollison (C), Cam’Ron Johnson (RG) and Armand Membou (RT) started the game, but Marcellus Johnson rotated in frequently as well. The veteran group paved the way for the Tigers to run for 221 yards on a 5.5 average per carry. Cody Schrader especially had an enjoyable night, as he averaged 8.2 YPC on 148 yards and seemed to always find a hole to burst through.

“I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage,” Drinkwitz said. “They played a three down-front when they had been more of a four-down team, but Brandon [Jones] and the older guys made adjustments to go to the outside zone which was good.”

Only on rare occasions was a running back touched behind the line of scrimmage, and the offense kept churning out 4-6 yard chunk runs as a result. The line looked solid in its gap control and was able to utilize frequent double teams to create holes for the backs to hit. The changed mentality from the O-line that the likes of Membou and Foster talked about during fall camp was apparent on the field, as the unit imposed its will on the Coyote front seven on a handful of methodical drives.

“It’s a huge shoutout to Coach Jones who’s come in and been a great leader for them [the O-Line],” Schrader said. “It’s just awesome to see those guys put it all together now.”

Pass protection was solid, although the plethora of quick throws likely helped with that. The QBs were only sacked once (Cam’Ron Johnson was tabbed with the allowed pressure), and they had ample lanes to escape to when they had no available receivers. For a quarterback who can run as well as Cook (17 rushing yards, one TD on the night), this offensive line will be charged with maintaining open alleys for him to run through when plays break down this year.

“It starts with just feeling really protected back there,” Cook said. “I mean, I didn’t have anything in my face all night, so props to the O-line.”

Of course, this success was expected against South Dakota’s front seven, and the Tigers will only face superior defensive units from here on out. Still, the way this unit physically dominated South Dakota throughout the game was encouraging to see, and it is certainly a performance that this group can build off of as it continues to mesh.

However, it was not all butterflies and rainbows for the Tiger O-line. Penalties were an issue throughout the game, as the line was called for two holdings and two false starts. Marcellus Johnson and Foster each recorded a hold, and Foster and Membou each had a false start. When Sam Horn took the field in the second half, there was a mistimed snap on a play involving motion which resulted in a fumble. Luckily, Horn recovered.

“I felt like we had a bunch of unnecessary penalties,” Drinkwitz said. “That’s the stuff that really held us back last year, and we have to be more disciplined in fixing that.”

All in all, the unit’s live-ball play was solid, but miscues still plagued the offensive line. You can get away with that against South Dakota. You can’t against Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida, LSU, etc.

With a couple of new faces, this is a unit that will only improve as the season goes on. After an encouraging start, the only variable will be how quickly they are able to mesh, and if it will be enough to stand tall against SEC-caliber fronts.