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SEMO has the offense to test Missouri, but the defense probably doesn't

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John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

When Mizzou kicks off against SEMO on Saturday, Gary Pinkel will be staring down a head coach who is pretty familiar with the Tigers. Tom Matukewicz, beginning his second year in charge in Cape Girardeau, was Toledo's defensive coordinator when the Rockets and Tigers faced off (in similarly sweltering conditions) in 2013. Toledo frustrated Missouri's offense for most of the game, but Mizzou was able to eventually pull away in the second half.

Matukewicz's first season at SEMO was a rousing success. Despite quite a few key injuries, the Redhawks improved from 3-9 to 5-7, briefly appearing in the FCS top 25 after taking down two ranked opponents: No. 3 Southeastern Louisiana (24-23 on September 20) and No. 20 Tennessee State (28-21 on October 4). SEMO improved from 86th to 33rd in total offense at the FCS level and achieved solid balance: 202 rushing yards per game (31st) and 220 passing yards per game (28th in pass efficiency).

The defense, Matukewicz's specialty, still has some work to do. SEMO improved from 111th to 92nd in total defense (90th in rushing, 97th in pass efficiency) but showed a solid level of disruption, recording 71 tackles for loss and 54 passes defensed and forcing 17 fumbles.

Matukewicz has a lot of Jerry Kill in his background -- he was a Kill assistant at Emporia State (defensive line coach, 2000), Southern Illinois (linebackers coach, 2001-07), and Northern Illinois (linebackers coach, 2008-10) -- and SEMO's 2014 stats had a lot of Kill in them. SEMO did not operate at a high tempo but played sound football, and like Minnesota has done in each of Kill's first three seasons there, SEMO demonstrated clear improvement on both sides of the ball.

SEMO should offer everything you should want from an FCS opponent. 1) The Redhawks will test Mizzou's rebuilt defense with a few exciting receivers, a solid running back, and an experienced interior line. 2) They could force a couple of offensive mistakes as well. 3) They should bring a decent number of fans to Columbia. 4) They should eventually wilt.

Let's check out the SEMO depth chart.

Offense

QB
Tay Bender (6'4, 220, Jr.)
Alex Niznak (6'2, 240, Sr.) -- 2014: 5-for-12, 32 yards, 1 INT
Dante Vandeven (6'2, 190, Fr.)

Bender is a former Kansas State signee who ended up at Iowa Western CC; he is a three-star recruit, and he overtook last year's backup, Central Michigan transfer Alex Niznak, to win the starting job. He's got all the size you could ask for at the QB position (this will be a recurring theme for the offense).

Bender showed solid dual-threat capability in high school, which appears to be relatively important to Matukewicz and offensive coordinator Sherard Poteete, but as a sophomore at Iowa Western he was mostly a passer: 1,912 passing yards (59% completion rate), 184 rushing yards.

RB
DeMichael Jackson (5'10, 190, Sr.) -- 137 carries, 734 yards (5.4), 5 TD; 18 catches, 161 yards, 2 TD (8 games)
Tremane McCullough (5'10, 170, Jr.)

FB
Lewis Washington (5'10, 260, Sr.) -- 14 carries, 65 yards (4.6), 2 TD; 6 catches, 37 yards
Broedy Wheeler (6'1, 255, So.)

Over a 12-game pace, DeMichael Jackson would have rushed for about 1,100 yards last season; he broke his hand against Kansas and missed a few games but proved fun and versatile upon his return, and he won second-team OVC honors despite the missed time. And apparently SEMO will employ something called a "fullback" at times.

Picture a smaller (but not too small) version of Minnesota's offense last year: plodding pace, lots of RB carries, a few keepers, mostly short passing, and some shots downfield.

WR
Paul McRoberts (6'3, 197, Sr.) -- 44 catches, 711 yards (16.2), 9 TD (7 games)
Tyler McLemore (6'1, 209, So.)

WR
Darrius Darden-Box (5'7, 168, Jr.) -- 5 catches, 49 yards (9.8)
Richie Eisenhart (5'9, 169, RSFr.)

WR
Peter Lloyd (5'7, 166, Sr.) -- 48 catches, 633 yards (13.2), 3 TD (10 games)
Jacquan Fuller (5'8, 165, Fr.)

WR
Adrian Davis (6'3, 190, So.) -- 28 catches, 307 yards (11.0), 4 TD
Tyler Manne (5'10, 170, Jr.)

TE
Stephen Dunn (6'4, 249, So.) -- 1 catch, 19 yards
Logan Larson (6'2, 237, So.) -- 2 catches, 15 yards (7.5)
Marquette Murdock (6'3, 225, Fr.)

Paul McRoberts suffered a Lisfranc injury against SE Louisiana but came back into the game to catch the winning touchdown with five seconds left. That's pretty awesome. He missed five games himself but landed on the all-conference team (and some preseason FCS All-American teams) with his seven-game, 711-yard performance. He's good. And he's got some cohorts returning, too. Peter Lloyd and Adrian Davis combined for 940 yards and seven touchdowns, and it appears Darrius Darden-Box will get some work in the slot, too. SEMO doesn't appear to utilize the tight end as much as Minnesota, but they've got big targets in McRoberts and Davis, and they've got acceptable size across the skill positions.

(Backup tight end Murdock, meanwhile, was a two-star recruit per Rivals, the same level as Mizzou's Tanner Owen.)

LT
Alex Snyder (6'3, 274, So.)
Gabe Phillips (6'5, 270, So.)

LG
Garret Baker (6'2, 290, Jr.)
Giovanni Negron (6'2, 315, RSFr.)

C
Jake McCandless (6'0, 297, Jr.)
Billy Dasher (6'0, 270, Jr.)

RG
Traven Mable (6'2, 308, Sr.)
Christian Guerrero (6'2, 272, Jr.)

RT
Michael Cooke (6'1, 274, Jr.)
Drew Forbes (6'6, 311, Fr.)

SEMO allowed only nine sacks last season, though while all three interior starters return (and average a decent 6'1, 298), the Redhawks are replacing both tackles. And listed starters Alex Snyder and Michael Cooke certainly don't hit the size requirements you usually look for at tackle.

Defense

DE
Travis Sanders (6'3, 262, Sr.) -- 15.0 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR (8 games)
Austin Black (5'11, 236, Jr.) -- 10.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU
Selwyn Carrol (6'1, 254, Jr.) -- 7.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU (5 games)

NT
Marlon Hampton (6'2, 314, Jr.) -- 29.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 PBU, 1 FF
Joshua Wilson (5'10, 311, So.) -- 11.5 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 FR

DT
Jon Slania (6'1, 291, Sr.) -- 17.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR
John Popovich (6'4, 251, Jr.) -- 11.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks

OLB (Rush)
Lawrence HIlls (6'3, 248, Sr.) -- 0.5 tackles (3 games)
Byron Wilson (6'4, 235, Jr.) -- 5.5 tackles, 3 PBU

ILB (Mike)
Roper Garrett (6'1, 234, Jr.) -- 68.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 PBU, 5 FF
Stephon Williams (6'1, 236, Fr.)

ILB (Will)
Terrance Hill (6'0, 215, Jr.) -- 31.0 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR
Lloyd Laufili Time (6'1, 229, Jr.) -- 11.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR

OLB (Star)
Chad Meredith (6'5, 222, So.) -- 11.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack (4 games)
Kendall Donnerson (6'2, 220, So.) -- 7.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack

SEMO operates out of a flexible 3-4 defense, and while the secondary has some rebuilding to do, the front seven seems to be pretty experienced and exciting. And again, size isn't as much of a concern as it can be for a lot of FCS teams. Big Marlon Hampton anchors the middle of the line, and the other two starting linemen are each above 260.

Hampton and Joshua Wilson are both active on the interior; they combined for seven tackles for loss, and Hampton batted down three passes. End Travis Sanders, meanwhile, averaged a TFL per game.

If there's a unique aspect to SEMO's front seven, it's that the Redhawks generate a lot of pressure up the middle, not only from Hampton but also from ILBs Roper Garrett and Terrance Hill, who combined for 99 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, three sacks, four breakups, and five forced fumbles. A majority of that came from Garrett, a preseason all-conference pick.

CB
Ryan Moore (5'9, 174, Jr.) -- 4.5 tackles
Taron Divens (6'1, 190, Jr.)

FS
David Coley (6'2, 196, Sr.) -- 23.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU
Omar Pierre-Louis (6'1, 190, So.)

SS
Eriq Moore (5'10, 202, Jr.) -- 49.5 tackles, 3 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FF, 2 FR
Josh Freeman (6'2, 183, Sr.) -- 3.0 tackles

CB
Jamari Holloway (6'2, 185, Jr.)
Michael Ford (5'11, 188, So.) -- 4.0 tackles

The backbone of this defense -- tackle, ILB, safety -- is strong and experienced; safety Eriq Moore is another interesting play-maker. But there are questions on the edges. SEMO is breaking in new starters at both OLB and cornerback positions.

Granted, against a Mizzou team that is likely further along in the running game than the passing game, being sturdy up the middle isn't the worst thing in the world. But you assume that Mizzou's athletes on the edges should find some opportunities. This is a pretty good opponent for Maty Mauk and his green receiving corps to start with.

Special Teams

K
Ryan McCrum (6'0, 228, Jr.) -- 40-41 PAT, 9-10 FG under 40, 9-13 FG over 40; 62% touchback rate on kickoffs

P
Alex Knight (6'1, 199, Jr.) -- 42 punts, 41.4 average, 13 fair caught, 13 inside 20

KR
DeMichael Jackson (5'10, 190, Sr.) -- 1 KR, 21 yards
Tremane McCullough (5'10, 170, Jr.)
Peter Lloyd (5'7, 166, Sr.) -- 14 KR, 27.3 average

PR
Peter Lloyd (5'7, 166, Sr.) -- 1 PR, 0 yards
Tyler Manne (5'10, 170, Jr.) -- 7 PR, 9.0 average

SEMO could be dynamite in special teams. Ryan McCrum is one of FCS' best kickers (though you figure SEMO is going to need touchdowns to beat Missouri, not field goals), Alex Knight's punts are long enough and frequently unreturnable, and considering the backup return men (Peter Lloyd at KR, Tyler Manne at PR) had strong averages last year, I'm going to assume the guys ahead of them on the depth chart must be pretty good.

***

Again, this is a nice opponent for Mizzou to start with. The balanced offense will provide a nice test for Missouri's new defensive pieces, but the defense probably won't provide enough resistance over four quarters. I almost kind of hope for an early challenge just so we see how some new starting Tigers handle stress, but Missouri should eventually pull away. I'm thinking something in the 41-13 neighborhood. SEMO should be well-represented and could have a very nice season in the Ohio Valley Conference, but if Missouri is the top-30 team we suspect, the Tigers should pull away even if there are some dicey moments in the early going.