Notebook: Bryant's availability in doubt for Saturday
Following a much-needed bye week, the Missouri football team will look to end a two-game losing streak and mount another November charge under head coach Barry Odom. In order to do so, the top priority will be getting the offense back on track. After scoring 30 or more points in 11 straight games across the past two seasons, the Tigers scored just 14 at Vanderbilt and seven at Kentucky in consecutive losses as a double-digit favorite.
At least this week, doing so will be no easy task. Not only will the Tigers travel to Athens to face No. 6 Georgia, which features the eighth-best total defense in the country, they might be without starting quarterback Kelly Bryant.
Bryant, who strained his right hamstring during the first half of the team’s Oct. 26 loss to the Wildcats, wasn’t ruled out when the team met with reporters following its Tuesday practice, but he didn’t guarantee he would take the field Saturday, either. Bryant estimated himself at 75 percent and said he still needs to gain clearance from doctors before he could play against Georgia. Odom said that, if Missouri faced Georgia on Tuesday, Bryant would not have played.
“Still gotta go see the doctor,” Bryant said. “I feel good, feel like I can go, but just continue to see what they say and continue to rehab it. So still gotta see.”
“If we played today he wouldn't be out there,” said Odom. “We'll take it day to day.”
Bryant stayed in the game for seven possessions after suffering the injury against Kentucky but appeared to be limited in his mobility. Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley pointed to the injury as a major factor in the offense’s struggles against the Wildcats, saying it cut down the play-calling options.
“His legs are a really big part of our offense,” Dooley said. “So it eliminated a lot that we could do offensively. Kind of had to hone in on handing the ball off or drop-back.”
The coaching staff ultimately pulled Bryant from the game late in the third quarter. He finished 10 of 19 for 130 yards and a touchdown, but 71 of those yards and the score came on one screen pass to Tyler Badie. Bryant said he won’t try to play Saturday if he feels similarly limited.
“If I’m going to play, I’m going to make sure I can do all the things I’ve done all year,” Bryant said. “If I can’t, I don’t feel confident, I’m not going to put myself out there.”
If Bryant is unable to play against Georgia, he will be replaced by redshirt sophomore Taylor Powell, who saw the most meaningful action of his career against Kentucky. Powell completed four of 10 passes for 34 yards, but he also scrambled for 13 yards and drew a pass interference penalty that contributed to Missouri’s most sustained drive of the second half. The drive ultimately ended when Powell threw low for slot receiver Dominic Gicinto on fourth down and Gicinto couldn't secure the pass.
Both Odom and Dooley expressed confidence in Powell’s ability to run the offense if he’s called upon to start.
“He’s ready,” Dooley said. “He knows the offense well, he can see defenses, and he’s just gotta get out there and perform. He showed some good plays, and then there’s plays where he can do better, and I think the more he plays, the better he’ll be.”
Odom wants more from running game
Bryant’s play was far from the only issue with Missouri’s offense against Kentucky. A week after recording season lows in points and total yardage against Vanderbilt, the Tigers sunk lower in both categories against the Wildcats, finishing with 289 total yards.
Asked about the offensive struggles Tuesday, Dooley differentiated between the past two performances. He chalked up the unit’s woes against Vanderbilt to a lack of focus and intensity — on the part of both the coaches and players. Entering the Kentucky game, he said, the coaching staff had a sound game plan and the players started off playing alright, but Bryant’s injury and the pouring rain derailed the offense.
“I thought we were ready, I thought we had a good plan, and we had a great drive going, and then the circumstances, that’s what we didn’t handle well,” Dooley said. “When our quarterback got hurt and then it started raining, we needed to throw and catch better, and we needed to run the ball better, and we didn’t do it. They whipped us.”
Odom, however, did point to one similarity between the losses at Vanderbilt and Kentucky: Missouri’s lack of success running the ball. The Tigers rushed for 153 yards on 40 carries against the Commodores. The following week, they mustered just 125 yards on 34 totes. Odom said Missouri needs to be able to run the ball effectively to avoid difficult third down situations and set up the rest of its playbook.
“I'm not saying we're going to have to run out there and run for 250 (yards),” Odom said. “That's not what I'm saying. We are going to be able to extend the drive, and every third down can't come down to 3rd and 7, you got to complete a pass to go get it. So, we get into third and short, then we're going to have an opportunity to get more of those conversions that we need to.
“The run game also opens up the pass game for us to play action, moving the pocket. ... If you're not running the ball yet and establish that, then they don't have any respect for it. So, we've got to find a way to run."
Getting the ground game going will be especially challenging this week. Georgia has smothered opposing rushing attacks this year, allowing just 77.6 yards per game on the ground. That ranks fourth in the country. Last week, the Bulldog defense held Florida to just 21 yards rushing.
“They got a lot of good players, they have an excellent coaching staff and they play with a lot of spirit,” Dooley said. “So when you combine those three things — a really good scheme, they’re well-coached, great players and they play with a lot of spirit — that’s why they’re ranked the way they are defensively. They’re one of the best defenses in the country.”
While Georgia’s defense will undoubtedly be the most talented Missouri has faced all season, Powell expressed optimism that the Tiger offense can move the ball against the Bulldogs if they avoid the self-inflicted errors of the past two games. Powell pointed to those miscues — dropped passes, missed assignments, penalties — as the main contributor to Missouri’s struggles both through the air and on the ground.
"I think it just comes down to being able to run the ball, be able to play catch and just being able to run the system well. I feel like we kind of got outside of ourselves. I don't think it's anything the defense was doing. I think it was more of what we were doing. I think we were hurting ourselves and just not getting back to our execution."
Secondary prepares for biggest challenge yet
Not much of Missouri’s team has been immune to breakdowns across the past two games, but the Tiger pass defense has held strong. In perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, Missouri ranks fourth nationally against the pass, allowing just 144.5 yards per game through the air.
That said, the Tiger coaches didn’t shy away from the fact that the defense hasn’t faced a passing attack as dangerous as Georgia’s this year. So far this season, Missouri has only played one team that ranks among the top 70 nationally in passing: Troy. Three of the Tigers’ six FBS opponents rank among the bottom 30.
Georgia, led by third-year starter Jake Fromm, ranks 58th in passing at 240 yards per game, but Fromm showed last week that he is capable of more. Fromm, who led the Bulldogs to the national title game as a true freshman in 2017, threw for 279 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the win over Florida.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said the Missouri secondary is embracing the challenge.
“They’ve played well all season,” he said of the defensive backs. “They’ve continued to improve. Obviously Georgia’s got some talent outside, they got a couple transfers that are good players, long and tall, and they’ve got a quarterback that can get them the ball in some tight windows. So we’ll be tested, for sure, and our guys are excited to compete.”
Complicating matters for the Missouri defense is the fact that Georgia also features a talented stable of running backs and one of the most fearsome offensive lines in the country. Pro Football Focus grades the line No. 1 in the country in run blocking. The Bulldogs average more than 220 yards per game on the ground and rank eighth in the country in yards per carry at 5.73.
“They’re big up front,” linebacker Nick Bolton said. “Just gotta do our jobs, be gap sound, can’t get out of gaps, can’t guess.”
Both Walters and Odom identified getting off the field on third downs as the key for the Missouri defense. Georgia converted 12 of 18 third downs against Florida, with Fromm completing 10 of 13 third down passes. Odom said that, first, the Tigers have to put the Bulldogs behind the chains, then they need the secondary to stop the passing attack.
“We've got to be aggressive,” Odom said. “We've got to try to find a way to be disruptive and get a tackle for loss here and there and get them behind the sticks. You know that's a key. One of the more pressing keys for us defensively just try to find a way to get them into third and medium to long."
Tigers still trying to get Albert O going
Prior to the loss at Kentucky, Odom told reporters that he wanted the offense to find more touches for redshirt junior tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, especially between the 20-yard lines. Okwuegbunam, a preseason first-team All-American, has just 18 receptions on the season, but six have gone for touchdowns.
As it turned out, Okwuegbunam received just one target against the Wildcats. He dropped the pass.
Odom dispelled a rumor that Okwuegbunam’s conditioning, or lack thereof, has factored into his workload this season, saying the tight end is “in really good shape.” He also reiterated his desire to feed Okwuegbunam. Odom said the coaching staff is working to find creative ways to get Okwuegbunam open.
However, he also noted that the team’s ability to do so will depend on how Georgia defends him. If the Bulldogs scheme to take Okwuegbunam away, Odom said, the other pass-catchers need to make plays.
“If I were trying to defend our offense, I would kind of do what some of those guys are doing; I would try to take away 81,” Odom said. “As much as we all want him to have the ball — and I'm leading the pack on that — if it's not there, we can't force the throw, and that will be not a wise decision.”
For his part, Okwuegbunam remains optimistic about his role in the offense.
“I feel like they definitely have a lot of good stuff for me in this game plan,” he said. “Got a lot of good mismatches against the Georgia defense that we’re sorting through, and I think it’s going to work really well.”
In addition to Bryant, another offensive starter appears to be in jeopardy of missing Saturday’s game. Senior slot receiver Johnathon Johnson did not practice Tuesday due to an illness. Odom characterized Johnson as “day to day.”
Freshman tight end Niko Hea was also limited during practice. Hea appeared in each of the first six games of the season but has not traveled to each of the past two. The specifics of his injury have not been disclosed.