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Notebook: Hard-hitting defense suffocates SEMO

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It took three plays for the Missouri defense to assert itself as the more talented and more physical unit in its matchup against Southeast Missouri State’s offense. On the second play of SEMO’s first possession, safety Khalil Oliver knifed through the offensive line on a blitz and sacked Daniel Santacaterina. The very next play, defensive end Tre Williams leveled Santacaterina as he threw, prompting a pass that went straight into the hands of middle linebacker Cale Garrett. Garrett returned the ball 27 yards for a touchdown, showing his background as a high school running back by breaking two tackles in the process.

“I just wanted to be like Bolt,” Garrett said of the play, referencing sophomore linebacker Nick Bolton’s pick-six the week prior against West Virginia.

It was the start of a historic outing for the Tiger defense. SEMO accumulated just 94 total yards, the fewest by a Missouri opponent since Eastern Illinois had 44 in 2011. A week after Missouri held West Virginia to 32 rushing yards on 30 carries, SEMO had just 40 yards on 32 totes. The seven combined points the Tigers have allowed the past two weeks is the fewest in a two-week span since 2010, when the team held Iowa State and Kansas to seven combined points in the final two weeks of the regular season.

Linebacker Cale Garrett (47) and the rest of the Missouri defense dominated SEMO.
Linebacker Cale Garrett (47) and the rest of the Missouri defense dominated SEMO. (Jordan Kodner)

Yes, Missouri was expected to manhandle an FCS opponent, but the dominant performances the past two weeks are notable in contrast to the Tigers’ disastrous season-opening game against Wyoming, in which the Cowboys rushed for 297 yards in a 38-31 win. Bolton attributed the improvement to execution and energy.

“Those are two things that we made sure we were going to have going into football games last week and this week, and I think we did a good job of doing that,” Bolton said.

The defense generated energy by laying a few thunderous hits on Santacaterina and his teammates. On SEMO’s second possession, defensive tackle Jordan Elliott burst through the line and blasted Santacaterina as he threw, forcing an incompletion. Missouri sacked Santacaterina three times during the contest and was credited for six additional quarterback hurries. Safety Tyree Gillespie also delivered two big tackles, one of which knocked SEMO receiver Christian Wilkerson out of the game. The play originally drew a targeting penalty, which would have caused Gillespie to be ejected from Saturday’s game and the first half of the team’s Week Four game against South Carolina, but the penalty was overturned on replay.

Elliott said the Tigers need to be careful to deliver such hits within the rules; he admitted that he, too, probably could have gotten called for targeting on his hit of Santacaterina. But he also said that SEMO’s offense as a whole and Santacaterina in particular became nervous after as a result of the violent hits. Two weeks after players admitted Wyoming brought more energy to its contest against Missouri, the Tiger defense imposed their will on the Redhawks.

“You can sense it,” Elliott said. “... When you hit the quarterback like that, it’s kind of like taking their will, because that’s the leader of their offense. So if you can take the quarterback out of the game, you can really control the game.”

“It gets them fired up a lot,” Gillespie said of the hits. “The atmosphere changed a little bit after I got a big hit.”

Missouri will face a far tougher test next week when it opens SEC play against South Carolina. In two games with freshman Ryan Hilinski at quarterback, the Gamecocks have racked up 1,234 yards of total offense. But head coach Barry Odom and his players all said that if the unit carries the execution and energy it showed Saturday into the matchup, it likes its chances.

“It’s just about consistency,” Elliott said. “After (Wyoming) we really got focused and locked in and everybody started practicing more seriously. Everything was just more crisp, and I feel like it’s showing right now. We just gotta continue that trend.”

“We understand what’s coming,” said Odom. “... If we stay focused and keep blinders on we can be a really good group."

Floyd provides spark with special teams TD

The exclamation point of Missouri’s 27-point barrage in the opening nine minutes came when Richaud Floyd caught a punt, made one man miss and took off down the sidelines for a 71-yard touchdown. The score was Floyd’s third punt return touchdown of his career but the first since 2017.

“When I hit the sideline, I saw a sea of black, all my teammates in front of me,” Floyd said of the play. “Then I saw the punter, I was like, I made it this far, I can’t get tackled by the punter. All I was thinking was getting to the end zone.”

It was a welcome sight for the Tigers, as last season Missouri struggled mightily in the return game. In fact, the 71 yards Floyd traveled eclipsed Missouri’s punt return total from all of last season. The team averaged just 2.6 yards per return in 2018, which ranked second-to-last among all FBS teams. Boosted by Floyd’s score, the Tigers are averaging 20.7 yards per return so far this season.

Odom, who admitted he wasn’t sure Floyd would continue to return punts after he suffered a concussion on a return against Tennessee last season, said he took special enjoyment in watching the senior return to the end zone.

“I’m happy for him,” Odom said. “He’s been a guy that moved from receiver to corner and starts on every one of our special teams. Senior, had every chance in the world to go leave and go somewhere else, and he just continues to make plays. He is as good of a teammate as we’ve got, and I was really happy to see him have some success.”

Richaud Floyd covered more yardage on his punt return touchdown against SEMO than Missouri did all of last season.
Richaud Floyd covered more yardage on his punt return touchdown against SEMO than Missouri did all of last season. (Jordan Kodner)

McCann shows strength and stamina 

Entering the season, Missouri knew Tucker McCann had a big leg, at least as a kicker. McCann made a 57-yard field goal last season against South Carolina and routinely boots kickoffs through the back of the end zone.

But Odom admitted he has been surprised by McCann’s strength as a punter. The senior took over as the team’s starting punter for the first time this season, replacing four-year starter Corey Fatony, and he averaged a whopping 55.4 yards on five punts against SEMO. Two of his punts topped 60 yards.

“He really hit it tonight, didn’t he?” Odom said.

McCann showed strength and accuracy in the kicking game as well, making all three of his field goal attempts, including a 52-yarder. He also put all 10 of his kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks. He is the college player since at least 2000 with four punts of 50-plus yards and three field goals of 40-plus yards in the same game.

Odom said he has been most impressed with how McCann has handled the added workload of punting without letting it affect his placekicking performance.

“I’m kind of learning how to pace myself during the game and pregame, how many kicks I need to kick, how many kicks I don’t need to get,” McCann said.

Fast start leads to big day for Rountree

On the first possession of the game, running back Larry Rountree III produced a statistical rarity. Missouri marched 75 yards for a touchdown on the drive. Rountree finished the possession with eight touches for a total of … 85 yards.

Rountree touched the ball on every play of the possession, catching one pass for eight yards and rushing seven times for 77 yards, including a three-yard score. Two five-yard penalties added to his total yardage total on the possession.

The drive was a sign of things to come for Rountree. He finished the game with 142 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. His 7.9 average yards per carry was his highest since last year’s win over Memphis, when he rushed for 118 yards on nine carries. Still, he feels like he has room to improve.

“I think I ran the ball a little bit better, but I can do better,” Rountree said. “I think I left some yards on the field. For the most part we ran the ball pretty well.”

Lawrence earns first start, Bazelak sees first action

Missouri made a couple last-minute changes to its starting lineup before Saturday’s game. Redshirt freshman Bobby Lawrence and sophomore Case Cook both made their first starts of the season on the offensive line, with Lawrence replacing Hyrin White at right tackle and Cook starting in place of Larry Borom at left guard.

Odom said the reason for the change was simple: Lawrence and Cook had the best weeks of practice at their position.

“I’m going to continue to do that as long as I get the opportunity,” Odom said. “If you practice the right way and your habits are where they need to be with the urgency, then you’re going to be rewarded for it. And those guys practiced better. They performed last week in the game when they had the opportunities and then they backed it up with the way they practiced throughout the week.”

Missouri also used the blowout as an opportunity to get nearly every player that dressed for the game onto the field, including several true freshman. Quarterback Connor Bazelak saw his first college action, playing nine snaps in the fourth quarter. Bazelak did not attempt a pass but rushed once for one yard.

Other true freshman who saw their first action of the season included running back Anthony Watkins, who gained 19 yards on six carries, and safety Jalani Williams, who had a tackle. Due to an NCAA rule allowing players to play in up to four games but still retain a season of eligibility, each of those players is still eligible to redshirt this season.

Injury report

Missouri already led 37-0 at halftime, but Odom opted to keep the starters in the game for the first two offensive series of the third quarter. On the first, the Tigers got a scare as left tackle Yasir Durant left the game with a neck injury. Durant did not return.

After the game, Odom said Durant’s injury is not expected to keep him out of game action.

“It sounded like if we were in a tight game he would’ve continued to play,” Odom said.

Aside from Durant, the Tigers appear to have made it out of the game fairly unscathed. Defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat did not suit up for the third game in a row due to an elbow injury suffered during fall camp, but Odom expressed optimism that he is “close” to a return.