Notebook: Mizzou shifting focus forward
Cale Garrett never deviated. Each time Missouri’s senior middle linebacker heard a question about the Tigers’ 37-31 loss to Wyoming in the season-opener, he channeled his inner Bill Belichick and uttered the same refrain.
“New week, new opportunity,” Garrett repeated at the end of each answer.
The vocal leader of Missouri’s defense enunciated the mindset for the entire team, players and coaches. That was the message during Tuesday’s media availability: The Tigers are done reflecting on the loss, instead dedicating their focus to a Week Two matchup against West Virginia.
“We all obviously were not hoping for that result, but we can’t do nothing about it,” senior cornerback DeMarkus Acy said. “We gotta just move forward, move on to the next game, and we got a whole season ahead of us, so I’m still excited for the season.”
Acy said the team implements a 24-hour rule: players have 24 hours to watch film and think about a game, no matter the result. By Monday morning, it’s no longer discussed as attention turns to the next test.
“No matter if it’s a win or loss or draw, you watch the game, get the corrections out and move on to the next game,” Acy said.
The next test for Missouri will be West Virginia, a rare home-opener against a Power Five team. The last time the Tigers’ first game at Faurot Field came against such an opponent was in 1993 against Illinois. The Mountaineers got off to a shaky start to the season as well, though they at least notched a win in Week One after beating James Madison 20-13.
The matchup is also unique because West Virginia features both a new head coach and a new quarterback this season. Neal Brown arrived from Troy to replace Dana Holgorsen during the offseason, and Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall took over for NFL Draft pick Will Grier behind center. Odom said the coaching staff dedicated some time during the offseason to watching Brown’s Troy teams to get a sense of his schematic tendencies.
"We did offseason studies on them just because of the coaching change,” Odom said. “... I think we have an understanding of maybe core values and beliefs and what they tried to do on both sides of the ball. I also believe that they probably didn't show as much Week One as what they've got the playbook.”
Odom spoke particularly highly of Kendall. Kendall completed 27 of 42 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns in Week One. Not much film exists of him prior to this season, as he appeared in just six games while at Oklahoma, but Odom said he also brings a running threat to the Mountaineer offense.
“I know he throws well, extremely talented passer,” Odom said. “They didn't run him as much Week One, which he's got the ability to do in our studies. Throws a really good ball, can attack down the field.”
While Missouri’s focus is now squarely on the “new opportunity,” in Garrett’s words, that this weekend’s game represents, the loss to Wyoming won’t be totally forgotten. Senior receiver Johnathon Johnson called the loss humbling and said he will use it as a source of motivation for the rest of the season.
“You always gotta keep it in the back of your head,” Johnson said. “I would never say that you get rid of it. But yeah, we kind of put that week behind us and just try to move forward because we’ve got a big week this week.”
That’s exactly the way Odom wants it.
“One game’s not going to define us,” he said, “but how we respond to that game will define who we are and how this season goes.”
Defensive woes blamed on execution, not scheme
One of the enduring topics of conversation since Saturday’s game has been Missouri’s inability to stop Wyoming’s rushing attack. The Cowboys rushed for 297 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry. We took a look at the causes of the Tigers’ struggles to stop the ground game here, but also asked defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and a few players what they saw when they watched film of the contest.
The primary takeaway was the same one enunciated Saturday night: It wasn’t a problem of scheme, but execution. Specifically, the unit was doomed by its 13 missed tackles.
“We had a couple times when guys’ eyes were wrong and missed fit, but for the most part it was tackling,” Walters said.
Missouri certainly isn’t the first college football team to struggle with tackling in its season-opener. With fewer opportunities for defenders to bring offensive players to the ground during fall camp, missed tackles seem to be more prevalent across the country early in the season. Walters pointed out that Missouri hadn’t allowed its defensive players to tackle much leading up to Week One, but both he and Garrett said that’s no excuse to have that many misses.
“You could make that excuse if you wanted to, but at the end of the day, that’s not acceptable,” Garrett said. “Regardless of the way we practice, we’re supposed to make tackles.”
As a result, the coaching staff has made tackling a point of emphasis this week. Head coach Barry Odom said the defense usually would not do live tackling during a Tuesday practice, but this week the first and second-team defenses went through tackling drills and were allowed to bring down scout team players.
“Today we made a big emphasis on wrapping up and taking the right angles to the ball and stuff like that so things like that won’t happen on Saturday,” safety Joshuah Bledsoe said.
In spite of the poor defensive performance, Odom voiced confidence in both Walters and defensive line coach Brick Haley. He maintained that the defensive play calls were fine; on-field execution, or lack thereof, led to Wyoming’s success, particularly on its two 60-plus yard rushing touchdowns. He said both coaches are equipped to improve that execution.
“I’ve got a lot of trust in those guys,” Odom said. “They’re really, really good coaches, and the thing they don’t need right now is for me to step in and think I’ve got all the answers. Because I don’t. There were pretty good calls the other night, and also we’ve got to go execute.
“They don’t need me stepping in and saying ‘This is what I’d do.’ They’re invested, they’re really, really good coaches, and they’re going to get it right.”
Dooley pleased with Okwuegbunam's stamina
Considering the preseason hype, some Missouri fans might have been disappointed with tight end Albert Okwuegbunam’s performance against Wyoming. The junior tight end was picked to both the preseason all-SEC and all-America first teams by media members this summer, yet he caught just three passes Saturday. He also drew a crucial offensive pass interference penalty, which negated a touchdown, when he shoved a Wyoming defensive back to the ground in the end zone.
Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley pointed out Tuesday that those expectations for Okwuegbunam may have been a bit out of whack, at least for the season-opener. Asked about Okwuegbunam’s performance against Wyoming, Dooley said he was pleasantly surprised by the number of snaps Okwuegbunam played. Entering the game, he admitted, he didn’t know what to expect from the tight end.
“I was actually impressed with his ability to play the number of snaps he did,” Dooley said. “I honestly didn’t think he would be able to do that. So that was encouraging.”
Dooley pointed out that Okwuegbunam is still working his way back into game shape due to a shoulder injury suffered last November. The injury sidelined him for Missouri’s last four games of the season and also caused him to miss spring practices. Then, during fall camp, he sat out about half of the team’s practices due to other minor injuries.
As Okwuegbunam continues to show he can handle a larger workload, Dooley said, the team will likely make a more concerted effort to get him the ball.
“Frankly, I wasn’t confident he could play that many snaps at a high level,” he said. “So we probably didn’t have as many things as we would for him.”
'Takeaways equal victory'
A significant factor in Missouri’s loss to Wyoming was that the Tigers finished minus-three in the turnover margin. Since Odom took over as head coach, his team is 2-14 when losing the turnover battle and has never won a game in which it turned the ball over three times more than an opponent.
While Odom and Dooley both said the offense needs to take care of the ball, Odom also said some responsibility lies with the defense to generate turnovers. In an effort to make players internalize that objective, each member of the defense received a laminated card, about the size of a business card, that he is to carry around all week. The cards read “Takeaways = Victory!!”
“When we turn it over as an offense, we got to find a way to get it back defensively or on special teams, and we got to get (the turnover margin) back to zero,” Odom said. “We didn't get any on defense — we had opportunities, you know, had a hand on it, to not come away with it.”
For the most part, Missouri came out of its season-opener in good health — with one exception. Linebacker Aubrey Miller Jr. left the game with a knee injury. Odom said he will be out indefinitely, but don’t expect him to return any time soon.
“I don’t have a time frame for his return,” Odom said. “It will be a while, it looks like.”
Sophomore Cameron Wilkins takes Miller’s spot on the depth chart, as the backup to Nick Bolton at weakside linebacker. Wilkins didn’t make the trip to Wyoming due to a knee injury of his own, but he appeared to practice fully Tuesday.
Odom also said that slot receiver Dominic Gicinto, who missed Saturday’s game due to a groin injury, has been cleared to play. Gicinto practiced Tuesday as well. The one player whose availability is still up in the air for this week’s matchup is defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat. Jeffcoat has been recovering from an elbow injury suffered on the first day of fall camp, Aug. 2. He returned to the practice field in a limited capacity Tuesday and Odom said he has “an outside chance” to suit up against West Virginia.
“We’ll get another scan Wednesday or Thursday this week,” Odom said of Jeffcoat. “... He’s running and doing a lot of things, just non-contact right now, so we’ll have a better feel later in the week on his status.”