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Notebook: Odom, Mizzou look to get over the hump against South Carolina


Asked what he learned from last year’s meeting between Missouri and South Carolina, a zany game ultimately won by the Gamecocks that featured a torrential downpour, a lightning delay, a controversial replay review, a surprise onside kick and a last-second field goal, among other peculiarities, Barry Odom’s answer was as quick and dry as the rest of his midweek press conference. Odom’s tone was terse as he spoke with reporters Tuesday, but in discussing last year’s game, Missouri’s head coach did inject a bit of humor.

"Bring an umbrella,” he said. “Don't trust the weather forecasts.”

Missouri led South Carolina by nine points at halftime in 2018 before a surprise thunderstorm coincided with an error-filled third quarter. The Tigers had a long rushing touchdown by Damarea Crockett overturned on replay, then turned a first-and-10 from the South Carolina 11-yard line into a turnover on downs at the 33, thanks to two penalties and a botched snap. Then, quarterback Drew Lock served up an easy pick-six when he tried to throw a screen pass to running back Tyler Badie after Badie slipped and fell. Following a one hour, 16 minute lightning delay, Missouri re-captured the lead with a 57-yard field goal from Tucker McCann, only to allow a field goal from the Gamecocks with two seconds remaining that cemented the 37-35 final score.

“We didn’t finish the plays we needed to make and didn’t make the plays we needed to make to finish the game,” offensive coordinator Derek Dooley said of last year’s matchup. He, like Odom, was not very willing to delve into the game.

“It’s a new year.”

Missouri's 2018 matchup against South Carolina featured a torrential downpour and a lightning delay in the second half.
Missouri's 2018 matchup against South Carolina featured a torrential downpour and a lightning delay in the second half. (USA Today Sports Images)

It may have been the most painful loss to South Carolina in Odom’s tenure, but it wasn’t the first. With blowout wins in the past two weeks, Missouri has righted the ship following a season-opening loss to Wyoming, but to keep the momentum moving into SEC play, the Tigers need to beat the Gamecocks for the first time since 2015.

Much like in his assessment of last year’s matchup, Odom summed up the series since he took over by saying South Carolina has simply made more plays in critical moments.

“It's been a contested close battle since I've been here in ‘15,” he said. “You feel like you're in the game, they pulled away. You know, last year was back and forth throughout the entire course of the game, and hopefully we can get it into the fourth quarter and find a way to prepare well enough to get themselves in that position to go win."

Even though South Carolina’s record may not indicate it, Odom is expecting a close matchup again this season. The Gamecocks are off to a 1-2 start with their only win coming over Charleston Southern, but Odom and his assistants were effusive in their praise for the team Tuesday. Odom specifically praised the Gamecock offensive and defensive lines, running back Rico Dowdle, wide receiver Bryan Edwards and quarterback Ryan Hilinski.

Hilinski was a popular topic for the entire team Tuesday. The true freshman took over for senior Jake Bentley at quarterback after Bentley suffered a season-ending injury in the season-opener, and the offense has played well with him behind center. South Carolina racked up 775 total yards against Coastal Carolina and 459 against Alabama — the most the Crimson Tide have allowed in a regular season game since 2016.

“I don't see that they've missed a beat,” Odom said. “He's a super talented kid. ... He doesn't look rattled at all, they've played really well around him and been able to run the ball to balance that, about 250 (yards per game) rushing and 250 passing."

As cornerback DeMarkus Acy pointed out, Missouri learned firsthand last season not to underestimate Bentley’s backup. A season ago, Michael Scarnecchia filled in for an injured Bentley and completed 20 of 35 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns.

“We had the same situation last year when Jake Bentley went down, so just emphasizing not taking it lightly,” Acy said. “At the end of the day, we still gotta go out there and get the job done.”

Odom predicted that, like last season, the keys to Saturday’s matchup will be winning the turnover battle and scoring touchdowns in the red zone. And yes, in case the skies open up once again, he believes his team will be ready. (Current forecasts call for a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms.)

“Every Thursday, we put a heavy emphasis on, you know, we may have five gallon buckets of water out there, wet ball drills,” Odom said. “We had a number, two or three practices, I guess, in fall camp, it was rainy out, so we got a little work there. But also it's the focus and the determination and the grittiness and the toughness to handle whatever the adversities are."

Bryant prepared to face familiar foes

The one player on Missouri’s roster who has experience beating South Carolina is quarterback Kelly Bryant. During Bryant’s 2017 season at Clemson, the Tigers beat the Gamecocks 34-10. Bryant completed 24 of 34 passes for 272 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, and he added 10 rushes for 26 yards as well.

Bryant is familiar with the Gamecocks for another reason as well. South Carolina was the first high-major school to offer the Calhoun Falls, SC native a scholarship when he was a sophomore at Wren High School. Bryant said South Carolina remained a player throughout his recruitment, though he ultimately signed with Clemson.

“That's when coach (Steve) Spurrier was there,” he said. “That was my first offer out of high school. I considered them heavily when I was going through that process."

When the two teams take the field Saturday, Bryant will know several players on South Carolina’s roster. Wide receiver Jay Urich played on the same high school team as Bryant, and running back Tavian Feaster began his college career at Clemson before leaving for South Carolina as a graduate transfer, much like Bryant. He also said he knows South Carolina natives Zacch Pickens, Shi Smith and Edwards as well as the injured Bentley.

Jeffcoat meets with the media

Speaking of South Carolina natives, sophomore defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat has been sidelined since Aug. 2, the first day of fall camp, with an injury to his right elbow. While Odom is still not sure if Jeffcoat will suit up against his hometown team — Jeffcoat did not appear to participate in practice Tuesday and Odom said he will have check-up with doctors this week — Jeffcoat spoke to reporters for the first time since sustaining the injury.

Jeffcoat, who was listed as a starter on Missouri’s depth chart prior to getting hurt, said the elbow is feeling “pretty good.”

“Things are really getting better day by day,” he said. “Taking it one day at a time. I'm just ready to get back with my team, do my part, contribute and just keep winning with my team."

Jeffcoat said it has been difficult to watch from the sidelines for the first three games of the season, and he would especially like to be on the field to face his friends on the South Carolina roster. However, he said, “it’s all God’s plan."

Defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat has missed the first three games of the season with an elbow injury.
Defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat has missed the first three games of the season with an elbow injury. (Jordan Kodner)

Defensive line coach Brick Haley said no player loses a starting spot due to injury, but he needs to see Jeffcoat return to practice fully before assessing Jeffcoat’s workload. His teammates on the defensive line seem eager to have Jeffcoat back in the rotation.

“Before he got hurt, he was really, really doing well,” Haley said. “He was our starter. You can't lose your position to injury so we'll have to come back, see how he works technique wise, fundamental wise and see where he fits."

“I miss him out there, man,” said junior defensive end Chris Turner. “Of course he’s got a lot of speed to him, but he brings the power and aggression with his pass rush, and I feel like we need that. I’m not saying we’re lacking it, but he like boosts it when he comes.”

Two starting spots still up for grabs

When redshirt sophomore Case Cook and redshirt freshman Bobby Lawrence took the field for Missouri’s first snap Saturday against Southeast Missouri, it served as a bit of a surprise. The Tigers have not been prone to switching up their starters on the offensive line in recent years. In 2017, Missouri swapped Tyler Howell for Yasir Durant as the starter at right tackle; other than that, the starters remained the same all season. Last year, aside from the season-opener against Tennessee-Martin, when Cook started in place of an injured Kevin Pendleton at left guard, the team’s starting five up front never changed.

This year, however, the starting spots at left guard and right tackle are still up for grabs due to the departure of Pendleton and Paul Adams. Odom explained that Cook and Lawrence simply out-practiced the starters from the first two games, Larry Borom at left guard and Hyrin White at right tackle, leading up to Saturday. Entering Week Four, Borom and Cook are now listed on the team’s depth chart as co-starters. Same for White and Lawrence.

“I’m going to continue to do that as long as I get the opportunity,” Odom said after the game. “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.”

Odom said he would prefer that one player emerge as the definitive starter for each position, but until that happens, both candidates will get reps during games. There’s a positive to letting the position battles play out on the field, too. Depth has been a major question mark at the offensive line each of the past two seasons, but right now, Odom believes the Tigers have at least seven players who he would be comfortable playing with the first team.

“I think it’s important we can get to the ability and the level that you feel like you can play seven or eight guys,” he said. “I think that’s beneficial down the stretch. I’d rather one of them step up and say ‘I’m the guy’ and take it, but also we’re in a position right now that both of them are playing pretty well.”

Injury report

Aside from Jeffcoat, the main injury question for Missouri is the status of Durant. Durant, who has started each of the last 25 games for Missouri at left tackle, left Saturday’s game against SEMO in the third quarter with a neck injury. Durant appeared to be a limited participant in Tuesday’s practice, but Odom didn’t express any concern that he might miss this week’s matchup.

“Yasir will play and will start and will play well,” Odom said.

Tight end Daniel Parker Jr. also wore a red, no-contact pullover over his jersey during practice, but that is likely precautionary. Odom said there were “no new injuries to even comment on” aside from Durant.