COLUMBIA – On Missouri’s second drive Saturday night against Bowling Green, quarterback Blaine Gabbert moved to his right to avoid heavy pressure around the 30-yard-line. Before going out of bounds, he threw in the general direction of Wes Kemp, but the desperate third-down pass was doomed.
In contrast, the second drive of the Illinois game ended with Kemp hauling in a 49-yard Gabbert pass as he cruised into the end zone. There were no similar big plays early against the Falcons.
The inability to find open receivers largely explained the unexpected deficit the Tigers faced throughout much of the game. Without the Missouri offense being able to sustain productive possessions, Bowling Green had numerous chances to score, leading to a 20-6 Falcon advantage early in the second half.
"Well in the first half they were playing a lot of Cover Four so … we had to check down to a lot of underneath routes, because the stuff over the top really wasn't open there,” sophomore wide receiver Wes Kemp said.
Still, Missouri adjusted, picking it up offensively as the game progressed. Gabbert lofted a deep pass over a defender’s head and into the hands of Jared Perry in the end zone to wake up the Faurot Field crowd and capitalize on the Tigers’ best drive up to that point.
“I kind of juggled it because the ball went right through his (the defender’s) hands,” Perry said. “It went straight through his hands.”
The following Tiger drive had less than ideal circumstances at times, but Missouri still managed to maintain possession. Jerrell Jackson opened the drive with a 12-yard catch, then two plays later senior wide receiver Danario Alexander barely held on to a pass he could have easily dropped.
“We just knew we had to focus,” he said. “I knew I had to focus on that play. I didn't want to drop it for my team.”
The wide receivers credited running backs Derrick Washington and Kendial Lawrence for forcing the Falcon defense to stop the run.
“I think the running game getting started, then towards the end, on the touchdowns, the safeties started biting down a little bit and that opened up the pass game,” Kemp said. “In the second half they had to go to Cover Two Peak. We brought it (their defense) down because of our running game. So I think that opened up things. That helped us out a lot.”
Gabbert again was pressured later in the drive, but managed to scramble to get most of what he needed for a first down. Kemp’s game-tying touchdown catch with 10:15 to play was just his second of the day.
“The corner just bit down, and just running by him just to catch a great ball by Blaine,” Kemp said. “It's real easy when you've got a great running back like that (Washington).”
Still, the Falcons defense left Gabbert and his receivers unable to connect early. Missouri’s general offensive failure stood in stark contrast to last week’s Illinois game. The Missouri receivers were consistently unable to get open. Gabbert often had time to look around and scramble, but rarely was able to find a receiver with room.
“I mean they're dropping eight people into coverage,” he said. “They weren't letting us throw deep. So what we had to do was just take the short stuff that they were giving us.”
The problem extended beyond passes that missed their target. Sometimes, Gabbert was forced to tuck and run, rarely for significant gain. Late in the first quarter, Gabbert was on his way to being sacked for a huge loss, but fumbled in the ball, allowing the Falcons to recover in excellent field position. A quick field goal made it 10-0. Jared Perry said he knew quickly an adjustment had to be made.
“We had a rocky start,” he said. “I was just like, 'Somebody gotta make a play. Somebody gotta step it up.' It ended up being me making the first play, and after that, the train just kept rolling.”