If you can’t get a feel for how good the Missouri football team is, join the club.
After six games, it’s time for the Tigers’ midseason grades, which look a lot better than they would have a week ago.
The Tigers aced the midterm Saturday in a 41-24 win against Nebraska, raising their grades across the board and making it more difficult to tell how good, or bad, this team is.
Many left the Tigers for dead after a 35-14 loss at Kansas, but the Tigers are alive and well.
At 5-1, they’re one win away from bowl eligibility and tied for the lead in the Big 12 Conference North Division.
There’s no telling what Missouri will do from here on out, but here’s how it stacks up so far:
The Tigers have matched last season’s win total, they ended a 25-year drought against Nebraska and they’re ranked No. 24 in the latest Associated Press poll.
The Tigers have been an up-and-down team in search of an identity. They might have found themselves against Nebraska, dominating every facet, but delivering the knockout blow with the potent offense that had been missing.
Until Saturday, the Tigers hadn’t played a great all-around game, but they were squeaking out wins by limiting mistakes and paying great attention to detail, coach Gary Pinkel’s trademarks. Until Nebraska, the Tigers appeared to be playing with a “first do no harm” attitude, holding back at times out of fear of making a mistake.
Pinkel loosened the reins and says the Tigers have found that missing something, a willingness to take risks for chances to make big plays. Missouri has the playmakers, and it appears ready to let them make the plays.
Against Nebraska, the Missouri offense everyone expected to see was finally on display. Pinkel and staff pulled out all the stops, digging a throwback screen, a fake field goal and a reverse kickoff return out of the depths of the playbook.
The Tigers used more play action passes and ran deep routes, giving quarterback Brad Smith a lot of open field to work with. Tailback Zack Abron, the Tigers’ most consistent offensive player so far, will benefit from the newfound passing game, too.
Smith saved Missouri from losses against Illinois and Middle Tennessee State.
He struggled in the loss at Kansas, erasing most of the memories of the two comeback wins he led, but he came back big against the Cornhuskers.
Also, Sonny Riccio was solid in relief against Ball State and completed Missouri’s biggest pass of the season for a touchdown on a fake field goal against Nebraska.
RUNNING BACKS: A
Abron always seems to gain yardage and is a load to bring down. He often makes something out of nothing and gets the job done in the red zone. Abron’s heir apparent, sophomore Damien Nash, has been decent in limited duty.
WIDE RECEIVERS: C+
Thomson Omboga has been the best in an average group, but the wideouts haven’t filled Justin Gage’s shoes. Darius Outlaw has been Smith’s favorite target in the end zone, catching four touchdowns.
Sean Coffey has disappeared at times and dropped several passes, but he made an outstanding catch to keep a drive alive against Nebraska. Marcus James has had his moments, and freshman Brad Ekwerekwu could emerge as a much-needed deep threat.
TIGHT ENDS: B+
J.D. McCoy has sacrificed his right knee for the Tigers, and he would go further if asked. McCoy has been a pleasant surprise in the passing game and an excellent run blocker.
McCoy’s fourth-down catch against Middle Tennessee State might have saved the Tigers’ season, though the strained medial cruciate ligament he suffered on the play forced him to miss the Kansas game.
McCoy’s replacement, Victor Sesay, doesn’t block as well as McCoy, but he caught Riccio’s pass on the fake field goal that proved to be the winning touchdown against the Cornhuskers.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B-
This unit has been inconsistent at best. Center A.J. Ricker has battled a right foot injury, and tackle Rob Droege has struggled against athletic defensive ends.
The Tigers have had success run blocking, but the pass blocking has left a lot to be desired. The line hasn’t allowed many sacks, but that is mostly because of Smith’s athleticism.
Steven Sanchez made his first start against Nebraska and his strong play gave the Tigers continuity.
Missouri’s defense has been on a roller-coaster ride so far, but it appears to be stabilizing in time for a difficult stretch of Big 12 competition.
After three games, the Tigers had allowed 22 points, earning glowing reviews that Pinkel later called “too rosy.” The defense fell apart against Middle Tennessee State and Kansas, allowing 75 points.
The defense rose to the challenge against Nebraska, though, holding the Cornhuskers to minus-48 yards in the fourth quarter. The Tigers face No. 1 Oklahoma and offensive juggernaut Texas Tech in the next two weeks.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-
The defensive line has been steady enough to keep the Tigers close in most games. Defensive tackles Russ Bell, Atiyyah Ellison and C.J. Mosley have been stout in the middle, and Brian Smith has proven to be Missouri’s best pass-rushing threat, tallying six sacks.
The emergence of freshman Xzavie Jackson will give the Tigers more depth at defensive end in the second half of the season.
James Kinney and Brandon Barnes are racking up a lot of tackles, ranking No. 2 and No. 12 in the Big 12. Kinney had perhaps the best individual defensive performance for the Tigers against Nebraska, with eight tackles, a forced fumble, a sack and a fumble recovery. At his third position in three years, Barnes finally looks comfortable.
Senior Michael Harden has been the brightest of a dim group. Harden had an interception against Eastern Illinois to preserve MU’s shutout, and has seven pass breakups. A.J. Kincade has moved ahead of Calvin Washington on the depth chart, but Kincade suffered a right knee injury against Nebraska and is waiting for a diagnosis.
The defense has had trouble with third-and-long situations, and it all starts with the cornerbacks. Despite spotting receivers a 10-yard cushion on nearly every play, they’ve been beaten deep several times.
OUTSIDE SAFETIES: C+
Redshirt freshman Dedrick Harrington made his presence felt right away with a forced fumble against Illinois. Harrington seems mature beyond his years but is adjusting to the Big 12. Jason Simpson has been effective when blitzing, but he has missed too many open-field tackles and needs to identify his reads more quickly. Terrence Curry and Quincy Wade have played well in relief, but Curry moved to free safety, flip-flopping with David Overstreet.
FREE SAFETIES: B
Missouri had its best depth at this position until Overstreet moved to whip outside safety. The position is solid because of Nino Williams II’s intensity and nose for the ball, a welcome addition to the defense.
Williams made the biggest hit of the year against Ball State, though he was penalized for it. His two pass breakups ended Illinois’ last-ditch effort and he recovered two fumbles against Nebraska. Curry gives the Tigers a capable backup and senior leadership.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
The Tigers’ special teams units have made more big plays than they have allowed, but they haven’t reached the game-breaking status Pinkel would like to see. The kicking game is Missouri’s glaring weakness.
KICKING GAME: D
This is definitely the Tigers’ biggest weakness. Kicker Mike Matheny has struggled. Pinkel has stayed with Matheny, though, apparently reluctant to make a midseason change.
It might be a matter of time before he changes his mind, as he did with the punter position in the Nebraska game. Pinkel pulled struggling Brock Harvey in favor of Todd Gohsler, and Gohsler is likely to start Saturday against Oklahoma.
COVERAGE/RETURN UNITS: B
The coverage units have allowed a few big plays, especially against Kansas.
Pinkel said he thought the coverage teams were better against Nebraska, and it showed in Missouri’s starting field position. Field position helped the Tigers beat Nebraska, thanks in part to the coverage units’ recovery of two fumbles.
Michael Harden’s play that forced Illinois punter Matt Minnes to tuck the ball in was a difference maker in the Tigers’ win, as were Josh Hibbets’ two blocked punts against Eastern Illinois. The punt return team’s blocking has been good, but the kickoff return blocking isn’t up to snuff.
KICK RETURNERS: B-
Punt returner Marcus James has had one man to beat several times. He hasn’t beaten that final defender, but James has averaged 12.2 yards per return.
The kickoff returners, Tyrone Roberson and Shirdonya Mitchell have yet to make a big play.
The bottom line is, this team is 5-1. Pinkel is a big reason for that. His passion, leadership and attention to detail have helped him turn the program around more quickly than expected.
Pinkel caught flak for the Tigers’ play calling in the first five games, but his decision to be more aggressive against the Cornhuskers gave him his biggest win in his three years at Missouri.
Pinkel is the first to take the blame when his team doesn’t play well, but he will deserve much of the credit if the Tigers play in their first bowl since 1998.