Senior cornerback Shirdonya Mitchell knows why Missouri’s defense hasn’t looked as jittery in its past few games.
“We strive through the weeks to try and improve our third downs,” Mitchell said.
MU has improved its third-down coverage and has done it against two top-10 teams. In the Tigers’ first five games, the defense allowed 40 third-down conversions. In the past two games, it has allowed nine.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he noticed an improvement against then-No. 10 Nebraska and No. 1 Oklahoma.
“We did a little bit better last week,” Pinkel said. “I just think that we’re working hard at it. We believe in what we’re doing, we’ve just got to keep getting better at it.”
In practice the past few weeks, senior free safety Terrence Curry said the coaches have been emphasizing improving third-down coverage.
“We had to get that better in order to become a better defense,” Curry said. “That was a challenge the coaches gave us and it’s a challenge we’ve been answering every week. We’re just going to continue to improve it.”
BOWL TALK: If Missouri (5-2, 1-2 Big 12 Conference) wins against Texas Tech on Saturday, it will become bowl-eligible. The Tigers need to finish with a .500 record to play in their first bowl game since 1998.
Pinkel said his players see the big picture despite their concentration on preparation for Saturday’s game. He said he is eager for the day when a Tigers bowl trip won’t be a surprise.
“I think all our players, and everyone, is aware of being bowl-eligible,” Pinkel said. “I like to think that we wouldn’t have a proclamation someday around here when we become bowl-eligible, that it’ll be an expectation level that will be realized all the time. That’s my goal to have that done.”
PUNTING AGAIN: The Tigers’ punting despairs have not disappeared. With a 30.8-yard net punt average, the Tigers are ranked last in the Big 12 and No. 112 in the nation.
“Net punting, as bad as we are, it’s embarrassing, it’s absolutely embarrassing that we would have these problems,” Pinkel said.
Todd Gohsler replaced Brock Harvey at punter against Nebraska on Oct. 11 and is listed first on the weekly depth chart released Monday. Against Oklahoma, Gohlser averaged 41 yards per punt and placed three punts inside Oklahoma’s 20. In the second quarter, though, the Sooners’ Antonio Perkins returned one of Gohlser’s punts 69 yards for a touchdown.
Pinkel said the 3-second hang time on Gohsler’s punt aided Perkins in his return. The punt coverage team has suffered because of the inconsistencies, Pinkel said.
“There’s never an excuse for a punt return for a touchdown, never,” Pinkel said. “But certainly, you are putting yourself percentage-wise at a huge disadvantage with that kind of a hang time. … What happens is, you put a remarkable amount of stress on your punt coverage team if you don’t have proper yardage and proper hang time. You’re inviting problems.”
Texas Tech’s pass-dominant offense has been known to score a large amount of points in a short time. Against the Red Raiders, Pinkel said, field position is even more significant.
“In games like this, not giving that offense short fields is critically important,” Pinkel said.
INJURY UPDATE: Quarterback Brad Smith strained his back in the first quarter of Saturday’s game. Smith stayed in the game until late in the fourth quarter. Smith did not comment on his injury on Monday.
Cornerback A.J. Kincade injured his right knee in the game against Nebraska. Kincade made his first start in that game and said he expects to play on Saturday.
“Texas Tech, the way they pass the ball, you know it’s going to be a big challenge for our secondary,” Kincade said. “So I’m trying to get back for this weekend.”