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Earning high marks

Wednesday, December 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:28 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Final exam notwithstanding, the Missouri football team has passed with flying colors.

The Tigers have one test left, a date with the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 31 in Shreveport, La.

That Missouri is playing in late December speaks volumes about the quality of its report card.

OVERALL

B+ The Tigers are headed to their first bowl game since 1998, a testament to coach Gary Pinkel’s program. In three years at Missouri, Pinkel has turned things around and has the Tigers headed in the right direction.

Missouri has an impact player in quarterback Brad Smith, and the defense is much better than it was when Pinkel took over the program. The Tigers didn’t lose consecutive games all season, which Pinkel considers a trademark of good teams.

The Tigers might not be ready to contend for national championships, but they took Kansas State down to the wire for the Big 12 Conference North Division title, which is much more than Tigers fans have expected in a long time.

Midterm grade: B

OFFENSE

B+ Missouri’s offense was at its best when it stuck to what it does best: running the ball. The Tigers rank seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game (236.2); Smith and tailback Zack Abron lead the way.

The Tigers’ passing game was as frustrating as the running game was encouraging. Missouri had a hard time getting anything going in the passing game and often wound up depending on the run.

Midterm grade: B

QUARTERBACK

A- It’s hard to find much fault with a quarterback who leads his team in rushing. Smith, a sophomore, has gained 1,310 yards rushing, but Smith and the passing game haven’t lived up to expectations. Smith needs 178 passing yards against Arkansas to reach 2,000, a total he surpassed last season in 12 games.

Smith is clearly the Tigers’ leader. As he goes, so goes Missouri. In the Tigers’ four losses, Smith was ordinary. His two fumbles against Colorado cost Missouri the game, but his outstanding performances against Nebraska and Texas Tech led to big wins.

Sonny Riccio, Smith’s backup, didn’t receive many opportunities, but he filled in solidly against Ball State when Smith left with a concussion.

Midterm grade: A-

RUNNING BACK

[photo]

DON FEITEL/Missourian

Zack Abron led the rushing attack, becoming Missouri’s all-time leading rusher in the process.

A Although his number of carries varied widely at times, Abron provided a powerful and stable attack for the Tigers. With 3,061 rushing yards, Abron is Missouri’s all-time leading rusher, passing Brock Olivo’s mark of 3,027.

Sophomore Damien Nash showed vast improvement from the beginning of the season. Nash gave the Tigers a late chance to win against Colorado with an astounding 48-yard fourth-quarter run off a screen pass. He also scored two touchdowns against Iowa State, including a 64-yard run up the middle.

Midterm grade: A-

TIGHT END

B+ In the same game against Colorado in which he caught a pass for a touchdown, junior Victor Sesay took a blistering hit and sat out the rest of the season with a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. This group remained steady, though. Redshirt freshman DeQuincy Howard had a touchdown reception against Kansas State. Howard, senior J.D. McCoy and senior Clint Matthews offered decent run blocking.

Midterm grade: B +

WIDE RECEIVER

C The committee elected to replace all-everything receiver Justin Gage didn’t live up to the performance of its predecessor. Thomson Omboga leads the Tigers with 44 catches and 403 yards. Darius Outlaw leads Missouri with four touchdown catches.

The Tigers’ longest pass play of the season was a 48-yard screen pass to Nash, a statistic that best shows Missouri’s inability to make big plays in the passing game.

Midterm grade: C+

OFFENSIVE LINE

B+ This group would get an “A” if the pass blocking had been better, but it is hard to argue with the results in the running game. The Tigers are No. 7 in the nation.

Senior tackle Rob Droege earned All-Big 12 honors after a strong regular season. Center A.J. Ricker made the second team and was probably Missouri’s most consistent lineman. Guard Cliff Young went unnoticed for most of the season, but that can be a good thing at his position; it means he didn’t make many mistakes.

Midterm grade: B-

DEFENSE

B- It might not seem like it, but this group was leaps and bounds better than it was in 2002. The Tigers’ defense allowed 21.7 points per game, almost eight points below the number it surrendered last season.

That kind of improvement is the difference between winning five games and winning eight, with a possibility for a ninth.

Defensive back Nino Williams II emerged as the leader of the group and linebackers James Kinney and Brandon Barnes were the Tigers’ most consistent players.

Missouri’s outstanding second half against Oklahoma and solid effort against high-powered Texas Tech gave the Tigers the confidence they needed to keep games close enough for the offense to win.

Midterm grade: B-

DEFENSIVE LINE

B- The inconsistency of this unit was somewhat maddening for Missouri, but the group improved as the year went on. Defensive tackles C.J. Mosley and Atiyyah Ellison provided the Tigers with a stout presence in the middle.

In the Tigers’ final road game, Kansas State dominated this group, rolling up 367 yards rushing.

The Missouri pass rush started the season well, led by end Brian Smith’s quick burst off the edge. Smith had six sacks at the halfway point of the season, but got only two more. Freshman Xzavie Jackson gave Missouri another option at end and made a couple of big plays, including a fumble recovery against Iowa State.

Midterm grade: B-

LINEBACKERS

B Kinney and Barnes are the Tigers’ top tacklers, and backup Henry Sweat came on strong in the second half as the heir apparent to Barnes.

Barnes leads Missouri with two interceptions, which came against Texas Tech’s B.J. Symons. Kinney has forced two fumbles, one coming in an outstanding game against Nebraska.

Midterm grade: B

CORNERBACKS

C+ Senior Michael Harden started every game at one cornerback position, but new faces at the other position at times proved troublesome. Sophomore A.J. Kincade, senior Terrence Curry and sophomore Calvin Washington tried their hand, with Curry having the most success. The Tigers held Oklahoma’s stellar pass offense scoreless in the second half, but in the Texas A&M game, backup quarterback Dustin Long found numerous holes in the Tigers’ secondary.

Midterm grade: C+

FREE SAFETY

B+ Williams was Missouri’s most consistent defensive performer. Williams’ nose for the ball helped him finish the regular season with 101 tackles, a sack, an interception and three fumble recoveries. In his first year at the Division I level, Williams proved to be the perfect medicine for the ailing Tigers’ pass defense.

It speaks to Williams’ intensity level that he played one of the few positions on the Missouri defense where there was not a revolving door.

Midterm grade: B

OUTSIDE SAFETY

C+ Redshirt freshman Dedrick Harrington showed his impressive potential at rover and his flexibility to fill in at other positions if needed. Harrington often lined up as a down lineman during the second half of the season.

The Tigers struggled to find consistency at the whip outside safety. Missed tackles and discipline problems plagued sophomore Jason Simpson, who lost his starting job to redshirt freshman David Overstreet.

Midterm grade: C+

SPECIAL TEAMS

B- Kick returners Marcus James and Shirdonya Mitchell bring this grade up. James and Mitchell provided the Tigers with good field position in their wins against Texas Tech and Iowa State. The punting woes of the first half of the season quieted. Junior Brock Harvey regained his starting job and did not make any glaring errors.

Midterm grade: C+

KICKING

D+ Mike Matheny improved as the season went along, but his season will be best remembered for two kicks. His extra point in overtime to beat Middle Tennessee State was one of the most important plays of the Tigers’ season.

Matheny’s other shining moment was a missed kick against Kansas State. His 62-yard field goal attempt banged off the crossbar and fell to the field, leaving Matheny inches short of a record kick.

The punting game wasn’t much better the second half of the season, but Harvey was more consistent as the season wore on.

Midterm grade: D

KICK RETURNERS

B+ Punt returner James and kick returner Mitchell, both seniors, were within inches of earning a higher grade. James and Mitchell came close to breaking returns for touchdowns on numerous occasions.

James averaged 15.2 yards per return and Mitchell averaged 24, helping the Tigers with good field position.

Midterm grade: B-

COVERAGE/RETURN UNITS

B This group allowed Oklahoma’s Antonio Perkins to return a punt 69 yards for a touchdown, but no other “indictments,” as Pinkel calls special-teams blunders, occurred in the second half of the season. The units blocked well for James and Mitchell.

Midterm grade: B

COACHING

A- Pinkel received criticism for Missouri’s performance against Kansas, but for the most part he did everything he had to do to make the Tigers a winner for the first time since 1998. In three years, Pinkel has turned Missouri from a Big 12 bottom feeder into a serious contender.

Perhaps the best example of Pinkel’s ability is the Tigers didn’t lose back-to-back games. That speaks volumes about his intensity and the way his players have bought in to what he is selling.

Pinkel’s discipline, attention to detail and organization are values his players are beginning to reflect on and off the field, a formula that leaves Missouri in position to do great things in the near future.

Midterm grade: B+


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