It is sometimes hard to pinpoint weaknesses after a 32-point win, but Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel said he would like to see improvement defensively after Saturday’s season opener.
The Tigers, who dropped a spot in the Associated Press poll to No. 19, could not stop Arkansas State’s passing attack in the 52-20 win, allowing 350 passing yards. Indians starting quarterback Nick Noce was 19-for-26 with 240 yards and two touchdowns before leaving in the third quarter with cramps in his calf muscle. Devin Hollins replaced Noce and also had success, going 7-for-11 for 110 yards.
“Defensively, obviously we had a lot of breakdowns, which, obviously, I’m disappointed in,” Pinkel said. “But I know we can get better and I know we’re better than that.”
Much of the focus in the preseason was on improving Missouri’s run defense, which finished last season ranked 72nd in the nation, allowing 167.23 yards per game. The Tigers (1-0) almost cut that average in half Saturday, allowing 88 rushing yards on 36 carries, but failed to shut down the Indians passing attack.
Many of the Tigers’ woes in the secondary came on third-and-long situations.
In the second quarter, Arkansas State (0-1) had third-and-one on Missouri’s 20, but after committing three consecutive false start penalties, the Indians faced third-and-16 on Missouri’s 35. When the Indians finally got the play off, Noce found wide receiver Chuck Walker on the sideline for a 24-yard gain that resulted in a field goal.
“We made a lot of mistakes on defense in this game, I mean a lot of mistakes,” Pinkel said. “First of all, you give them credit because they were making some plays, but I have to believe we’re better than that.”
Senior linebacker James Kinney said most of Missouri’s defensive problems were the result of missed plays and that the Tigers were often in position, but failed to execute.
“Every pass they completed, we had guys around the ball, it’s just they got to make the play,” Kinney said. “We have to want it more than they did, but obviously they wanted it and they made the plays.”
Walker, a native of Webster Groves High in St. Louis, made many plays against Missouri on Saturday, leading all receivers with six catches for 126 yards. His longest catch was a 45-yard reception in the first quarter down the right sideline, putting the Indians on Missouri’s two-yard line and leading to a touchdown.
Arkansas State’s passing success was evident in the number of tackles Missouri’s defensive backs made. Safeties Nino Williams and Jason Simpson led the Tigers with eight tackles and cornerback A.J. Kincade followed with six. Williams said although Missouri had many mental mistakes, Arkansas State has a formidable passing game.
“You got to give credit where credit is due,” Williams said after Saturday’s game. “Arkansas State did a good job at what they did tonight.”
The defensive line was successful stopping the run, but failed to consistently pressure Noce and Hollins, recording one sack by C.J. Mosley. Nose tackle Phil Pitts, who made Missouri’s biggest defensive play on a 49-yard interception return for a touchdown, said the lack of pressure allowed the Indians to make plays.
“We didn’t get enough pressure on the quarterback,” Pitts said. “He had too much time to throw.”