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Missouri failing Big 12 Conference exams

Wednesday, November 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:13 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Entering the Big 12 Conference season, the Missouri football team appeared to be on the rise.

But after a four-game losing streak, the Tigers (4-5, 2-4 in the Big 12) are on the verge of failing to win the six games necessary to qualify for a bowl game. Below is the Missourian’s assessment of the Tigers’ play since the conference season began.

OVERALL: FALLING

Previous Grade: Steady

This team has been outplayed, outcoached and outwilled in its past four games. Regardless of the situation, the Tigers have found a way to lose and have squandered their best chance to win the Big 12 North. To achieve that goal now, the Tigers need nothing short of a miracle. That’s not likely to happen, either. In blowing this opportunity, the Tigers have lacked the killer instinct necessary to win at the highest level.

OFFENSE: FALLING

Previous Grade: Rising

As displayed by the six-quarter stretch without a touchdown, the powerful offense from last year has disappeared.

At times the Tigers appeared unstoppable, moving the ball at will against Baylor. More often, they have struggled mightily, failing to score a touchdown from halftime of the Oklahoma State game through the Nebraska game.

In addition, too often the offense has placed the defense in bad situations because of turnovers. The offense has also had trouble capitalizing on good scoring chances.

QUARTERBACKS: FALLING

Previous Grade: Steady

After two years of creating mismatches with his feet, Brad Smith has been reluctant to run the football. Smith ran for more than 1,000 yards each of his first two seasons but has only 493 this year.

Rather, he has remained in the pocket as a drop-back passer. The dependence on the passing game has not damaged his total offense numbers, dropping 10 yards from this point last season. However, Smith’s lack of running has robbed the offense of its major playmaker and has limited the unit’s effectiveness.

He displayed his new ineffectiveness in grand fashion against Nebraska, rushing 21 times for 25 yards, his fewest since midway through his freshman season.

RUNNING BACKS: RISING

Previous Grade: Steady

The Tigers’ ground production does not equal last year’s No. 6 rushing attack in the country. Junior Damien Nash was suspended, at least in part because of his criticism of the unit’s dependence on the pass this season. Nash, though, has been Missouri’s top offensive weapon with eight touchdowns and an average of more than 5 yards per carry.

WIDE RECEIVERS: RISING

Previous Grade: Rising

Sean Coffey and the tight ends carried the receiving corps early in the season, but the improved play of Thomson Omboga and Brad Ekwerekwu has made the receivers more dangerous. Omboga leads the team with 33 receptions and had a

Please see Football, page 4B

career-best 96 yards on eight receptions Oct. 30 against Nebraska. Ekwerekwu has shown good hands in short-yardage situations and has 19 catches for 172 yards.

The play of Coffey, who leads the team with eight touchdowns scored, has made opponents respect his potential as a long-yardage threat. Missouri has relied heavily on the pass this season, and the wide receivers have shown they are capable of getting open and making plays.

TIGHT ENDS: STEADY

Previous Grade: Rising

Although spectacular at times, the tight ends have become a forgotten element in the passing offense and, thus, more difficult to judge. Redshirt freshman Martin Rucker presents tremendous talent and potential, especially around the goal line. Rucker caught two touchdowns in a 30-10 win at Baylor and has four, second-best on the team.

Senior Victor Sesay led the team in receptions before the Nebraska game. He has had at least three catches in all but two games this year, but most of his catches in the Big 12 season have also covered shorter gains.

OFFENSIVE LINE: STEADY

Previous Grade: Steady

The line has not opened up the holes to launch game-breaking runs, but freshman center Adam Spieker has adjusted well to college football. He’s gelled with junior guard Tony Palmer and seniors Tony Clinker, Joe Gianino and Scott Paffrath to form a solid unit.

The running game is averaging more than 4 yards per carry behind the line’s solid play. The line, which has allowed 13 sacks, has given Smith time to operate.

DEFENSE: STEADY

Previous Grade: Steady

Despite ugly second halves against Oklahoma State and Kansas State, the defense did its part to prevent blowouts in the four-game losing streak. The defense has been susceptible to the run in the second half in the past four games, but fatigue and frustration about spending too much time on the field are major factors in that trend.

Missouri still leads the conference in total defense (288 yards per game) and has displayed a dominating pass defense all season, holding opponents to a meager 133 yards per game. Although the defense has given up big plays at inopportune times, it has given the team a chance to win every week.

DEFENSIVE LINE: STEADY

Previous Grade: Rising

This unit has anchored the defense and consistently pressured opposing quarterbacks. The interior of the line, tackles C.J. Mosley and Atiyyah Ellison, has excelled at slowing the run even though they are often double-teamed. Ellison is third on the team with 51 tackles, and Mosley is fourth with 49.

Sophomore end Brian Smith responded from a slow start and leads the team with six sacks. Rising star Xzavie Jackson recorded the first two sacks of his career against Oklahoma State.

As a group, however, the unit has lacked push late in some games, corresponding with the Tigers’ relinquishing of leads.

LINEBACKERS: STEADY

Previous Grade: Falling

Senior James Kinney leads the team this year with 80 and is closing in on the Tigers’ all-time record for tackles. The rest of the linebackers have been slow to make plays in Missouri’s revamped 4-3 defense.

The Tigers moved Marcus Bacon, Dedrick Harrington and David Richard to the position in the offseason, and the three are improving with each game.

Senior Henry Sweat has moved to starting middle linebacker, serving as a mentor for the newcomers. He’s has 40 tackles this season.

SECONDARY: RISING

Previous Grade: Steady

Missouri allowing 133 passing yards per game, the best in the conference and the third best in the nation. Texas Tech has the second-best pass defense in the conference but allows 46 more yards per game than the Tigers.

Credit for this performance goes to the entire secondary, but the exemplary play of cornerback Shirdonya Mitchell and safety Jason Simpson have stalled opponents’ passing games. Neither was a star last season, but Mitchell and Simpson have emerged as leaders in the secondary. Mitchell leads the team with four interceptions, and Simpson has 79 tackles, including 12 for a loss.

SPECIAL TEAMS: FALLING

Previous Grade: Rising

See the Nebraska game.

Punting mishaps by Missouri led to 14 points for the Cornhuskers 14 points. A dropped snap by punter Matt Hoenes led to his replacement in the next game, against Kansas State. Adam Crossett replaced Hoenes and had a good showing, but he is the third punter this year. Brock Harvey’s season ended with a broken collarbone against Colorado on Oct. 2.

Joe Tantarelli’s range is limited – don’t expect much more than 40 yards– and he has been inconsistent in the conference season.

KICKING GAME/COVERAGE UNITS: FALLING

Previous Grade: Rising

The Tigers rank near the bottom in nearly every category related to kick coverage in the Big 12. As a result, they have consistently yielded good field position to their opponents. Since Big 12 play began, the Tigers have given up 25.2 yards per kickoff return, which is worst in the conference.

They also rank last in net punting but have restricted punt returns to an average of 3.7 yards Included in that average is the 54-yard punt return from Kansas State’s Antoine Figurs. The return gave the Wildcats the ball at the Missouri 24 and immediately preceded Allen Webb’s first touchdown pass, which tied the game at 21.

RETURNERS: FALLING

Previous Grade: Rising

After an encouraging game against Ball State, Omboga has fizzled as the punt returner. His 11-yard average still bests Mitchell’s output, but there are far too many fair catches and too few big plays from the senior. Mitchell and Alex Woodley each are averaging 20 yards per kickoff return, but neither has came close to breaking a long return to swing momentum in Missouri’s favor.

COACHING: FALLING

Previous Grade: Steady

In terms of getting his team prepared, coach Gary Pinkel might be second-to-none. But after the team’s initial surge, there is much to be desired. The Tigers have blow leads of 14, 17 and 21 points this season and have been outscored 69-9 in the second half of their five losses. Pinkel and his coaching staff seem unable to respond to adjustments made by opponents at halftime.

Pinkel has also taken the blame for his team’s kicking woes and lack of execution. He made questionable decisions in pulling the redshirts of wide receiver Will Franklin and running back Tony Temple.


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