Brad Smith? Not bad. Defense? Could be better. But special teams? Enough to make Troy sick.
With Missouri’s offense and its star quarterback looking solid but not spectacular and its defense suffering from inconsistency, the Tigers’ much-maligned special teams came through with two key plays against Troy in a 52-21 MU victory Saturday at Faurot Field.
“It was nice to see our kicking game come through with some big plays,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “That’s really encouraging.”
The first momentum-changer came with Missouri (2-1) leading 7-0 midway through the first quarter and Troy set to punt from its own 37-yard line. Senior safety Quincy Wade sprinted off the corner, beat his man, and swatted the ball down as it left punter Thomas Olmsted’s foot.
“It makes everybody want to throw up when there’s a blocked punt, the coaches, the fans and the players, ” Troy coach Larry Blakeney said.
Wade said defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, in the press box, called for him to go for the block.
“Coach just made a good call,” Wade said. “I came off and I barely got touched. I just ran as fast I could and laid my hands out. It was a surprise to me, how clean I came.”
The blocked punt led to an Adam Crossett field goal and a 10-0 Tiger lead, but Troy (1-2) stayed within striking distance of Missouri until early in the second half. That’s when the special teams unit came alive again in the form of sophomore running back Marcus Woods.
Woods broke a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown. He fielded the punt, juked a defender and sprinted up the right sideline untouched, making two more defenders miss along the way. The score was 35-7, and the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt.
“Actually, the play was called to go to the left side,” Woods said. “After I caught the ball, I saw the two guys in front of me, so I gave a jab and they over pursued to the left, so I stuck it up the middle and took on the right side.”
Woods was only in the game for the play because the Tigers’ regular punt returner, Earl Goldsmith, injured his knee in the first half.
“That was put on his plate and he did a good job of that,” Pinkel said. “That’s hugely critical for your back-up punt returner. Not only did he return a punt for a touchdown, but you can count on him. He made good decisions (on other punts) on when to field the ball and when not to.”
Making big plays hasn’t been the special teams’ strong point. The touchdown was Missouri’s second punt return for a score in the last 15 years. Wade’s blocked punt equals the team’s total from all of last year.
“I don’t know if any team in the nation takes special teams as seriously as we do,” senior cornerback Calvin Washington said. “But we have to, that’s our weapon.”
Pinkel said putting offensive and defensive starters – usually the team’s best overall athletes – on special teams has become his strategy.
“We’ve upgraded,” he said. “You want to have your kicking game on your side. You work so hard at it, and to fall short is not very good.”
But it wasn’t just that Missouri’s special teams made big plays; it also made hardly any mistakes.
Crossett, a sophomore place-kicker who also took over as punter this week, was solid in both roles. His first two punts both pinned Troy inside its own 20-yard line, and his third was a 46-yarder, tied for the longest Missouri punt this season.
In his normal duties, Crossett was perfect on three field-goal attempts and five extra points – another positive for what were the oh-so-special teams on Saturday.
“People have their doubts about our special teams, but we’re out there playing for each other,” Crossett said. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job so far. We just need to keep doing it.”