Turnovers might have put the Missouri football team in a hole during Saturday’s 51-20 loss to No. 2 Texas. But special-teams play kept it there.
The special-teams unit had been arguably the most consistent aspect of Missouri’s play through the first three weeks of the season. The return teams had made big plays, kicker/punter Adam Crossett had improved considerably since the conclusion of last season, and there was a general air of confidence when offense or defense wasn’t on the field.
But by the time the clock reached zero Saturday, that confidence, presumably, was all but gone.
“I was very disappointed,” a dejected coach Gary Pinkel said after the loss. “I think we’re a lot better than that.”
The play of Missouri’s special teams was a disaster from the start. On the opening kickoff, Missouri’s Domonique Johnson managed to return the ball only 12 yards to the Tigers’ 15-yard line. Four plays later, Missouri quarterback Brad Smith tossed an interception, and Texas was able to start the drive from Missouri’s 3-yard line. Three seconds later, it was 7-0.
Field position was a problem that would plague Missouri throughout the day. In the second quarter, Johnson dropped a kick return in the end zone and returned the ball to the Tigers’ own 9-yard line. Johnson finished with three returns for 33 yards, an 11-yard average. Wide receiver Greg Bracey provided a bit of a spark for Missouri, gaining 33 yards on a kick return at the start of the third quarter, but for the most part was held in check.
The Tigers no doubt missed sophomore running back Tony Temple, who was out with a sore ankle. Because of the injury, Jimmy Jackson was moved into Temple’s spot as the No. 2 running back, and that opened the door for and Greg Bracey on the return team.
Temple is third in the Big 12 Conference in kick-return average with 26.2 yards per return. Although Pinkel wouldn’t comment on Temple’s status for Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State, he did say he wanted to get him back onto the special-teams unit as soon as possible.
“If Tony’s healthy, he’ll do it,” said Pinkel on Monday. “And hopefully we’ll be able to work him back in.”
The problems, however, weren’t limited to the return game. The Missouri kicking unit allowed 203 return yards, including an 88-yard punt return for a touchdown by Aaron Ross in the fourth quarter that put the Longhorns up 51-13 and thrust a stake into the heart of a Missouri team that finds itself 2-2 a month into the season.
“We look at the special teams as one of the most important aspects of the games,” said linebacker and special teams member Van Alexander. “And when there’s one big play like that, it can change the whole momentum of the game right there.”
Crossett, who had performed well throughout the much of the season, also struggled. He missed the Tigers’ second extra-point attempt, putting the team in a quick 14-13 hole, then, later in the game, managed a paltry 46-yard kickoff, letting Texas start its drive from its own 36-yard line.
“As you saw, special teams played a real big role on Saturday,” Bracey said. “They got a couple of breaks and we didn’t, and that pretty much affected the outcome of the game in a big way.”
Even when the Tigers were able to catch a break, they failed to take advantage of it. In the third quarter, Ross fumbled a 35-yard punt, but Texas’ Brandon Foster pounced on it before a Missouri player could. Although the score at the time was a lopsided 37-13, a recovery could have put Missouri on the Texas 45-yard line with a chance to bring the score back to a respectable level. Instead, Texas marched 55 yards on the ensuing drive, ending in running back Henry Milton’s 1-yard touchdown run to give the Longhorns a 30-point lead.
On Monday, Missouri hadn’t yet begun preparations for Saturday’s game against the Cowboys. But some players assumed that special teams would be an area of great concern when workouts resumed Tuesday.
“Special teams plays as big a role as offense and defense plays,” said Johnson. “You’ve got to be fundamentally correct in everything you do. We’ve just got to get it and do it. If you’re fundamentally correct, the rest of it will just come to you.”
HEISMAN WATCH?: It’s not the Heisman Trophy, but at this point, as Missouri hobbles into this weekend’s game against Oklahoma State, quarterback Brad Smith will take what he can get.
Smith was named Tuesday as a semifinalist for the 2005 Draddy Trophy and as a candidate for the National Football Foundation 2005 National Scholar-Athlete Award. The Draddy Trophy, commonly referred to as the “Academic Heisman”, is awarded annually to a college football player who exhibits “academic success, football performance and exemplary community leadership.” Nominees must be seniors with a grade-point average of at least 3.0 on a 4-point scale.
Smith, who graduated in May with a degree in business administration, is the NCAA’s active leader in total offense with 10,808 yards. With 512 more rushing yards, Smith can become the NCAA Division I leader in career rushing yards for a quarterback.