There’s one play from Missouri’s opening-week loss to Wyoming that particularly illustrates the problem with the Tigers’ run defense.
Before Cowboys quarterback Sean Chambers streaked 75 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, MU linebacker Cale Garrett and safety Joshuah Bledsoe each had an unobstructed line to the ball.
“Two players,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said Tuesday, “unblocked at the point of attack. Two of our best players in my estimation.”
“And we missed the tackle.”
Missed tackles were the most glaring problem that contributed to Missouri’s lackluster run defense last Saturday, and it’s the topic receiving the most attention at practices this week. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters counted 13 missed tackles against Wyoming while watching film.
When he and Odom examined the tape on Chambers’ 75-yard run, they saw him change direction to his left in front of Garrett, who was not able to keep up and whiffed on a tackle attempt. Bledsoe was the last line of defense behind Garrett, also unblocked, but Chambers stiff-armed the safety to the ground with ease.
During his weekly press conference Tuesday, Odom circled that play to highlight the issue. But one play wasn’t the extent of the problem. Wyoming had two touchdown runs of 60-plus yards, two 100-yard rushers and 297 total yards on the ground.
For an MU team that ranked No. 22 in the country in run defense last season, those numbers are alarmingly bad.
“If you look at the tape, we had the one long run (against us) in split-zone, which we fit up (player positioning) a thousand times,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “But all it takes is one time to not fit it right. So we’ve just got to tackle better, have our eyes in the right spot.”
Missouri is changing its practice routine to prioritize tackling this week. Usually on Tuesdays, Odom said, Missouri will do what’s called “thud” tackling; the drills are full-speed, but contact is restrained to wrapping players up. Everyone stays on their feet.
But for this week’s Tuesday practice, the Tigers did full “live action” tackling, which means no punches pulled. Defenders complete their tackles. They needed the extra work.
“Hopefully that carries over,” Odom said.
The coach discussed throughout fall camp how Missouri limited that kind of tackling in practice for safety reasons, to avoid preseason injuries.
When asked if the less frequent and less aggressive tackling during camp can make defenders rusty early in the season, Garrett took accountability.
“You could make that excuse if you wanted to, but at the end of the day, that’s not acceptable, regardless of whatever the way we practice,” Garrett said. “We’re expected to make tackles. We need to be better.”
MU defenders weren’t just bullied by ball-carriers; the defensive line was essentially useless, pushed aside by Wyoming blockers.
The good news for Missouri is that its Week 2 opponent, West Virginia, runs its offense in a polar opposite style. The Mountaineers struggled in the run game against a small FBS school, James Madison. They finished with 34 rushing yards on 24 carries.
Garrett, who still accounted for 16 tackles last week to lead the team, was more focused on the blunders in positioning that cost him and weakside linebacker Nick Bolton, who made his first college start last week. Lining up in the right spots in split-safety defense will be crucial for the linebackers and safeties to prevent the big plays that scorched MU in Laramie.
The home opener against West Virginia kicks off at 11 a.m. CST on Saturday. The Wyoming loss has been on the Tigers’ minds all week.
“The only way we’re going to forget about this one,” Garrett said, “is winning the next one.”