Two things should — should — be certain about this Saturday.
No. 1: Southeast Missouri State making some money for its athletic department.
No. 2: MU winning a football game.
And thus, college football order will likely be maintained in this Week 3, intrastate yawn of a matchup that kicks off 6:30 p.m. Saturday. SEMO (1-1) hails from the Ohio Valley Conference in the minor Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). It’s what is known as a guarantee game, or a “cupcake” game, for the Tigers.
MU Athletics is paying SEMO $425,000 to come to Columbia from a contract signed in February 2015, according to Nick Joos, deputy AD for communications.
That total is fairly modest and not even close to the most MU is spending on an opponent this season — Joos said Troy will leave Missouri with $1.3 million in October — but the Tigers still ought to make sure it’s money well spent.
They can do that by simply avoiding silly mistakes against a SEMO defense that has allowed 32 points per game this season, all against FCS opponents (a 44-26 win over Southern Illinois and a 38-17 loss to Montana State). An ideal outcome for Missouri would be the luxury of resting its starters in the second half.
Against this defense, MU could probably get away with running the ball on almost every play. SEMO’s base defense is a 3-4-4, with just two defensive tackles and a nose tackle listed as starters on the defensive line. The Redhawks have used five starters at those three spots this season, with an average weight of 293 pounds. That’s 31 pounds less than the average of Missouri’s starting offensive linemen. Three smaller pass-rushers against five SEC blockers means quarterback Kelly Bryant shouldn’t have a finger laid on him all game.
SEMO tries to make up for that lack of size and skill with linebacker versatility. Senior Zach Hall carries the group and is considered one of the best defensive players in the country at the FCS level. He made an FCS-leading 168 tackles (13 per game) in 2018 that broke a single-season school record. Twelve of those were tackles for loss and two were sacks. He already has one sack and 29 tackles this year.
Hall added four interceptions and four forced fumbles last season. Needless to say, Missouri should try to keep the ball where he isn’t, especially with its continued emphasis on ball protection and winning the turnover battle.
Speaking of turnovers, more news that bodes well for MU: SEMO quarterback Daniel Santacaterina has thrown an interception in both games this season. Missouri picked off West Virginia three times last week and will try to keep Santacaterina consistent in his mistake-making.
Still, the redshirt senior has been what SEMO hoped for since transferring from Northern Illinois, showing off dual-threat legs to match his powerful arm. Santacaterina arrived at NIU in 2015, at a time when NIU was a popular destination for quarterback recruits; Jordan Lynch had been a Heisman finalist there in 2013.
Santacaterina played a few games at Northern Illinois in 2017 and even led an upset of Nebraska before transferring to SEMO. He was announced as the Redhawks’ starter during fall camp in 2018, then he became a first-team All-OVC quarterback. In SEMO’s Week 1 win, the returning starter passed for 228 yards and ran for two touchdowns and 54 yards.
The Redhawks run the ball a bit more than they throw, but Santacaterina loves to target redshirt senior Kristian Wilkerson. Wilkerson has 223 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns through two weeks this season, putting him on pace to be SEMO’s leading receiver for a fourth straight year. He has 2,413 career receiving yards and 25 touchdowns entering this week.
Wilkerson graduated high school in his hometown Memphis as part of the Class of 2014. Missouri’s leading receiver, Johnathon Johnson, is also a redshirt senior from Memphis who was in the same graduating class five years ago. Which veteran will top the other in receiving yards in this clash?
Aside from Santacaterina, the Redhawks rotate three tailbacks pretty evenly. Their Week 1 numbers were unbelievably similar: Zion Custis 12 carries, 78 yards, 1 touchdown; Geno Hess 13 carries, 77 yards, 1 touchdown; Mark Robinson 16 carries, 72 yards, 1 touchdown.
But Hess started to emerge more in the Week 2 loss, running for 90 yards while the others combined for 52. Hess is the only one in the trio who hasn’t started yet, but look for him to get the call more in Columbia.
SEMO can try to phase Missouri all it wants with personnel switches and other trickery, but the Tigers’ sheer talent and depth should make Week 3 a cakewalk.
Or rather, a cupcakewalk.