Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
The Connecticut and Missouri football teams are each 2-0.
They have gotten by with sufficient passing games, ranked 66th and 67th in the country, respectively, and have both struggled to run the ball: Missouri tailback Russell Hansbrough is out with an ankle injury and Connecticut running back Ron Johnson is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry.
The aerial game, or lack thereof, has been the source of success on defense as well, with both teams ranking in the top 25 nationally in pass defense — Missouri at No. 3, Connecticut at No. 22.
And that is about where the similarities end.
Winning two games to start the season has a very different significance for the Tigers and Huskies, who face off at 11 a.m. today in Columbia (ESPN-TV). Connecticut has already matched its win total from all of last season, a 2-10 affair in Bob Diaco’s first season as head coach. For Missouri, 2-0 reads more like “one plus one — but just barely — and oh,” as the Tigers escaped Arkansas State with a less-than-resounding comeback win last Saturday.
Connecticut’s two victories have come against Villanova and Army, each at home and each by five points.
“They’re very good up front,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I think they’ve got three starters back up front on defense, so I think it really starts with putting pressure on people, and then they’ve got a good scheme. They’re not real complex but yet they do quite a few things and cause a lot of problems.”
Missouri’s wins have been a 34-3 defeat of Southeast Missouri State at home, and last Saturday’s 27-20 victory against the Red Wolves. The latter win may have been a revealing one in terms of how Missouri expects to win games this season.
The Tigers entered the year with a defensive line full of unknowns — defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray were drafted by NFL teams and defensive tackle Harold Brantley suffered season-ending injuries in a car accident. And yet in two wins, Missouri’s defensive production up front has lived up to the position group’s powerhouse reputation.
Through two weeks, Missouri led the nation in tackles for loss with 25. With an heir apparent in the Ray, Golden, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam lineage in Charles Harris, a stout set of tackles inside and an influx of freshman talent led by Terry Beckner Jr. and Nate Howard, the defensive line looks set to avoid any dropoff.
Behind them is one of the most athletic back sevens coach Gary Pinkel has had at Missouri, led by senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers, whose 32 tackles currently leads the nation.
In other words, despite the turnover up front, Missouri has succeeded so far with a formula plenty familiar to those who followed the Tigers’ run to a Southeastern Conference division title last season: lots of defense, just enough offense.
“I think it starts up front on defense, getting through gaps,” Pinkel said. “Anytime you get penetration in a gap, what it does is it really makes it very difficult for the offensive linemen and the running back or even the passing game to function as the play was designed. Any kind of penetration in a gap creates a lot of problems.”
As for the offense, “just enough” could be a tricky task without Hansbrough, who played some last week but was ruled out for the game against Connecticut. Hansbrough is coming off a 1,000-yard season, and with Marcus Murphy graduated, the Tigers’ depth at the position will be tested. Sophomore Ish Witter makes his first career start today, and Pinkel expects him to be healthy, although he was “dinged up” in the game against Arkansas State.
Pinkel also expects Witter to develop into a back worthy of filling the shoes of former Missouri standouts like Murphy and Henry Josey.
“They weren’t running their junior and senior year like they ran their freshman and sophomore year,” Pinkel said. “You get stronger, you get faster, you get quicker, you get smarter, and you understand that in high school (when) you bounce outside, you outrun everybody. In this league, you bounce outside, you’ve got people that can run, too. I think it’s a little bit of just kind of learning how it works, to take your creases when you get it, don’t try to make too much out of it.”
Behind Witter are Tyler Hunt and Morgan Steward, who will share backup duties. The two are also battling injuries, Hunt a hurt groin and Steward a long-term hip problem.
Meanwhile, quarterback Maty Mauk has continued his Jekyll-and-Hyde trend of putting up less than stellar numbers — (148 yards on 16-of-36 passing with two interceptions at Arkansas State) while pulling out wins (he’s 16-4 as a starter) when the going gets tough.
Mauk said he is still developing a feel for the pocket.
“You look back to the last couple years, (when) I get out of the pocket I kind of spun out or gun out and just kind of ran toward the sideline,” he said, “versus stepping up in the pocket, delivering the throws and then if something’s not there, your best escape route is upfield. So running north and south versus running east and west is the main thing for me. Step up, get the ball to the guys when they’re open, if not, take off running and get upfield not running out of bounds.”
With Missouri’s SEC season set to begin next week at Kentucky, a strong offensive performance against Connecticut could prove invaluable for the Tigeres.
“(Offensive coordinator Josh) Henson said it best in the offensive meeting the other day,” Mauk said Monday. “We’ve just got to come out Tuesday and have one good practice and then Wednesday have two in a row and then Thursday have three in a row, and that’s what our main focus is going to be.”