Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri Tigers established a new M.O. last season by winning games on the backs of their defense — and occasionally in spite of their offense.
Missouri is taking that to a new extreme this season.
The Tigers’ numbers on offense this season aren’t pretty — 118th in the country in run offense, 115th in yards per game, 108th in points per game, for example. But the numbers that might speak loudest are 9-6, the score by which Missouri won Saturday against Connecticut. It was the first game Missouri won without scoring at least 10 points in 37 years.
Offensive coordinator Josh Henson believes it all comes down to doing the small things right.
“It just seems like we’ve just been a little off here and there,” he said. “Maybe a guy’s open and we don’t see him. Maybe a guy’s a step open, and we maybe underthrow it a little or maybe we’ve got a guy open and protection breaks down. And it has been something different almost on every play. We’ve just got to keep working hard on it.”
Head coach Gary Pinkel cites missed opportunities. For example, the Tigers missed a field goal Saturday and failed to score on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
And yet, part of the problem lies in the lack of opportunities themselves. Missouri has been in the red zone just six times this year. Only three NCAA Division I teams have had fewer red-zone chances.
The Tigers had similar struggles last year, when Missouri gained just 546 yards combined in its first three games of Southeastern Conference play — including a 20-yard passing performance against Florida. But the Tigers’ poor offensive effort this season hasn’t come against SEC foes; it has been against Football Championship Subdivision school Southeast Missouri State and non-Power 5 foes Arkansas State and Connecticut.
For comparison, the Tigers averaged 430 yards per game in non-conference play last season, more than 100 yards more per game than the 2015 team’s output.
Missouri went on to gain at least 400 yards of offense in four of its final five games last year, including a 587-yard performance at Texas A&M.
“The team got better as the year went on,” quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said. “I think with a new group of guys, we’re still trying to figure that deal out a little bit” this year.
Pinkel said the Tigers aren’t thinking back to last season, but Henson said the Tigers can take something from the experience.
“Sure we can,” he said. “Stay positive, keep believing in what you’re doing. Don’t listen to all the outside noise, each guy look at himself and say, ‘What can I do better to improve the whole?’ … We’ve got enough talent to get it done, but we’ve got to be very detail-oriented in what we do.”
Missouri’s receiving corps suffered serious turnover from last year’s team, and there’s not much experience at tailback behind Russell Hansbrough — who missed the Connecticut game with a sprained ankle. But quarterback Maty Mauk and the Tigers’ offensive line have plenty of starts under their belt.
Mauk has struggled to start his junior campaign. He has thrown for 474 yards combined in three games on 42-of-80 passing (52.5 percent). He ranks 93rd in the nation in passing efficiency so far. He has four interceptions to go with his five passing touchdowns, none of which came against Connecticut.
Mauk said he had never played a game before Saturday in which the offense scored just one touchdown.
“It’s frustrating for sure,” he said. “You want to go out there and score 50 points a game if you can, but some stuff doesn’t go your way.”
Henson said Mauk has remained positive, calling him “one of the most resilient players I’ve ever coached.”
“I mean, he had a couple games last year where we showed up on the practice field on Tuesday and I was looking at him thinking, ‘Am I going to go over there and be a psychologist?’” Henson said. “But the guy came back out there, man, and he had a smile on his face, and if he was feeling down and feeling the pressure, you certainly couldn’t tell. I thought honestly that was great leadership for our team, because they didn’t see him waiver either.”
As for the offensive line, pass protection hasn’t been an issue. Mauk has been sacked just four times, and has seemed more willing to stay in the pocket than last season. The run game has been another story: Missouri is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.
“In some cases, it’s kind of two different animals,” Henson said of pass blocking and run blocking. “It is encouraging, (but) it is puzzling. We’ve been pretty good in pass protection. I think we really have. We have to do better running the ball. We all know that, and again, I don’t know any other answer (other than) to go out and practice and get better this week at it.”
An injury to starting center Evan Boehm hasn’t helped. Boehm has played on a sprained ankle but the team captain, who wore a walking boot Monday when speaking to media, hasn’t been at full strength.
“He’s out there battling,” offensive line coach A.J. Ricker said. “We need Evan out there just as much physically as we do mentally, as far as getting us on the right guys and making the line calls, and he’s out there battling and doing the best he can.”
The second-most experienced starter on the line is Connor McGovern, who moved from guard to left tackle to fill the hole left by Mitch Morse, now with the Kansas City Chiefs. If the Tigers had more depth at tackle, Ricker said, McGovern likely wouldn’t have had to make the shift.
“He knows he’s a guard,” Ricker said, “and he’s doing what’s best for this team.”