Columbia — Here are a few thoughts on Missouri's defense and special teams after re-watching the tape of the Tigers' 21-16 win over Central Florida. Hopefully these are some things you may not have noticed. I will post offensive observations early Saturday morning.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
(FYI, I’m no coach or anything, so I got a chance to run some of these thoughts past MU’s players and coaches on Monday.)
HOW MU STOPPED THE RUN
UCF racked up 113 rushing yards on 20 attempts in the first half, ran 31 more offensive plays than Missouri and possessed the ball for 14 more minutes. Things changed in the second half, when the Knights ran for 15 yards on 15 carries.
Now, Missouri’s improved offense – the Tigers started churning out rushing yards in the half, and UCF only ran 29 plays – had something to do with it. But linebacker Will Ebner hinted Central Florida’s zone blocking up front wasn’t terribly complicated; Missouri just needed to get used to it.
“They like to run certain formations for certain plays, and it changes each week,” Ebner said. “We just had to adjust to what they were doing in the first half.
“Part of it was, we had some better plays that could be called against what they were trying to do…we knew what they were going to come back to in the second half.”
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said the Tigers’ pursuit on run plays improved, too.
“We just did what we were doing better,” Kuligowski said. “I don’t know if they just got used to the plays they were seeing so they knew were the plays were going to go, but they got better penetration, played gaps better and attacked downhill better.”
Here are a few examples of that:
*On the first play of the second half, the fullback went in motion to the field. Missouri had seven men in the box while UCF had seven blockers. Perhaps sensing a run was coming, Ebner took a few steps toward the line of scrimmage when the man went in motion and attacked hard, taking running back Storm Johnson down in the backfield for a 2-yard loss.
*A few plays later, UCF ran a sweep to receiver Jeff Godfrey, but gains very little yardage because defensive end Brad Madison took on a double team, pursued the ball and met Godfrey at the line of the scrimmage.
See what I mean? That kind of stuff happened all half.
TACKLING NOT AN ISSUE AGAINST UCF
The defense also deserves credit for improving its tackling. UCF rarely attacked downfield, instead opting for short passes, a little bit like South Carolina. However, the Tigers found these guys much easier to tackle than Marcus Lattimore (surprising, I know).
Quarterback Blake Bortles finished 29-of-43 for 267 yards and two touchdowns, but his receivers rarely gained yards after first contact. Bortles was also forced to throw the ball away several times because of a fierce pass rush led by Sheldon Richardson, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.
Speaking of Sam, here’s a quick breaking of his game-changing sack of Bortles late in the first half. Bortles lined up in the shotgun, and Sam simply flew off the ball, executed a terrific rip inside past the left tackle – who had clearly prepared for an outside pass rush – and dragged Bortles down. The play of the half.
GAINES GETS AGGRESSIVE
Cornerback E.J. Gaines finished the game with 13 tackles, a preposterous number for a cornerback.
“Most of them were in the run game – they ran a lot of outside plays this week, that’s why I had the tackles I did,” Gaines said. “I didn’t do anything special, it was just me making the plays I was supposed to make.”
There’s some truth to this; UCF used a lot of zone-running plays, and the flow of the blocking sometimes led the tailbacks to the outside at some point during their runs. But UCF also showed a willingness to throw at Gaines – who consistently lined up on the right side of the quarterback on Saturday, while Edwards lined up to the left – completing three of six passes on him, though some were in zone coverage.
The Knights also ran two consecutive screens to Gaines' side of the field in the fourth quarter, both of which he perfectly diagnosed and blew up. Gaines also made the play of the day late in the game by not only making a tackle on Godfrey during the Knights' final driving, but forcing the game-clinching fumble, too.
MURPHY MAKES 'EM PAY
Marcus Murphy’s 66-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter was the result of a perfect play call and solid blocking.
After receiving the punt, Murphy made an unblocked defender miss and it was off to the races. He got big blocks by receiver Jaleel Clark and defensive end Shane Ray and was then escorted to the end zone by linebacker Markus Golden.
“We ran a left return, all those guys went to the right and it just opened up that whole left side and Murphy took off,” Ray said. “My job was to come make that play and that’s what I did.”
Murphy said the hole was where they thought it would be. Kuligowski is in charge of the punt return team.
“That’s a good call from Coach Kul,” Murphy said. “We set it up perfect. He kicked it pretty far, so it allowed me to catch the ball and adjust to my blockers.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.