As halftime arrived Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, first-year Missouri coach Barry Odom called his team together at the SEC logo on the 35-yard line by the visitors’ sideline.
The message was simple — perhaps even understood, if Odom is to be believed.
But after the offense gave up two Florida touchdowns on pick-sixes by sophomore quarterback Drew Lock in the waning minutes of the second quarter, turning a frustrating 6-0 deficit into a an insurmountable 20-0 deficit, Odom felt it necessary to remind the team that unity was a must.
“We have been through way too much together as a team that I don’t question any of that,” Odom said.
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Still, finishing up his minute-long remarks, Odom told Tigers defensive players to find an offensive player and vice versa and asked them to link arms as they walked off the field toward the locker room.
“It’s easy for things to go awry, because you’ve got a defense working its (butt) off and we’re down 20-0,” senior linebacker Michael Scherer said. “So, it’s tough, but he was just making sure we’re all together.”
Does Scherer sense an issue that needs to be addressed, a locker-room division between an offense that’s struggling and repeatedly putting the defense in untenable positions?
“Last year, I would have said ‘yeah,’ but this year ‘no,’” he said. “That’s not something we have a problem with. It’s not one side looking at another. … We’re a team; we stick together.”
Nonetheless, Mizzou’s players understood Odom’s motivation.
“It’s really easy for people to split apart after a loss or several losses back-to-back,” senior defensive tackle Josh Augusta said. “But we’ve got to keep everybody together and we should be fine.”
Junior safety Thomas Wilson grabbed redshirt freshman A.J. Harris after Odom’s on-field address, locked arms at the elbow and walked off the field.
“I thought it was a good idea because we came out in the second half and were playing pretty well up until a certain point,” Wilson said. “ … We just can’t blame people. You’ve got to take ownership of what you’re doing. If you didn’t play perfect, then you’re part of the problem as well.”
Some fans on social media chided Odom’s tactic as hokey, but there’s no doubt it served a purpose.
Wilson said that although he rankled a bit late in the game upon seeing that “all the offensive players were kind of laughing on the sideline and kind of joking around,” he wasn’t eager to point fingers.
“The game was kind of already over at that point, but it’s not good when you see guys on the other side of the ball joking around and we’re still getting beat 40-14,” Wilson said.
Instead, players are trying to focus on encouragement.
“We should always stay positive,” senior cornerback Aarion Penton said. “I always tell (the offense), ‘I know you’re going to get in the end zone for us’ — positive stuff to make sure they’re always going in the right direction.”
Speaking of the right direction
It might seem odd to give a defense that allowed 523 total yards in a 40-14 blowout much credit, but the Tigers’ revamped defense deserves some.
Mizzou’s offense started the game with six consecutive three-and-outs and no drive lasted longer than 1:49. In fact, only one was longer than 1:18 until the final few minutes of the second quarter.
The first drive that wasn’t a three-and-out? Lock threw a pick-six to Florida junior cornerback Jalen Tabor on the first play after Penton snagged an interception.
It was a backbreaking moment. The Tigers’ offense still hadn’t managed a first down in more than 27 minutes of game action, but it had gifted the Gators seven points — more than the defense had allowed at that point.
No sooner did MU pick up a few first downs — and move past its own 37-yard line for the first time in the game — than Lock threw another interception that was returned for a touchdown.
The Tigers also gave up a touchdown on an onside kick.
Thus, despite a few missed tackles once again, Missouri’s defense only was responsible for allowing 19 points and managed four takeaways, including junior defensive end Charles Harris’ forced fumble at the goal line midway through the fourth quarter.
“We had a lot of juice, honestly, all the way until the fourth quarter,” said junior defensive end Marcell Frazier, who made his first start of the season and recovered a Jordan Scarlett fumble caused by Harris. “ … We played hard the whole game, I feel like, on defense.”
Florida had 388 yards through three quarters, including 165 yards rushing in 31 carries and 223 yards passing, with sophomore Luke Del Rio going 17 of 35 with a touchdown and three interceptions.
It wasn’t great, a 5.88-yard average per play would rank 88th in the country this season, but it wasn’t terrible either, especially considering that Florida had the ball for 31:39 of the game’s first 45 minutes.
“I really do think we improved,” Wilson said. “I feel like tackling was better, people were playing their assignments better and just encouraging everybody. That’s what everybody needs sometimes.”
There’s also reason to believe Mizzou can continue to improve moving forward.
“Honestly, we just had a good two weeks of practice,” Frazier said. “People were buying in more and we were just like, ‘Forget the old system. Forget it. It’s not coming back, so let’s buy into this new system as much as we can.’ That was kind of our mind-set after LSU.”
After starting Missouri’s last 31 games at middle linebacker, Scherer switched to weak-side linebacker during the bye week.
He wasn’t perfect, including a hard bite on a play-action fake that allowed Derby (Kan.) graduate and Florida junior tight end DeAndre Goolsby to get open for a 32-yard catch-and-run that led to a second-quarter field goal.
But Scherer did make some incredible plays, too.
Part of the reason for the switch, which moved Scherer to Vikings fifth-round pick Kentrell Brothers’ old position, was to get more playmaking from that spot.
Proof of its worth was evident on a first-quarter screen pass from Del Rio to senior running back Mark Herndon.
Scherer diagnosed the play, split a double team, overpowered a blocker and dropped Herndon for a 2-yard loss — one of his game-high 10 tackles.
“Mike’s so experienced that he could probably play assignment-sound on 11 positions defensively,” Odom said. “That’s just a veteran guy who’s been through the battles.”
No joy for Crockett
Freshman running back Damarea Crockett had a fantastic game for a Missouri ground game that churned out 265 yards rushing, 3 shy of the season-high set versus Delaware State.
The Tigers’ rushing total was impressive, considering Josh Heupel’s offense managed only 172 yards in 59 carries in its first two SEC games — losses to Georgia and LSU.
Making his first career start, Crockett made the case to be Missouri’s workhorse with 14 carries for 145 yards, which were both career highs.
While it’s true that the bulk of Crockett’s yardage came after Florida senior linebacker Jarrad Davis left the game because of an apparent ankle injury, he still averaged 7.0 yards per carry through the first three quarters, with nine carries for 63 yards.
After the game, Crockett, who now owns two career 100-yard efforts in his first six college games, understandably wasn’t in a celebratory mood.
“I’m not really excited about having a 145-yard game, because it means nothing with the loss,” he said.
But it could be a launching point for bigger and better things.
The Gators have one of the top defenses in the Southeastern Conference, and probably all of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
While 115 yards and two touchdowns in 12 carries three weeks ago against Football Championship Series also-ran Delaware State was nice, Crockett’s performance at Florida was more encouraging and, ultimately, more indicative of future success it would seem.