Now that Missouri has won four straight football games, this season’s dark beginnings can feel like they belong to a different year.
Remember DeMontie Cross? MU coach Barry Odom took playcalling duties from Cross, the team’s former defensive coordinator, a season ago, and Odom fired him just two games into this season.
Firing a coordinator so early into a season is normally a sign of dysfunction — and it looked that way for a while, with MU giving up at least 35 points in each of the next four games. But Mizzou’s defense has tightened up during the winning streak that has followed. The Tigers (5-5, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) have limited their opponents to 16.5 points per game during their four consecutive wins.
Some of that is due to lesser competition compared to the first half of the season. But this is also a defense that gave up 43 points to Missouri State and 35 points to Purdue, which ranks 11th in the 14-team Big Ten in scoring offense.
On Monday, Odom praised his defensive staff for sticking together during the early trouble. The Tigers won back to back SEC games under Odom for the first time with their victory over Tennessee last weekend, and they’ve now also held three straight opponents to fewer than 20 points. Prior to the winning streak, Odom’s teams had never held two straight opponents to fewer than 20 points.
“I’ve put a lot on all their plates,” Odom said of his defensive assistants. “Specifically after the change we made earlier in the year, all those guys had to do a little more. I’m proud of what they’ve done. … If you’re all on the same page and really working well together, then you’ve got a chance to get you an opportunity.”
Those improved defensive performances have coincided with changes in third-down personnel. Mizzou’s third-down defense often utilizes many freshmen, including linebacker Joshuah Bledsoe, who is listed as MU’s No. 3 strong-side linebacker on this week’s depth chart. Odom said that Bledsoe learning more defensive concepts has enabled more defensive versatility, including moving Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett back to safety from linebacker.
Against Tennessee, Mizzou’s defense held its opponent to a sub-30 percent third-down conversion rate for the first time this season.
“The other night you had him and Chris Turner and Kobie Whiteside and Tre Williams all in on one tackle,” Odom said, mentioning three first-year players and one, Williams, who is playing his first season after redshirting. “That’s freshman, freshman, freshman. I’m pretty excited about that.”
▪ Emanuel Hall led Missouri’s receivers in catches (5), yards (102) and touchdowns (2) against Tennessee, but the Tigers think his stat line should have been gaudier. Hall, a junior, had a few drops against the Vols.
Odom and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel expressed little concern that drops would be a problem moving forward. Heupel said he hoped Mizzou’s 50-point output would cause his offense to come “back down to Earth maybe a little bit” because of the possible points and yards it didn’t claim.
▪ Heupel said increasing the Mizzou tight ends’ involvement in run blocking has been partially responsible for MU’s success running the ball in recent weeks. The Tigers rushed for 433 yards against Tennessee, the most by an MU team since 2003.
Mizzou’s fast-paced offense requires adapting to personnel, and game plans change each week, but Heupel said he wants a strong running game to be one of Missouri’s consistent strengths from season to season.
▪ Mizzou has been without sophomore running back Damarea Crockett for each of the past four games, and he is not listed on the depth chart this week. But Heupel is happy with the two backs who have taken on increased roles in Crockett’s place, Ish Witter and Larry Rountree III.
Heupel said Rountree III, a true freshman, continues to become more comfortable with increased workload, and Heupel praised how Rountree III played without the ball against Tennessee. He rushed 18 times for 155 yards a week after scoring three touchdowns against Florida.
Witter ran for 216 yards against Tennessee, and Heupel said the senior has been playing his best ever during the past few weeks.
“You don’t have to be the biggest guy, but you do have to have a physical presence to you,” Heupel said of the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Witter. “He plays with a good pad level and moves his feet on contact. Lately, he’s done a really good job of that. Not every back needs to be 6-2. Some of the best runners I’ve been around have been a little smaller in stature, but they all have strength to them and run with a physical presence.”