University of Missouri

Mizzou has struggled to run the football. Here’s what the Tigers are doing to fix that

The Missouri Tigers can’t run the ball.

It’s a glaring reason why they lost at Vanderbilt and Kentucky as double-digit favorites. A rushing attack that flourished early has stalled; in turn, the MU offense has scored just 21 points combined in the last two games.

During the Tigers’ five-game winning streak, rushing was never the problem. Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie complemented Kelly Bryant’s arm and legs, forcing defenses to game plan around Mizzou’s ground game.

But the Tigers’ problems on offense are clear now. Whenever MU coach Barry Odom or members of the offense are asked what needs to be fixed, they point to their ground attack.

“I’m not saying we have to go out there and run for 250 (yards),” Odom said. “The run game opens up the pass game for us. Play-actions, moving the pocket, the boot, the naked, some of those things have been really good for us. If you’re not running the ball and you haven’t established that, then they’re not going to have any respect for it.”

In their five wins, all home, the Tigers have averaged 216.6 yards rushing per game. In their three road losses, that number drops to 130.7.

It’s difficult to explain those home and road splits. Center Trystan Colon-Castillo said playing offense can be more difficult on the road because crowd noise often makes it harder to hear the play or snap count. But Bryant said his team’s struggles stem from the little things — such as penalties and execution errors.

Bryant said Mizzou’s offense needs to play more “pitch and catch.” In other words, throw easy completions to open receivers in hopes of finding some rhythm. That should open up the run game, too, he added.

“It’s nothing that’s been big for us, out of the ordinary,” Bryant said. “It’s just small things for all of us. Whether it’s on the offensive line to the (running) backs, quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, just getting back to who we are as an offense.”

Odom said the Tigers’ point-of-attack blocking hasn’t been very efficient, so that’s been a focus in practice. The coaching staff is always considering new schemes or wrinkles, he said, in hopes of finding an advantage over an opponent. Colon-Castillo said the offensive line faces blitzes and line movement often in practice — two areas in which MU has struggled during its past two games.

With Bryant’s health up in the air because of a strained hamstring, the offense is under added pressure now. While Taylor Powell did a serviceable job in relief of Bryant at Kentucky, Powell can’t scramble like Bryant can.

“(Bryant’s) legs are part of our offense,” MU offensive coordinator Derek Dooley said. “It eliminated a lot of what we could do offensively. Kind of had to hone in on handing the ball off or drop back. So that limited us. Then we didn’t handle the ball really well.”

The Tigers’ run game is under the microscope because it’s fundamental to what Dooley’s offense does. At its best, there’s an element of physicality to it: The Tigers want to impose their will on opposing teams.

Odom said a sound ground attack is also fundamental to being able to move the chains efficiently. With a consistent run game, third downs become manageable. MU has faced too many third-and-long situations during its current losing streak.

“We’ll keep working at it,” Dooley said. “Just improve fundamentally with our blockers and our runners. Just trying to figure out schematically what we do best, try to figure it out. We’re not a good offense when we can’t run the ball well.

“We’re a balanced offense. When you’re a balanced offense and one of your parts isn’t working, then all of a sudden you’re not balanced. When we’ve played well, we’ve been able to run it and throw it when we want to and dictate the tempo. We’ve done that for the most part of the year. We haven’t done it the past couple of games.”

The Tigers’ run game faces its toughest test of the season Saturday at Georgia. The Bulldogs are allowing just 77.6 yards rushing per game, fourth-best in the nation. They haven’t allowed a single rushing touchdown through their first eight games.

Couple that defense with a rowdy road atmosphere at Sanford Stadium, and it might be difficult to assess just how much the run game has improved during Mizzou’s week off since losing at Kentucky.

“We addressed the run game a lot during the bye week last week,” Colon-Castillo said. “I feel like we’ve gotten a lot better last week. I’m really excited to see how we perform this week.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star