It’s easy, especially after the fact, to pick apart Missouri’s play-calling in the fourth quarter against Georgia.
But here are some pivotal situations worthy of scrutiny and what first-year coach Barry Odom and his staff had to say about it:
1. Pace of play or an effective run game?
The Tigers led 27-21 with 13:35 remaining after a missed field goal by the Bulldogs.
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel called 14 consecutive run plays, which netted four first downs and 60 yards as Mizzou moved the ball from its own 22 to Georgia’s 18.
Unfortunately, sophomore quarterback Drew Lock’s interception on a third-down pass into the end zone, the only throw on the 15-play drive, kept the Tigers from icing the game.
Was that fateful pass a hair-brained call? No, especially not with more than eight minutes remaining.
“I said, ‘Let’s take a shot here and, if we don’t get it, then we’ll line up and try the field goal,’” first-year coach Barry Odom said. “I’d do it again.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out because of a fantastic individual effort by Bulldogs safety Quincy Mauger, who read Lock’s eyes and broke toward the sideline for a diving interception.
“I have 1,000,000 percent confidence in both of our coordinators,” Odom said. “We had great dialogue during the game, during the heat of the action and, if we would’ve connected on it, it would’ve been an aggressive call and a great one. It didn’t, and I can live with that.”
Mauger’s pick was so unusually fantastic, refs originally ruled him out of bounds and the play was changed after a replay review.
“I’m sorry that it didn't work out, that I didn’t make the right call to win us a football game,” Odom said. “I know I don’t get it back. That’s the hard part, but they made a play and we didn’t.”
Perhaps the bigger issue was that the drive only consumed 5:24, an average of 21.6 seconds between snaps.
Mizzou stuck with tempo as it ran the ball down Georgia’s throat.
It’s debatable whether an extra 10 to 15 seconds between plays would have allowed the Bulldogs’ defense to get set, read more keys or rest up, possibly rendering the Tigers’ run game ineffective.
But it’s not up for debate is that Mizzou would have preferred those extra two or three minutes not remain on the clock a few drives later.
“At that point, I’m OK with, ‘Let’s go,’” Odom said. “If we would have slowed it down, I don’t know that we would’ve had the success that we did. Yeah, you look at it now, and maybe we would have, maybe we wouldn’t. I don’t know, but we’re a little bit better, right now at this point in the season, on going at that (faster) pace.”
2. Trust in Lock or put it on the defense?
After Lock’s interception in the end zone, his third in the second half, the Tigers’ defense stood tall, giving up one first down before forcing a punt after the Bulldogs managed only 16 yards.
Mizzou got the ball back with 5:49 remaining and still had a six-point lead, the ideal situation for the four-minute offense — designed to take the air out of the ball and chew up game clock with a methodical, often run-heavy approach.
It didn’t work out.
The Tigers managed on first down on a quarterback keeper by Lock, who pinballed his way for 10 yards, but the next three plays — all runs — netted zero yards.
The Bulldogs stuffed junior running back Ish Witter for a 1-yard gain on third-and-11 and got the ball back with 3:32 remaining after a Tigers punt, which rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
Should the Tigers have tried to throw on third-and-11? Was it a sign they didn’t trust Lock?
Certainly, Mizzou’s best chance to win was to convert on third down, so a passing play makes more sense given the down and distance.
But Lock also had thrown three interceptions in his last six attempts at that point and the defense was working on a second-half shutout. It was, to be sure, a conservative call.
“It was a little safe ball, which is not anything I’m going to critique my head coach about or the offensive coordinator, who has made amazing play calls and helped me become who I am today obviously,” Lock said. “I trust them.”
Mizzou fans know how it turned out.
Freshman quarterback Jacob Eason only completed 3 of 8 passes for 43 yards on the ensuing drive, but he also coaxed a key defensive pass interference on a third-and-10 play at midfield before lobbing the game-winning 20-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie.
Georgia won 28-27 on the strength of that score (and the extra point) with 1:29 remaining.
3. To help or not to help?
Senior cornerback Aarion Penton played in the slot on that fateful play, because free safety Thomas Wilson was uncomfortable trying to run with McKenzie, according to defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross.
“Thomas has played that position a lot and played well in the spring,” Cross said. “(McKenzie) has some quickness and some agility that force you out of your comfort zone. … It just forced Thomas into an uncomfortable position. That’s why we had to bring Aarion in there. We had to have somebody who felt comfortable in there.”
Unfortunately, Penton is used to working as a nickel back, covering the slot receiver and McKenzie got behind him: a fatal error with no safety help on the play because of a cover-zero defensive call.
Odom said he wouldn’t change the call and that better technique probably earns a more desirable outcome. Penton is the Tigers’ best cover guy, so it’s hard to argue against matching him up with Georgia’s biggest weapon.
No doubt, Odom and Cross know more about defense than you and I combined, but giving Penton, who was put in an unfamiliar position against a dangerous receiver, who’d already rendered other defenders unfit to cover him, help over the top would seem prudent — if only to ensure that, if you’re going get beat, it isn’t by McKenzie.
“I’ve got to do a better job in every aspect to give them the resources and knowledge and everything that we need to win a football game,” Odom said.
Missouri did use more true nickel and dime packages against Georgia, a smart decision given the struggles Donavin Newsom, in particular, has endured covering slot receivers as a de facto nickel back in base sets.
Sophomore linebacker Terez Hall has been better in coverage, but he was hurt and so was junior Logan Cheadle, who probably would have drawn the assignment on McKenzie on the game-winning touchdown if he hadn’t been sidelined earlier in the game with a sprained ankle.
“The Cheadle (injury) hurt us a lot, because he was a guy that could go inside and have the quickness maybe to stay with that guy (McKenzie),” Cross said of the Tigers’ dime package. “Aarion went in, but it was a tough matchup. We’re going to continue to do that in situations where it calls for that and we’re going to continue to strengthen that package as we go forward.”
Bonus: Accountable Odom
This didn’t happen in the fourth quarter, but it would up looming large in a one-point loss.
Coming out of a timeout and facing third-and-1 at the Mizzou 26, Georgia handed the ball to junior running back Nick Chubb, who was knocked off his feet by a marvelous submarining ankle tackle for a 1-yard loss.
With the Tigers up 10-7 and the Bulldogs’ kicker far from a sure thing from more than 40 yards out, a stop there might have been massive.
Instead, Mizzou was whistled for having too many men on the field, an inexcusable penalty in that situation, especially considering the Georgia timeout to discuss the play call.
“The 12th man on the field, everything goes through me and that’s absolutely on me,” Odom said. “We had a couple of injuries during that time, where a guy was in and a guy was out, and we went through where we had nickel, we had base, we were in our heavy package over the headset, so I didn’t get that communicated clearly and that’s not a fun one to sit back and evaluate. I know that. Obviously, you want zero penalties and especially the ones that extend the drive. Those are the ones that put you behind the sticks and that’s not where you want to be.”
After being gifted a first down, Eason put the Bulldogs in front with a 2-yard touchdown to fullback Christian Payne three plays later.
Nonetheless, for Mizzou to be in the game and have a chance to win — either with a stop or in the final 1:29 — despite being minus-4 in the turnover margin was remarkable and speaks volumes about the overall game plan, the Tigers’ overall preparation and the squad’s chances for future success.
Now, about that third-down defense …