Barry Odom’s head coaching career now includes all of one game, played on the road, as a significant underdog. If he had his way, Missouri never would’ve played this game, at least not in the season opener. Most coaches prefer a so-called “buy” game to start, and that’s doubly so for coaches making their debut.
Reasonable people understand we are still in the opening credits of Odom’s time in charge of his alma mater’s football program. The plot has not yet begun, but on a gorgeous afternoon here a dream job opened with all the elegance of a dog on roller skates — with Missouri a 26-11 loser to West Virginia.
There will be a debate among fans about whether the offense was worse than the defense, and we’ll get to that here soon, but first we might acknowledge that the winner of a debate like that is largely inconsequential. Neither side played well enough to win, but together conspired to turn Odom’s first postgame press conference into repeated apologies.
“I’m obviously very, very thankful and honored to be the head coach,” he said. “I’ve got a job to do. I didn’t get it done today. So I don’t feel very good about that.”
At other times, Odom took the blame for what he saw as a nervous beginning, an overall subpar performance, and when asked about the offensive line said, “I’m hopeful that’s as bad as we’ll play all year.”
Few things in sports can be as misleading as the first game of a college football season. Without preseason games, mistakes that haven’t quite been eliminated with camp can multiply. That’s probably especially true with a new coaching staff, and a relatively young team, playing its first game against an experienced roster and probable bowl team.
There is no point in the season where teams expect more improvement than between the first and second game, and if nothing else Mizzou established it has much to improve.
The urgency may be emphasized if there is substance behind subtle signs of a split between the offense and defense. That’s always a possibility in football when one side outperforms the other, but Odom made reference to “needing to stay tight together.”
This is not an alarm, more watch than warning, but particularly after such a wide gap in how the offense and defense performed last year, a few comments from defensive players here are worth noting.
Most of it came when players were asked about a sequence in the second quarter, when West Virginia’s backup quarterback literally dropped the ball while attempting a deep pass. Mizzou recovered the fumble, taking over with first and goal. This is the football equivalent of winning a new car, but the Tigers immediately lost the keys. They went rush for no gain, rush for no gain, incomplete pass, missed field goal.
“I can only speak for the defense,” defensive end Charles Harris said. “We got this adversity last year, so we kind of already know how to tackle that. We just keep doing our own thing, keep doing our own job.”
And then there was defensive back Aarion Penton, who admitted to being frustrated by the moment, but said the defense might have to score its own points. Someone asked if that was fair.
“It’s not, necessarily,” Penton said. “But as a defense that needs to be a goal. We can put up points, too.”
Defensive tackle Josh Augusta said he thought West Virginia “just wanted to win more than we did.” Asked if he really meant that, Augusta said yes, calling it “a big problem.”
“We need to keep everybody on their feet,” Augusta said. “After a loss, people want to separate. (So) keep each other together, and just keep working. Keep working.”
Again, this is not an alarm, not a call for panic. Just a recognition that Mizzou is working with some symptoms that have long divided football locker rooms at all levels.
Because the offense, mostly, stunk. It did not cross midfield until the second quarter, was forced into too many quick punts, and had a few killer penalties and some bizarre substitution patterns, particularly between the quarterbacks. The Tigers did not score a touchdown until 1:49 left in the fourth quarter, when the outcome was all but official.
But, even against a West Virginia defense that returned just three starters, nobody expected much from the offense. This was always going to be the weakness, and Drew Lock had enough moments to believe there is room for improvement.
Penton was right about the defense needing to do more, but it’s not about scoring points. MU gave up more yards and yards per play than any game last year, and more points than all but two.
The surprising thing — the problematic thing — was a defense that has to be great committing too many penalties, missing too many tackles, and a much-ballyhooed defensive line being controlled by an offensive line missing its starting left tackle and left guard.
This team has to win on defense. You can live with the offense needing time, and some good breaks, but Odom’s rookie season will be even worse than Gary Pinkel’s last season if the defense steps back after the defensive coordinator was promoted.
Mizzou managed no pressure on West Virginia. Opponents watching tape of this game will design longer developing pass plays to take advantage. It’s not just that Mizzou’s talented front seven didn’t make a sack — it didn’t come particularly close.
One game determines nothing, and that’s particularly true of the first game. Odom has pushed toughness above nearly everything else, and even after a loss, some players talked of being able to hear their head coach’s screams of encouragement and emotion from the field — a first around Mizzou.
The offense should’ve scored more, getting points from just two of five possessions inside the 20. Lock played better than at any point last year, and seemed to develop a real trust with J’Mon Moore. The defense will have to adjust to these quick throws, but there is enough talent and experience to believe this could be its worst showing of the season.
Mizzou had enough problems last year that Odom’s debut was never going to be easy. The Tigers now have three straight home games, including two in which they’ll be heavy favorites. Football is a game about the moment, but seasons and careers are built over thousands of moments. This is just one.
Nobody can be sure how this will end for him. There are so many challenges, so many things out of his control. But if he is to push Mizzou away from its recent struggles, and back toward the success of Pinkel’s best teams, days like this have to be part of the process instead of part of the problem.
“You’re never ever, ever going to get me down,” Odom said.
For now, that’s as much as anyone can expect.