By Kyle Jones
Walking into NRG Stadium on the night of Wednesday December 27th was…different.
I’ve been in that stadium numerous times, growing up in Houston we used to play High School Football playoff games there. I’ve seen that stadium filled to the brim with Rodeo fans, Texans fans, even a sold-out soccer game where English giants Manchester United took on their cross-town rivals Manchester City. I’ve always felt like part of the home team and I’ve always been on the winning side. Wednesday night was different. On Wednesday night, I watched from the perspective of an away fan.
On Wednesday night, I was on the losing side. Now I know what you’re thinking: What does the stadium and your past experiences in it have to with football? Not much, but the Tigers, before even playing a down, were up against a wall. The University of Texas has one of the best home records in the nation (The Horns have won 79% of their home games in the history of the program), and the fans of UT brought the atmosphere of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to Houston. But the Tigers have one of the most electric offenses in the SEC, but the Tigers have momentum from a six-game win streak, but the Tigers have Drew Lock, one of the best quarterbacks that nobody’s talking about. All of those are reasons that the Tigers should’ve won the game. None of those reasons mattered.
After the first drive of the game, one could get a firm grasp of which team decided to show up. Mizzou started the game by giving up 45 yards in penalties in one drive, allowing the Longhorns to waltz in for an easy touchdown. The Texas offense put up 14 points in the first quarter, a Texas Bowl record (What an accomplishment!). The Tigers didn’t record a first down until the 1:05 mark of that same quarter. Both of UT’s touchdowns came on solid downfield passes. Drew Lock did not throw a ball downfield until the last play of the first quarter. But that was just the first quarter, the Tigers can turn things around. One would be of the right mind to think that, but, as we’ve seen time and time again from this football team, one would be utterly disappointed.
As the game went on the Tigers simply could not get anything going offensively. To make matters worse, when it finally looked like Mizzou was putting a solid drive together they fumbled the ball. Had Ish Witter held onto his drop then the Tigers would’ve escaped another Three and Out, instead Texas LB Anthony Wheeler scooped up the ball and scored. The same was true of Albert Okwuegbunam’s drop, except the Tigers were able to put up a defensive stop and force a punt.
One big reason for the Tigers’ inability to start a drive was the effectiveness of talented Longhorn punter Michael Dickson. The Ray Guy Award winner and Texas Bowl MVP downed 10-of-11 punts inside of the 20-yard line with three punts inside the 10-yard line. The stellar performance from a young man destined for the NFL pinned the Tigers down at the start of almost every drive and made it nearly impossible for Mizzou to do anything offensively.
But, the main reason the Tigers could not find any offensive production in the first half was poor play calling. The Tiger offense ran the ball up the middle on almost every play with little to no success, and when Drew Lock did pass the ball it was an ineffective screen that was either dropped, blocked, or went for a short gain. Instead of utilizing the one part of the offense, Lock’s downfield passing skills, that gave them success the Tigers reverted to a system the likes of which we haven’t witnessed since the game against Auburn earlier this season. In fact, Mizzou’s first and only touchdown of the half was set up by solid passing from Lock, and finished via a rare successful run up the middle from Ish Witter. The Tiger defense adjusted well in the second quarter, forcing the Longhorns to go Three and Out on almost every drive, but that may have been the only bright spot in what was an abysmal first half for Mizzou.
The first play of the second half proved what seemingly everyone besides the Missouri coaching staff had known the whole game. Letting Drew Lock unleash his incredible range against a damaged Texas secondary would reap incredible results. But, even after seeing what good Lock’s long throws could do, the Tiger offense rarely utilized it. Tucker McCann’s field goal gave the Tigers hope, but after Mizzou snapped the ball out of the back of the end zone for a safety it was clear that the game was over.
While it is fair to say that the Tigers were outplayed, the more accurate thing to say is that the Tigers were outcoached. The Tigers went Three and Out on every drive in the first quarter except one, but no adjustments were made. Instead of trying to figure out ways to get through a strong UT defensive line the Tigers simply continued to run the ball up the middle with some sort of false dream of future success. When the Tigers finally did find success with solid passes over the middle of the field they simply disregarded that success and returned to the poor running game. Football is a game of adjustments, the Tiger defense adjusted after the first quarter and was more successful, the offense on the other hand made next to no adjustments and thus lost the football game for Missouri.
This poor offensive performance should come as no surprise. During the regular season Mizzou’s high scoring, high efficiency, offense was run by Josh Heupel. Heupel left soon after the end of the regular season to become the head coach at UCF, leaving the Tigers with no offensive coordinator. This Texas Bowl made it quite clear that it was not Drew Lock, Barry Odom, or any other person currently on the Missouri football team who Tiger fans need to thank for the impressive turnaround the team experienced, it’s Josh Heupel. In order for the Tigers to continue the success they had coming into this bowl game they will need to find an offensive coordinator with a similar or better style compared to Heupel’s. The fast-paced, high scoring, team that we saw this season was the product of good coaching and play calling, and finding a coach who can run an offense of that same nature will be key to the Tigers’ 2018 success.
Despite this unfortunate end to an up and down season there is still a lot to look forward to for the Tigers. While Drew Lock’s future is still unknown, stars like Albert Okwuegbunam, Terry Beckner Jr., and Damarea Crockett will be with the team next year. A solid recruiting class and good returning players sets the Tigers up for what could be a season that sees Mizzou reassert their place at the top of the SEC East. Only time will tell if the Tigers will be up to the challenge, but with a solid offensive coordinator, and a team that changed a 1-5 season into a 7-6 one, look for Mizzou to Keep it Rollin’ in 2018.