Mountaineers: Previewing Missouri
In 2016, West Virginia opened its season in Morgantown with a 26-11 win over the Missouri Tigers. First-year Head Coach Barry Odom led a young Tigers’ team back then. Now the Mountaineers travel to Columbia, Missouri, with a new coach in hand. And leaving Columbia with their second win of the Neal Brown era will be tough. So we continue our weekly coverage by previewing Missouri.
Opening Week Heartbreak
In previewing Missouri, we begin with the obvious. Despite facing a post-season ban, Missouri came into 2019 with 10-win aspirations. Those aspirations took a major blow in Week one as the Tigers fell to Wyoming 38-31. In doing so, the Tigers’ explosive running back, Larry Rountree II, coughed up a costly fumble. And, Kelly Bryant threw an untimely interception. Both turnovers cost the Tigers valuable points, and, in a single score game, truly helped determine the outcome.
Wyoming planned well for Missouri as they were able to flex their might on the ground, rushing for nearly 300 yards on 42 attempts. They averaged over seven yards per attempt. As a result, Wyoming only attempted 16 passes the entire game. In total, Missouri committed three turnovers while forcing none.
Missouri’s offense stalled plenty against Wyoming, and the turnovers certainly did not help. But, overall, the Tigers offense remains dangerous. Bryant proved he has an arm as he threw for 423 yards and completed 65% of his passes. And even though he had a costly fumble, Rountree remains a dangerous weapon. In 2018, he eclipsed 1,200 rushing yards while averaging over five yards per carry. Rountree’s explosiveness is complemented by third-down and passing-down back Tyler Badie. Both runners enjoy an experienced offensive line to create open lanes for them.
Meanwhile, Bryant has plenty of seasoned targets. Johnathon Johnson works primarily out of the slot. He is one of the few players on the roster who contributed significantly when these teams last met four years ago. He finished 2018 with over 700 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam added nearly 500 yards, averaging just under 11 yards per reception in 2018. And if that’s not enough, Kam Scott and Jalen Knox offer Bryant big-play threats as well.
The Tigers finished 2018 ranked as a top 25 rushing defense, and they return most of the talent that got them there. Defensive linemen Jordan Elliot, a Texas transfer, and Akial Byers return. And Cale Garrett, who will finish his career as a Missouri all-timer, returns at linebacker. Based on these returning playmakers, it was no doubt surprising to see Wyoming rack up so many yards on the ground. But the defense will look to turn that around against a Mountaineer team that struggled in the running game in Week 1.
Missouri’s pass rush, on the hand, was non-existent in 2018, and their secondary was hot and cold as a result. In fact, Missouri finished outside of the top 100 FBS teams in sacks last season. While they return Christian Holmes, DeMarkus Acy, and Adam Sparks in the defensive backfield, that unit surrendered 250 or more yards in five games last season. They also surrendered three or more touchdowns in six. They had particularly poor performances against Purdue (572 yards and three scores), Alabama (380 yards and three scores), and Oklahoma State (333 yards and four scores).
Mountaineers Seeking Improvement
As Coach Brown said earlier this week, the Mountaineers are going to work heavily on opening up their running game going into this week. But he also warned that the Mountaineers do not run the same big, double-tight-end sets that allowed Wyoming to have success running the ball. So while the Mountaineers may no doubt seek to establish a running game early to prove their Week 1 win against James Madison was simply a fluke in that department, fans should not expect to see the Mountaineers post 200 yards on the ground.
Instead, the Mountaineers will look to balance their attack and build off of Austin Kendall’s vastly improved second half against the Dukes. In his press conference earlier this week, Brown said the offense “lacked physicality across the board” and made mental mistakes leading to “five procedure penalties” and “five or six dropped balls.” Look for the team to improve those areas this week and play sounder football.
Previewing Missouri: The Prediction
Odom’s Tigers have been streaky since he took over in 2016. They have suffered three losing streaks in the last three seasons, and they have carried three winning streaks in the same period. An opening-game loss of Wyoming certainly doesn’t bode well for the Tigers’ 2019 season. But it could also add a huge chip on the team’s collective shoulder for their home opener against the Mountaineers.
To prevail against Bryant, the Mountaineers defense will rely on rotating bodies and keeping their personnel fresh. The Mountaineers struggled against quarterback runs in the second quarter last week, but, once the defense settled in and stopped over pursuing, they shut down the Dukes’ running game altogether. Bryant, of course, represents a substantially higher caliber quarterback.
Like last week, the Mountaineers’ fate may well hinge on its defensive performance. If West Virginia’s defense contains the run and applies consistent pressure, then the Mountaineers might leave Missouri with a win. But Odom’s Tigers are fighting to steady the ship immediately. So look for a closely contested battle. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers may end up on the losing side of this one by a score of 27-24. A win, however, would not surprise us if the Mountaineer corrects the issues Brown identified in a hurry. The opening kickoff occurs at 12:00 EST. The game will be televised on ESPN2.