- Protect the football
One staple of Missouri's weekly game notes is the assertion that "Missouri doesn't beat Missouri on Pinkel's watch." That is, until recently. After the Tigers continually shot themselves in the foot the past four games, the heading was revised to "Missouri usually doesn't beat Missouri on Pinkel's watch." Returning to the former status is vital for the Tigers.
In their four wins, the Tigers committed three turnovers and forced seven takeaways. In their five losses, they committed 12 turnovers and forced seven. The defense is turning in consistent efforts in this category, but the offense's sloppiness has led to disaster. This isn't much of a surprise; the Tigers have gone through dry times in each of their losses, forcing them into more passing situations. Junior QB Brad Smith has not shown a deft touch or reliable decision-making, so it might be time to rethink in the game plan a bit.
Smith has thrown nine interceptions, making him accountable for more than half of the turnovers. Conversely, he has rushed 131 times and has lost just two fumbles, one against Colorado and another on a poorly executed play action by freshman TB Marcus Woods against Kansas State. All signs point to expanding the running game.
- Stay focused
In their five losses, the Tigers have been outscored 69-9 in the second half, including a frightening 52-9 in the fourth quarter. Production like that is not going to keep you in games, much less win them.
There has been plenty of talk about "halftime adjustments" and giving opponents a different look in the final 30 minutes. The above statistic seems to verify that mindset, but the Tigers' inability to close out games shows that they might not be as good of a team as their aggregate talent suggests. The offense grows stagnant late in games and, with Smith unable to complete clutch passes and the coaches' reluctance to put the game in the hands of their tailbacks, little has gone right in the closing minutes.
With a slumping Kansas offense, which is now relying on a walk-on quarterback, due in Columbia next weekend, Missouri should be able to grab an early lead. Showing offensive diversity in the second half -- along with a few timely contributions from the defense -- could sew up two more wins.
- Go deep
Three of Missouri's four longest plays of the season are touchdown connections between Smith and junior WR Sean Coffey, who has become the Tigers' sole deep threat. Smith found Coffey for a 60-yard score against Arkansas State, from 59 yards against Kansas State and 51 yards against Colorado. (Junior TB Damien Nash's 66-yard run against the Wildcats tops the list, although it did not go for a touchdown.)
Nearly all of Missouri's downfield passes, the majority of which have clanked to the ground incomplete, have been in Coffey's direction. His combination of size and speed give him an edge against most defensive backs; the Tigers must continue to look his way, even if the connection doesn't work right away.
Pinkel has repeatedly bemoaned how defenses are bringing more players into the box to stop Smith and the running game. Throwing the ball deep a few more times each game -- particularly after a first-down run that picks up positive yardage -- will force opposing defenses to be more honest. The Smith-to-Coffey connection has been the team's best all season; expanding it will only make the offense more dangerous.
- Be special
Special teams was a gigantic question mark entering the season and remains one today. Although it has contributed to all four losses, only once, at Nebraska, did it directly sink the Tigers.
That's one time too many. It's too late to bring in new faces to take a stab at the specialist jobs, although Pinkel essentially did that by handing freshman Adam Crossett the punting job against Kansas State. Crossett fared well, minus one booming punt that surpassed his coverage and was returned for a long gain.
While junior K Joe Tantarelli's confidence is not shaken, he needs to be more productive. Tantarelli led the country in scoring at the junior college level last season, so he has a history of kicking consistently and accurately. That hasn't surfaced yet; his 32-yard try in the third quarter against Kansas State that clanked off the right upright deflated the Tigers.
With the continuing struggles of the offense, Missouri needs points out of every trip to the red zone. Although seven would be best, three must become a given. That has not been the case, but it must be in the season's final two contests.
As if losing four consecutive games was not enough, the Tigers now have two weeks to think about…