It’s a make-or-break game for the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday when they take on the Missouri Tigers.
To get a better look at the Tigers, we went behind enemy lines with Brooks Holton, assistant sports editor and Mizzou Football beat writer for The Columbia Missourian. Holton gave his take on Missouri’s season and what to expect on Saturday.
Follow Brooks on Twitter @brooksHolton.
Vanderbilt Hustler: Last season, Vanderbilt lost to Mizzou in a disappointing late-season game that demoralized the team’s fans. Obviously, Mizzou is not the same team that they were last year. What has this 2017 team had that last season’s team did not?
Brooks Holton: It might seem like a lot has changed, but I think Missouri’s 2017 season is following an arc similar to 2016. Both teams were underwhelming and had confusing starts to the season but rebounded over the home stretch.
I think this team has more to prove than it did last season. The honeymoon period was short lived between Missouri fans and Barry Odom after he finished 4-8 in his first year as head coach, but he had positive momentum to end 2016 with wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas and 11 returning starters on offense. So people expected improvement. When that didn’t look like that was happening to start the season, and when players appeared to be folding in a couple of bad losses to Purdue and Auburn, fans wanted Odom out.
But, as bad as things were in Columbia during the four-game losing streak to start this season, I think the team getting that out of the way early helped – rather than have it happen between Week 5 and Week 9 like it did in 2016. Odom went on a fiery rant after the loss to Auburn, and the team rallied around him because they want to prove just as badly as he does that they’re capable of turning things around here.
Stars like Drew Lock and J’Mon Moore gaining another year of experience helps, but I think last year’s team could go toe to toe with this year’s in terms of strong individual leaders and had more experience on defense. This year’s team seems to have a better sense of cohesion, though. Last fall was more of a transition year, and the team had Odom’s first season as a coach serving as a security blanket that could explain why things didn’t go so hot. But a core group of players returned for this season, and Odom has more of his recruits getting considerable playing time. It started out rough, but they’ve been able to mesh well, and we’re seeing that now with the team playing the most complete football it has all season.
VH: In the last four games, the Tigers have put up more than 40 points. What’s been behind Mizzou’s late-season surge?
BH: Honestly, a favorable schedule. The offense showed it was capable of big plays early in the season, but that was against Missouri State in Week 1, and some bad performances followed. The unit gained some momentum in losses to Kentucky and Georgia, but it took back-to-back games against Idaho and Connecticut for it to hit its stride. That carried over into matchups against down Florida and Tennessee teams.
Individually (and aside from Drew Lock): receiver Emanuel Hall, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, the offensive line and running backs Ish Witter and Larry Rountree III. Hall’s proven himself to be one of the best deep-ball threats in the conference. Okwuegbunam caught five touchdowns between the Idaho and UConn wins and is a matchup nightmare over the middle of the field. The offensive line was one of the best in the country last season and is matching that performance this year. With standout RB Damarea Crockett sidelined since suffering a shoulder injury against Georgia, Witter and Rountree have exceeded all expectations as replacements at the position.
You also have to give a lot of credit to Missouri’s defense during this winning steak, too. Sure, the competition hasn’t been spectacular, but the unit has been dominant over the past four weeks and has come a long way from allowing 42 points to an FCS school in Week 1. Seeing more life from the guys on the other side of the ball — and getting better scoring chances off turnovers — has definitely helped the offense, too.
VH: Everybody in the SEC knows about Drew Lock’s incredible passing ability, but who is another player that could make a serious impact on the game on Saturday?
BH: Ish Witter. The 5-foot-10 running back has been playing the best football of his life these past few weeks, and after posting a career-high 216 yards against Tennessee he had to have been licking his chops watching Benny Snell Jr. score three times against Vanderbilt’s run defense. In wins over the Vols and Florida the past two weeks — easily Missouri’s best performances of the season — the offense has made a far more concerted effort to establishing the run from the get-go than it did earlier in the fall.
It’s resulted in two dominant performances, and Drew Lock has still been able to get his through the air. Even when Witter is subbed out, Rountree is a dynamic, powerful back. He runs to contact and still breaks off 50-yard runs, but it’s almost like he wants to do that because trucking a defender is the cherry on top of the highlight reel.
VH: Vanderbilt will be holding their senior night with prominent players like Ralph Webb being honored. The Commodores will also be playing with some fire on the brink of bowl elimination. Are the Tigers prepared to enter an emotional Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday?
BH: Missouri hasn’t won an SEC road game since Nov. 22, 2014, but I think all signs point to the team being capable of handling the environment. It seemed like players welcomed the change in scenery and a more energized, hostile crowd at Kentucky, but that was also because most Missouri fans had left the stadium before the third quarter ended in losses to Purdue and Auburn. At Georgia, the team played close for the first half. So I think prior experience, the confidence gained through the five-game win steak and the focus demanded by being one win away from bowl eligibility will have players ready.
They will, however, need to start fast. That’s been less of a problem the past two weeks, but that’s also because Florida didn’t capitalize on a first-drive interception and muffed a punt, which set up a touchdown, on Missouri’s second possession.
VH: What is your prediction for the game and why?
BH: I think Vanderbilt plays more inspired early than it did last week and, if it can get a few stops on defense early, holds close for awhile. But it’s hard to pick against Missouri when it’s been playing its best football of 2017 these past few weeks. If Vandy comes out like it did against Kentucky, this won’t be a close game.
With that being said, Shurmur is the best quarterback the unit has seen since Jake Fromm in Week 6 and could find holes in the defense that others capitalized on earlier in the season. He’ll want to rebound from last week’s disaster, too. Webb can provide balance and will want to end his career in Nashville with a big night. So I could maybe see this turning into a shootout if Missouri can’t produce a few turnovers.
Regardless, I think the Tigers cover the 8.5-point spread and could make it even uglier if the same problems that plagued Vanderbilt last week carry over to Saturday.