KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football coach Butch Jones has been talking up Missouri all week.
The Vols players and media have heard all about how the Tigers have given up the fewest sacks in the SEC (11) and lead the league in interceptions (13).
Tennessee (7-3, 3-3 SEC) plays host to Missouri (3-7, 1-5) at 3:30 p.m. (TV: CBS) at Neyland Stadium.
SECcountry.com talked with Columbia Daily Tribune Tigers beat writer Blake Toppmeyer about the Missouri team, asking him to answer five key questions.
1) What inspired Missouri’s win over Vanderbilt, and what do the Tigers have left to play for?
A couple key areas stood out in Missouri’s win over Vanderbilt:
1) The Tigers stopped the run.
2) Crunch time brought out the best in Drew Lock, something we hadn’t seen previously.
Missouri has been one of the SEC’s worst teams in defending the run, but Vandy averaged just 3.7 yards per carry on Saturday. Granted, part of that was due to Missouri tallying six sacks, but take those away, and the Tigers still didn’t give up a ton in the run game. Consistently putting Vanderbilt in third-and-medium or third-and-long allowed the front four to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback on third downs.
As for Lock, if you just look at his passing yards per game, it looks like the sophomore has had a fantastic season. But take away his games against Delaware State and Eastern Michigan, and his numbers are more pedestrian.
In two of Missouri’s more winnable SEC games – against Georgia and South Carolina – Lock didn’t exactly shine in crunch time. He threw three second-half interceptions against the Bulldogs, and against South Carolina, he threw a pick in a pivotal moment in the third quarter that changed the course of the game.
But after Vanderbilt pulled within 19-17 in the second half, Lock twice led Missouri on impressive marches down the field. The first time, Missouri fumbled at the Vanderbilt 1-yard line – no fault of Lock’s – but on Missouri’s next possession, Lock led a 13-play, 85-yard drive that ended with his 4-yard touchdown pass to J’Mon Moore, giving the Tigers a two-possession lead midway through the fourth quarter and effectively putting the game away. Lock completed 4 of 6 passes for 34 yards – one of the incompletions was a drop – and also had a 6-yard rush during that drive.
These last two games are a chance for Missouri to build some momentum going into the offseason, especially on offense, where 10 of 11 starters are set to return next season.
2) What or who is the most important element of Missouri’s offense?
At the risk of redundancy, it’s Lock. He’s been great at times and pretty poor at others. Maybe that roller-coaster ride is to be expected from a sophomore, but Saturday’s game will mark his 19th career start. It’s time to start seeing some consistency. The Vanderbilt game was a good start. Considering the opponent, I think it was Lock’s finest game of his career. He completed 22 of 37 passes for 294 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Missouri runs an up-tempo offense almost entirely predicated on run-pass option plays. It’s similar to Baylor’s offense. Everything runs through Lock and his pre-snap and post-snap reads and his ability to not only properly dissect the defense but then execute based off what he sees.
3) What has been the Tigers’ Achilles heel this season?
So many things. The run defense often hasn’t been good. The kicking game is terrible, with Missouri connecting on just 5 of 12 field goals and missing five extra points, tops in the nation.
Offensively, Missouri has displayed an improved product compared to last year, when it had one of the worst offenses in the country, but consistency has been lacking.
Force me to pick one thing, and I’d say tackling has been the Achilles heel. What was expected to be a stout defense has been pretty average, and porous tackling is the biggest reason why.
4) What needs to happen for Missouri to pull off the upset in Neyland Stadium?
Defensively, Missouri needs to find a way to contain the run and make Joshua Dobbs beat the Tigers with his arm. Dobbs has thrown and SEC-most 12 interceptions, and the Tigers are tied for the SEC lead in interceptions, with 13. Keep an eye on cornerback Aarion Penton, a senior who has four interceptions this season, including a pick-six last week.
Offensively, freshman running back Damarea Crockett has had a nice year. He is 163 yards away from reaching 1,000. I think he could have some success against a Tennessee run defense that has had problems of its own. But in the end, I think it comes back to Lock needing to make some big plays in crunch time, if this is indeed a tight game in the second half.
5) How do you see Saturday’s game between Tennessee and the Tigers playing out?
I’m not sold on Tennessee’s defense. The Volunteers have allowed at least 28 points in five of their six SEC games, and they’ve been beset by injuries.
But I’m also not convinced Missouri will slow down Tennessee’s rushing attack. Sure, the Tigers limited Vandy’s success on the ground, but just two weeks before that, Kentucky shredded Missouri’s run defense, not unlike last week when the Wildcats did the same thing to Tennessee. I expect some offensive fireworks, with Tennessee winning 38-28.