Missouri improved to 6-0 on Saturday with a 30-9 win against Texas A&M. Below, KBIA Sports Extra reporters Ross Taylor and JJ Stankevitz discuss the win and next week’s game against the Oklahoma Sooners.
JJ: The Tigers hadn’t played a game outside of the state of Missouri before Saturday’s game. Safe to say any fears about this team’s ability to win on the road are gone?
Ross: You know, when we were talking with the players at media day on Monday, it seemed like the players not only didn’t mind playing on the road, they actually enjoy it. There’s just a mindset some teams have when they go on the road that causes them to focus better and play a well-exectued, simplified game of football. Missouri did exactly that in College Station. All three facets of the game were strong for the majority of the day. We’ll get to the defense a little later on, but I have to ask, was this the best performance of Blaine Gabbert’s career?
JJ: There are a few other games in the conversation in terms of raw numbers, namely Illinois, Nevada, Baylor, Kansas State, and Iowa State from 2009. Out of those, Illinois, Nevada, and Kansas State stick out as his most impressive overall performances (although he was great against Baylor, something few people seem to remember). At the least, his performance Saturday against A&M is right up there, going 31/47 for 361 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. That it came in an incredibly hostile environment only adds to the impressiveness of Gabbert’s performance Saturday. But this wasn’t all Gabbert—how about the day Wes Kemp had?
Ross: This was actually something I had meant to address earlier in the week, as Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp really emerged for the first time against Colorado a week ago. We spoke with T.J. Moe on Monday, and he said that it’s really no surprise — those are the kinds of performances the players expect out of those guys. But, yes, Kemp was fantastic in College Station. He had 10 catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns (or three, if you include the one questionably overturned by replay. More importantly, we were able to see how Kemp’s presence can open up opportunities for others. Missouri established Kemp on the short routes early, and then later in the game, Gabbert had several big plays over the middle by pump faking to Kemp to draw in the defense. T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew have been fantastic this season, and if Kemp can draw defenders away from them, the Mizzou offense takes on another dimension. Speaking of Egnew, how about his performance on Saturday?
JJ: You know, we’re starting to see a lot of Martin Rucker in Michael Egnew. And it’s not just because they’re both tight ends who wore No. 82 for Mizzou. His ability to get into space and not go down without a fight is incredibly Rucker-esque, and we’re seeing that translate into some great numbers. With his 10 catches and 87 yards, he’s now at 49 catches for 437 yards halfway through the season. He only has caught three touchdowns, but it’s not like Mizzou’s offense hasn’t succeeded without him catching touchdowns. I think it was hyperbole to compare Egnew to Rucker earlier in the year during non-conference play, but his performance so far—including against A&M—has begun to move that comparison from hyperbole to reality. Switching gears to defense, a lot was made about Jerrod Johnson’s propensity to turn the ball over prior to the game. A lot of people believed that if Mizzou forced Johnson into turning the ball over they’d win easily. Mizzou’s defense didn’t do that, but it didn’t matter. How much does that speak to the success of the defensive unit, specifically, the secondary?
Ross: There isn’t a unit on the football team, and maybe in the conference or the country, that is more improved than the Missouri secondary. And the real beauty of what’s transpiring is the mutual trust in how it is unfolded. Dave Steckel has left his defensive backs isolated in man coverage far more frequently this season, especially on third down when he opts to bring the blitz. In previous years, Missouri would have sat in a soft zone to protect the corners. This year, Kevin Rutland, Carl Gettis and Kip Edwards have all been close to being “lockdown corners.” At one point against Texas A&M, Edwards — Missouri’s nickel back — was left alone in man coverage with no help against Jeff Fuller, the best receiver in Aggie history. Edwards absolutely blanketed Fuller and forced an incompletion. That moment alone was indicative of a tremendous amount of trust from Steckel, as he left his third cornerback alone with the opponent’s primary aerial threat with no help over top. But pass defense doesn’t occur in a vacuum — how about the pressure provided by the Missouri pass rush?
JJ: Aldon who? Mizzou’s pass rush did an outstanding job keeping Jerrod Johnson off balance for most of the game. Brad Madison was fantastic, registering three sacks while making A&M’s line look like tissue paper. Jacquies Smith didn’t have a great game opposite Madison—but he probably was the focus of A&M’s pass blocking game plan with Aldon Smith out. Terrell Resonno did a fine job as well, picking up one of the team’s seven sacks. Only Dominique Hamilton struggled on the line, mainly in being called for encroachment or offsides penalties multiple times. But you alluded to it—Mizzou’s outstanding play in the secondary wouldn’t have been possible without a great pass rush by Mizzou’s offensive line. So Mizzou has set itself up pretty well for next weekend’s Homecoming showdown with Oklahoma—does Saturday’s win against A&M change how confident you are in Mizzou’s chances against OU?
Ross: The Missouri team that showed up for the most of game in College Station can compete with every team in the Big 12. But what are the odds that Missouri team shows up? Gary Pinkel has the biggest week of coaching he’s had this year sitting ahead of him. Missouri will likely be built up and promoted nationally for the first time this season heading into the Oklahoma game. It’ll be his job to make sure the Tigers are just as focused for Oklahoma as they were for Texas A&M. And, oh yeah, Missouri fans won’t let Pinkel forget he’s never beaten Oklahoma or Texas. If nothing else, it’s going to be quite an interesting bit of build-up to homecoming at The Zou.