COLUMBIA, Mo. – One 125th-ranked unit has to give as Missouri and West Virginia each look to put a pair of forgettable Week 1 statistical performances behind them at Missouri’s Faurot Field.
The Tigers (0-1) are No. 125 in the country in run defense following a 37-31 season-opening loss at Wyoming. The Cowboys gashed their way through Missouri’s defense for 297 yards and 7.1 yards per carry.
On the other side of the ball, the Mountaineers (1-0) proved to be Mizzou’s equal. West Virginia is No. 125 in the country in run offense after being limited to 34 yards and 1.4 yards per carry in a 20-13 win over FCS James Madison.
Both sides are eager to prove themselves better than those embarrassing stats.
“I think this week will be a big week for learning who we are,” said WVU left tackle Colton McKivitz. “We’re going to find out if we want to be a physical offensive line. That will be the main point this week. Having that edge up front.
“We’re a big offensive line. I think we can move people. But it’s going to take effort and a focus on technique to get vertical on those guys.”
Tigers coach Barry Odom knows his team will be dead on arrival in SEC play if it doesn’t figure out how to stop the run.
“In the league we play in, you have to run the ball and stop the run,” Odom said. “We’ve got ideas on how to get that fixed. Both sides will want the ability to run the ball in the game… The challenge is to get that resolved really quickly.”
Even if Missouri’s struggles to slow down opposing backs continue against West Virginia, the Tigers have enough talent on offense to work themselves out of most binds.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant, the Clemson graduate transfer, passed for 423 yards at Wyoming. Unfortunately for the Tigers, he also threw a goal-line interception and had a strip-sack returned 30 yards for a touchdown.
“He put our team in a position to win the game. He had two turnovers that were untimely,” Odom said. “It’s the first game he’s played in quite a long time. I’m sure glad he’s our quarterback.”
Bryant was a true dual-threat at Clemson, where he averaged 47.5 rushing yards per game in his one season as a starter. Wyoming bottled him up for 20 yards on 11 carries.
His top target is tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who makes it harder for opponents to cover him than to pronounce his name. Despite missing the final three games of last season to injury, Okwuegbunam was a finalist for the John Mackey Award. He had three receptions for 72 yards against Wyoming.
West Virginia coach Neal Brown expects both teams to come out with something to prove after their respective exposures in the run game.
“We should be hungry. We didn’t play well, but found a way to win. We’ve got a long way to go,” Brown said. “Missouri is not pleased… I expect them to be hungry. We’ve got to be that hungry or more so.”
Control the run: WVU won its opener despite averaging 1.4 yards per carry while Missouri lost its opener because it allowed 7.1 yards per carry. The team that best patches up its glaring weakness is likely to be the winner.
Turnover ratio: West Virginia might not have beaten James Madison if not for its domination in the turnover battle. WVU recovered two fumbles and Keith Washington made a key interception in JMU territory to set up a score. Missouri turned it over three times at Wyoming, with one leading directly to a Cowboy score and another costing the Tigers a potential touchdown. Mizzou has more talent than WVU, but it won’t matter if the Tigers make too many mistakes.
Albert Okwuegbunam: There’s not a player on West Virginia’s defense (or any defense) built to handle covering the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end who might be the NFL’s heir apparent to recently retired Rob Gronkowski. The Mountaineers have to find a way to make other Tigers beat them.