Tigers’ defense struggles in opener, Odom vows improvement will come

Despite a rough defensive showing in the season opener against Missouri State, Barry Odom remained calm.

Coach Barry Odom talks to Kendall Blanton on the bench in 2016 Maneater File Photo

Barry Odom didn’t appear worried at all when he stepped up to the podium after Missouri’s shaky 72-43 victory over Missouri State on Saturday. He opened with a joke about his non-existent hair, then touched on how he was impressed with the record-setting performance of starting quarterback Drew Lock. After, he discussed the improvement he had seen from his skill players over the offseason and said that it was important to see it carry over into actual games.

Finally, Odom got to the question that everyone had on their minds: the defense.

While Saturday saw Drew Lock and Missouri’s offense set three school records with its historic production, the accomplishments were ultimately dwarfed by the defense’s anemic performance in the first half.

No amount of discussion of the offense’s success could overshadow the sheer facts. In the first half of Saturday’s contest, missed tackles and blown coverages were a theme as Missouri’s defense allowed 380 total yards of offense, 230 of which came through the air, while allowing 35 points to a Missouri State offense that finished last in scoring offense in the Missouri Valley Conference last season.

The defensive embarrassment was epitomized on a single play that came with 5:32 remaining in the second quarter. On third and 24 from Missouri State’s own 11-yard line, Bears quarterback Peyton Huslig hit wide receiver Malik Earl on a slant route 18 yards down the field. Earl shook off two Missouri defenders in quick succession and turned up-field with only blockers and open field ahead of him as he strolled into the end zone for an 89-yard score.

Despite his calm demeanor at the podium, Odom did not sugarcoat the way the defense performed in the first half. He held himself accountable, stating that all the fingers pointed back to him.

“In the first half, I was trying to do a little too much, and they got us on some alignments early on,” Odom said.

To Missouri’s credit, the Tigers recouped in the second half, limiting the Bears to just 112 yards on offense and a single score after halftime as the team found more success in pass coverage. They allowed 123 passing yards, and in rushing the passer, disrupted Huslig’s game with two sacks and a number of hurries.

Redshirt junior Kaleb Prewett felt that the difference for the Tigers in the second half came down to returning to the basics and calming down. After the game, Prewett spoke on the idea that the young and inexperienced defense may have been trying to do too much early on.

“I think a lot of guys’ eyes were probably all over the place early,” Prewett said. “I feel like once guys’ eyes started calming down and reading the cues, that’s when things started going our way.”

Odom expressed a particular concern with his team’s tackling, a facet of the game where Missouri State exposed the Tigers in the first half. On the Bears’ three longest touchdowns, the 89-yarder, along with 75-yard and 34-yard rushing touchdowns, the Tigers were unable to wrap up runners.

“After what we had shown in fall camp, we’d done a lot of tackling drills,” Odom said. “I thought we were going to get a bit more carryover with that going into game one.”

While reinforcing his concerns, Odom remained confident about the state of the defense and his staff’s ability to make the necessary changes needed to improve. Even when pressed about how the defense might fare against stiffer competition such as South Carolina, whom the Tigers face next Saturday, the Tigers’ head coach remained certain.

“We gotta get fixed on that side [of the defense], and I’m pretty confident that that’s going to happen,” Odom said.

With an important conference test against South Carolina a week away, the time for improvement is small, and the margin for error even smaller. Missteps that the Tigers got away with against Missouri State will not fly against the Gamecocks, and Odom knows that. Still, he has faith in his defense.

“I look forward to going back to work, and I like the progress and the jump that we’re gonna make from week one to week two,” Odom said.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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