By Joe Vozzelli
Missouri may want to forget a few things from its 31-10 loss to South Carolina. The Tigers had a handful of missed tackles on defense and special teams.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel joked that his team missed 13 tackles on a Bruce Ellington 50-yard kickoff return late in the second quarter. The Tigers had just notched their first points of the game, a 22-yard Andrew Baggett field goal, before Ellington’s kickoff return. Ellington’s return set up an Ace Sanders’ 23-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Connor Shaw to give the Gamecocks a 21-3 halftime lead.
All kidding aside, Pinkel wasn’t too happy about Missouri’s coverage on special teams.
“Probably the most disappointing thing about our football game the other day was our kicking game and the field position consequences of it,” Pinkel said.
Pinkel was upset that Missouri’s woes on special teams gave South Carolina good field position. South Carolina started all four of its touchdown drives at midfield or in Missouri territory.
Special teams has been an issue for the Tigers all season.
Missouri ranks last in the Southeastern Conference in kickoff coverage and second to last in punt coverage. Sanders, the Gamecocks’ punt returner, averaged 17.7 yards on his six punt returns Saturday, including a 49-yard return in the second quarter.
On that return, the missed tackles again took their toll. Missouri defensive back Kip Edwards tried to rip the ball from Sanders’ grasp, instead of wrapping up the Gamecocks’ return man and bringing him to the ground. Sanders escaped from Edwards’ grasp before being tackled at Missouri 4-yard line. Two plays later, South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore plunged into the end zone on a two-yard rushing touchdown for the first points of the game.
Missouri defensive back E.J. Gaines said he’s fine with Edwards’ willingness to try to strip a returner of the ball, instead of going for a tackle. He said that’s the way Edwards plays the game.
Pinkel may not feel the same way about Edwards not taking the sure tackle over a possible fumble recovery.
He said it looked “ugly” to see that many missed tackles against South Carolina and that it didn’t “look like Missouri football.”
Many of Missouri’s players, including senior defensive lineman Brad Madison and linebacker Will Ebner, had a hard time explaining why the team struggled with missed tackles against South Carolina.
“I don’t really know how to describe it, other than a lack of focus and executing the fundamentals we’ve been taught from day one,” Ebner said.
Missouri also had mistakes from unlikely suspects on defense. Gaines, a first team All-Big 12 defensive back last season, was coming off one of his best games of Missouri’s early season against Arizona State. He had five tackles in the game against the Sun Devils.
Saturday’s game was a different story.
Late in the second quarter, Shaw lofted a high pass to Sanders, who caught the ball on his fingertips for a touchdown. On that play, Sanders was able to beat Gaines, who was covering the Gamecocks’ quick and shifty receiver in one-on-one coverage.
Gaines had a simple explanation for the play.
“He just beat me off the ball,” he said.
Pinkel likened the defensive back position to “an island,” meaning Gaines is forced to cover his man without any help from other players.
Gaines said he likes this aspect of the position but adds that getting beat can wear on a defensive back mentally.
“Anytime you get beat, it just floats in your head. That’s a thing you have to teach yourself: Let things go and just come back (after the game) to watch film and see what you did wrong,” he said.
Missouri (2-2) hopes to utilize this strategy to get ready for its next game. The Tigers have a road game against Central Florida (2-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday on Fox Sports Midwest.