AN OPPOSING VIEW
ATHENS — He’s back!
After a one-year hiatus because — never mind, it doesn’t matter — St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter/columnist/writer extraordainaire Dave Matter (see what I did there?) is back to school us on Missouri and give us an opposing view on the Georgia Bulldogs’ matchup against the Tigers. Matter has been answering this call for the AJC and DawgNation since the Bulldogs ventured into Columbia, Mo., for the first time in 2012.
Remember that little excursion? That was the infamous “Old Man Football” game. Missouri was making its debut as an SEC team and its heralded defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson told reporters — Matter among them, of course — that Georgia played “old man football” because of its antiquated run-oriented offense and play-action-based passing game.
After the Bulldogs’ put the finishing touches on what would be a 41-20 road victory, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and linebacker Christian Robinson held up a white board with a scribbled inscription that would become that team’s catchphrase that season: “Grown Man Football.”
Matter called that game right, and we’ll find out soon enough how well he calls this year’s matchup in Columbia, which features the 3-0 and unranked Missouri Tigers against your No. 2-ranked and undefeated Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0 SEC) in what will be the SEC opener for the home team.
If you’ve been around DawgNation, you already know that Matter has covered the Tigers for a while now for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He’s also a Missouri grad who covered the team for the school newspaper and then the Columbia Tribune after that. So he knows a thing or two about Mizzou football.
As usual, I sent five questions Matter’s way and he sent them back via email. Here’s what arrived in my inbox:
The View: What was your perspective on exactly what happened for Barry Odom last season to execute that incredible turnaround?
Matter: A couple factors. One, he got his defense figured out. After firing defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross two weeks into the season, Odom started leaning on some younger players at certain spots, made a few position changes and put together some third-down packages that got the most of his mix of young and inexperienced talent. The defense played much better during the winning streak. Maybe more important, he never lost the locker room. Players didn’t lose faith in the culture he was trying to build, even after losing five straight games. They knew the schedule lightened up in the second half and that would allow some players to develop some confidence.
After playing at Georgia, also Mizzou took advantage of an easier schedule. But, to the team’s credit, its first five wins during the streak weren’t even competitive. They demolished teams, several of which were unraveling and either going through a coaching change or headed toward one — Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas. Mizzou took advantage.
The View: All we’re hearing over here Drew Lock is folks drooling over his incredible arm and his “ability to make all throws.” What’s your best anecdote on Lock and are there any chinks in this kid’s armor?
Matter: In his very first practice during his first preseason camp back in 2015 Lock put on a show with the throws he was making. Media and coaches left their jaws on the practice field watching him unload passes all over the place. Trouble was, he had no idea how to play quarterback at this level — and he’d have to play much sooner than anyone expected once the incumbent starter got suspended for the rest of the season. Lock appeared to stay confident, but he was a mess internally. He took a beating against Florida and it left him broken mentally and physically.
He’s come a long way in three years. He carries himself with authentic confidence — he had to fake it his first couple years — and he seems to genuinely enjoy the spotlight and the pressure he’s earned as a highly touted QB in this league.
The View: Wide receiver Emmanuel Hall, has anybody ever actually covered him? Please expound on this incredible wideout.
Matter: Wyoming got caught trying to cover him one-on-one with a 240-pound linebacker. Bad move. He’s not just fast but he knows how to get open and has a knack for catching deep balls, even when contested. In MU’s new offense he does more than just run post patterns and go routes, but he can still take the top off any defense as a deep threat. He’s always been able to burn press coverage by slipping past the initial defender, but now if teams give him a soft cushion, he’s comfortable running slants and other underneath routes in traffic. He’s nursing a sore groin that limited him last week, but if he regains his top speed, he’ll be a match-up problem for most defenders. That should be a good matchup with Deandre Baker if they’re on the same side of the field.
The View: What’s up with all those yards the Mizzou’s defense gave up to Purdue, particularly through the air?
Matter: The coverage at the linebacker level and in the secondary wasn’t nearly good enough, but the pass rush deserves blame, too, maybe even more than the secondary. Mizzou doesn’t have that proven rusher off the edge that it’s seemingly had for more than a decade. Purdue’s David Blough was sacked just once and barely touched otherwise. Even when Mizzou blitzed a linebacker or two he had all day to scan through his progressions. Mizzou was missing its best corner, DeMarkus Acy, who suffered a concussion on the first play of the game. But that doesn’t excuse 572 passing yards. The defense really struggled against slot receivers and tight ends. The underneath zone coverage by the linebackers was spotty. Even though Purdue wasn’t running the ball, defenders consistently got fooled on play-action, leading to some huge passes downfield. Just a bad performance all around.
The View: What has been the impact of Athens’ favorite son, Derek Dooley, as the Tigers’ new offensive coordinator?
Matter: So far, so good. The offensive players seem to genuinely like playing for him. He’s demanding. He’ll light into players in practice if they’re not playing to his standard. But they seem to enjoy his personality and wit. He’s installed more of a pro-style offense that requires receivers to run a more comprehensive route tree compared to what they ran the last two years under Josh Heupel. Lock really enjoys the system and believes it will make the offense more competitive against teams with elite talent.
Compared to the Heupel offense, Lock has more traditional full-field passing reads with a full progression of options instead of just having to read half the field. Dooley has long been associated with productive tight ends and downhill running attacks and both are staples of his current system. The defense probably appreciates him, too. Mizzou was last and second-to-last nationally the last two years in time of possession. Now the offense works at more of a deliberate pace and through three weeks ranks No. 22 nationally.
MATTER’S GAME PREDICTION: Missouri has the quarterback and the weapons to keep this game competitive for at least three quarters. Neither team has generated much of a pass rush, but I trust Georgia’s defense more than Missouri’s at this point. Georgia wins 37-27.