ATHENS, Ga. — Well, it looks like Missouri might’ve worked out its offensive woes.
Granted, it’s a small sample size two games into the season, but the Tigers’ offensive work so far already towers over everything they did in 2015 and really the past couple of seasons.
Last year, Missouri averaged just 13.6 points per game, by far the worst in the SEC and half the league’s average. Georgia beat the Tigers 9-6 last October in Sanford Stadium.
The Tigers scored 61 points and threw the ball all over Faurot Field on Saturday against Eastern Michigan. But even with the caveat of that work coming against one of the worst teams in all of FBS, there is the evidence offered the previous week. Although the Tigers managed just 11 points in a loss to West Virginia in Morgantown on Sept. 3, a closer look reveals they ran 100 offensive plays, rolled up 462 yards and logged 24 first downs in that contest. Mizzou simply was undone by three turnovers — two fumbles and an interception — and some other missteps.
“If you have 100 snaps, you’re doing something right,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “They had three or four turnovers, struggled in the red area, and West Virginia has a very unorthodox defense, so it’s very different to play against. But they’re a very good offense.”
Thanks to sophomore quarterback Drew Lock and first-year offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, Missouri looks more like the team everybody expected when it entered the conference from the Big 12 in 2012. At that time, Gary Pinkel’s teams were using the spread to throw the football all over the yard. But SEC defenses quickly slowed the Tigers’ roll, and the past few years they’ve finished at or near the bottom of the conference in total offense.
It doesn’t look like that trend will continue in 2016. In two games this season, Lock and the Missouri quarterbacks have completed passes to 14 receivers. Lock threw to 10 in the Eastern Michigan game, including five players for five touchdowns and 450 yards passing overall. The Tigers currently lead the conference in passing (379.5 ypg) and are second in total offense (554.5)
“They’ve got really good wideouts, really good skill,” Smart said. “I think their quarterback throws one of the best deep balls I’ve seen in a long time. He has great touch and throws a really good deep ball. They are an explosive offense.”
Said Georgia safety Dominick Sanders: “The quarterback has an arm. He sees his targets, and he’s not scared to take shots down the field. So, as a secondary guy and as a leader, I have to do my thing of keeping my guys focused and letting them know that the ball will be in the air. And we need to try to get turnovers for the offense.”
The good news for the Bulldogs, so far at least, is they appear to be a defense adept at defending the pass. It’s well-documented that Georgia led the nation in pass defense a year ago, allowing just 144 yards per game and giving up an SEC low nine passing TDs. At least some of that success was discounted because of the Bulldogs’ competition. Georgia faced a lot of run-oriented and/or offensively inept teams in 2015, including option-oriented opponents Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech and the SEC’s four worst offensive teams: Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and, of course, Missouri.
Georgia has picked up where it left off last season, giving up just 133.5 yards passing.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have performed pretty poorly against Georgia the past couple of years. They haven’t scored a touchdown against the Bulldogs since 2013, losing 9-6 last year in Athens and 34-0 the last time UGA visited Faurot Field.
But the Tigers feel like they may have a bit of a salve for these Kirby-style defenses in their new offensive coordinator. Heupel, a former All-American quarterback at Oklahoma, was the Sooners’ co-offensive coordinator when they faced Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. They rolled up 429 yards of offense — including 348 passing — in the 45-31 upset win over the No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide.
Missouri players have referenced watching that game during film study with Heupel this week in Columbia, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Of course, that came at a time when the spread and quick-tempo offenses seemed to be an Achilles’ heel for Smart’s typically stout Bama defenses. But Smart has worked overtime in the years since at concocting a remedy for that issue. And there is evidence he has found a cure for it.
Bama’s high-scoring win over Clemson in the national championship game in January notwithstanding, Smart’s defenses have done an overall better job at defending fast-paced spread teams in recent years. And that has extended into this season at Georgia.
The Bulldogs faced a similar attack from North Carolina in the season opener in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome. The Tar Heels managed just 315 yards overall and 156 passing and did not score a touchdown through the air as Georgia scored a 33-24 victory.
“We got challenged against North Carolina, and we didn’t necessarily do real well,” Smart said. “There were several balls they missed. But we were challenged. They had some big receivers, big wideouts and some matchup issues. It’ll be the same way this week. We’ve got matchup issues with height at several positions. We know that. Our kids have got to play well.”
Georgia’s DBs know that.
“What I’ve seen so far through the two games they’ve played is I’ve seen a great quarterback (with) great weapons around him,” senior safety Quincy Mauger said. “We have to be very disciplined from the front to the back end. Any slip-ups could be very detrimental. That all starts in the film room.”