Another year of playing Missouri and another year of not knowing exactly how good Missouri is.
Like in 2014, the Tigers play South Carolina coming off a head-scratching loss. Not as curious as last year, when Missouri somehow lost at home to Indiana. This time, the Tigers were beaten 21-13 at Kentucky, which USC can understand: The Wildcats bopped the Gamecocks 26-22 two weeks ago.
Preparing for this one seems to be to concentrating on what USC does best and not worry about the other team. As usual, there’s no telling what will show up when Missouri takes the field Saturday.
“Your gut should be hurting now, and all the guys in that locker room (are),” coach Gary Pinkel said after the Kentucky game. “I also told our football team, ‘This will not define us.’”
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If the season sticks to script, Missouri won’t be fazed by the Kentucky loss. In each of the past two years, the Tigers have overcome a stunning defeat to win the SEC East. Two years ago, the undefeated and fifth-ranked Tigers lost at home in double overtime to the Gamecocks after squandering a 17-0 fourth-quarter lead. Last year, the Indiana loss and a 34-0 home whipping from Georgia still didn’t deny Missouri a trip to Atlanta.
USC can’t take any game for granted, with its offense heavily relying on a freshman quarterback who will start his first road game and a defense that can’t stop a slant. But what will the Gamecocks face?
A team that felt disrespected with the Georgia and Tennessee hype in the preseason but hasn’t lived up to its declarations.
“My job is to win football games, whether it’s sloppy or not,” quarterback Maty Mauk said at SEC Media Days. “We’re back-to-back SEC East champs and we’re coming for a third.”
Mauk, a third-year starter, has struggled, throwing four interceptions to six touchdowns and completing a mere 51.8 percent of his throws. The Tigers’ offense is ranked No. 119 out of 127 as injuries have sliced the roster.
Tailback (and 1,000-yard rusher in 2014) Russell Hansbrough is fighting a sprained ankle. Tight end Sean Culkin left the Kentucky game with a sprained right knee and right tackle Nate Crawford sprained his ankle. The Tigers have been plodding offensively for three straight games – they barely won at Arkansas State, 27-20, and sleepwalked through a 9-6 home win over Connecticut.
“We killed ourselves,” Mauk said after Kentucky. “I take responsibility. I got to find a guy and get in the end zone.”
Missouri has to be eyeing the Gamecocks as a chance to re-stake their claim for the East, since USC’s defense improved last week but still had problems defending short passes. If the Tigers can exploit that, they can turn to their bread and butter from the last few seasons – a ferociously good defense.
Missouri is again stocked with playmakers in the front seven, linebacker Kentrell Brothers leading the country with 52 total tackles and defensive end Charles Harris tied for the national lead with 9.5 tackles for loss. The Tigers are ranked seventh in the country in total defense.
Brothers left the Kentucky game with a sprained ankle and safety Ian Simon sustained a head injury, so the Tigers may not be at full strength. Missouri’s game plan doubtless will be to try to pressure Lorenzo Nunez as much as possible.
Missouri doesn’t look foreboding on paper, but the Tigers are relying on their last two seasons. They didn’t appear that daunting until gameday arrived.
The USC, Indiana and Georgia losses in 2013 and 2014 were the only regular-season losses Missouri had.
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