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  • After getting upset on the road at Wyoming in its opener, Missouri blew out West Virginia in Week 2 and showed off a still-growing offense under new QB Kelly Bryant.
By Joan Niesen
September 12, 2019

COLUMBIA, Mo. — In the second quarter of last Saturday’s Missouri game against West Virginia, the Tigers were leading, 17–0. It was a relatively comfortable margin, but barely more than the 14–0 lead Barry Odom’s team had blown the week before as heavy favorites at Wyoming. After that disastrous Week 1 performance—a 37–31 loss—Missouri was out to prove it deserved the excitement it had garnered when it signed Kelly Bryant in December.

So far that day, Bryant had thrown a touchdown pass to tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, and running back Larry Rountree had put another score on the board with a 10-yard run. Both players will be focal points in Missouri’s attack this fall—and both had been only tangentially involved against Wyoming a week earlier. After two weeks of football, Missouri still hopes to contend in the SEC East, and as it looks forward to conference play, it’s getting an idea of the shape its offense might take.

On what would turn out to be Missouri’s fourth scoring drive of the game’s first half, the Tigers drove the ball downfield with a succession of rushes. Once in West Virginia territory, Bryant picked up the biggest gain of the drive with a pass to tight end Daniel Parker, and on second down and 11, the quarterback looked to the end zone. Okwuegbunam was open, but West Virginia sent linebacker Josh Chandler to blitz Bryant. Unblocked, Chandler beelined for the quarterback, who for the second time Saturday sidestepped and avoided a sack. He then hit Okwuegbunam with a touchdown pass.

“That's huge, especially being a receiver or a tight end and just the confidence you have in his ability to extend plays,” Okwuegbunam said of his new quarterback. “The scramble drills are a big thing we hit out here, and as you can see, this season, it’s really coming into play.”

“[When Chandler blitzed], he just sized [the situation] up real quick and then stayed composed and threw me my touchdown,” the tight end continued. “Some quarterbacks will just throw it away or take the sack or whatever.”

It’s been more than a decade since Missouri fielded a true dual-threat quarterback. Brad Smith, a four-year starter for the Tigers, played in Columbia from 2002–05 and helped Gary Pinkel’s program break out in the Big 12. Since then, the team has had plenty of success at quarterback; Chase Daniel led the team to its one and only No. 1 ranking in 2007, Blaine Gabbert was a first-round pick in 2011, and Drew Lock, Bryant’s successor, went in the second round of the NFL draft last spring. All three were pro-style quarterbacks during their time with the Tigers, whereas Bryant is a callback to Smith, able to push the pocket, scramble and make plays with his legs. In fact, Bryant describes his strengths as "not only scrambling, but running and keeping my eyes downfield”—strengths that were plenty evident in Week 2 but somewhat absent in Week 1.

So what is Missouri’s offense? Rountree says that at its best, it looks a lot like what the Tigers did Saturday, when his unit racked up 31 points (the last Missouri score came on an interception) and the team won the turnover margin. The Tigers offense was balanced but skewed toward the run, and Okwuegbunam was a formidable red-zone target. The senior tight end, who received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board last winter, elected to return to school and play out his eligibility, knowing full well he’d have to get acclimated to a new quarterback for the first time in his college career. Add in the shoulder injury he suffered last fall that kept him out a spring ball and a strained knee that limited him this summer, and Okwuegbunam’s learning curve got even steeper. In an attempt to manufacture on-field chemistry from the sidelines, the tight end said he spent time this spring and summer talking Bryant through plays he’d just run as soon as he came off of the field, telling his quarterback what he’d seen or how he’d have run a route had he not been sidelined.

Still, the latter end of training camp and these first few games of the season have been a getting-to-know-you process for Bryant and the player who has a chance to be his most imposing target. And the rest of the team, too, even after months of practice, remains gobsmacked at times by the plays their quarterback can create. “Some of your most special plays are ones that are not designed,” Bryant said after Week 2. “They just come like second nature." That was plenty evident against West Virginia, when Bryant kept several plays alive with his feet. But more impressive, compared to his performance at Wyoming, was his timing and comfort in the offense; in his first game, Bryant threw one interception and didn’t seem to be on the same page as his receivers despite racking up 423 passing yards. (It certainly didn’t help that the Tigers had such a one-dimensional attack, racking up just 114 rushing yards and averaging 2.4 yards per carry.)

Okwuegbunam said Tuesday that he felt like the offense was getting on the same page, and after getting into the end zone twice, the tight end is hitting his stride just as Bryant has. Most of Okwuegbunam’s teammates are accustomed to what the 6’5”, 255-pound tight end can add to the passing game, but for Bryant, he’s still a bit of a novelty. The quarterback said he can compare Okwuegbunam to tight ends he’s played with before, but still, he’s “different.” At Wyoming, Bryant added, he was shocked when Okwuegbunam jumped over an opposing player. After the play, the quarterback pulled his tight end aside. “What are you doing?” he asked him jokingly. “You’re too big for that.”

"The biggest thing that I've seen is that he's a big guy that can move so fast,” Bryant said Tuesday. “He's a mismatch. So that's really good to have in your back pocket."

The Tigers begin SEC play against South Carolina in Week 4, and a win that day will go a long way toward their quest to win the East for the first time since 2014, when a lights-out defense powered the team to the conference championship game. Realistically, Missouri could be undefeated in SEC play when it faces Georgia on Nov. 9—but whether that game will mean anything remains to be seen. The Tigers are waiting on the result of their appeal to the NCAA, which banned the team from the postseason after a tutor admitted to helping players commit academic fraud.

In the meantime, though, Odom and his players can only take advantage of what they have: a dynamic running game, talented young receivers, an elite and massive tight end and a quarterback who took Clemson to the College Football Playoff two years ago. They’re impressive pieces, and they’re beginning to fit together.

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