Georgia set to give Mizzou’s patchwork O-line another stiff test

Maty Mauk's offensive line will need to hold its ground against a talented Georgia defense on Saturday. 

Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Like most coaches, Missouri’s Gary Pinkel doesn’t like to risk disrupting the chemistry of his offensive line unless changes are clearly needed.

It didn’t take any film study to know that was the case after a disastrous performance in last month’s 31-27 home loss to Indiana, which included a season-ending injury to left guard Anthony Gatti. The next week at South Carolina, the Tigers put in two new starters and moved Connor McGovern from right tackle to right guard in a come-from-behind, 21-20 win.

"Overall, I think we performed well," Pinkel said during his press conference Monday. "Their defensive front is very, very strong. They’re strong inside, they’ve got speed rush guys like we have on the outside, which can create a lot of problems."

The five big men up front were all good enough to retain their spots headed into another stiff challenge this week against Georgia, and an off week figures to have helped make their bond significantly stronger. Center Evan Boehm says the unit had two great practices over the weekend, and it’s eager to show its progress against the Bulldogs.

Extra time to rest and prepare should be especially useful for redshirt junior Taylor Chappell, who hadn’t played a full game since high school prior to the trip to South Carolina. Considering the atmosphere in front of more than 80,000 hostile fans, Pinkel and Chappell’s teammates came away impressed.

"I think he played phenomenally," said senior left tackle Mitch Morse. "He really showed poise. He was nervous. We fed off each other and he really showed out that game and I was really proud of him."

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The Tigers appeared to play better in the trenches than they had against Indiana, but the offense as a whole found considerably less success against a South Carolina defense that had given up big chunks of yardage to Georgia and Texas A&M. Missouri went three-and-out on six of its 14 possessions while struggling especially in the passing game.

Some of that can be blamed on the absence of senior wide receivers Darius White and Jimmie Hunt, who were replaced by a group of unproven underclassmen. Pinkel says both have a "more than 50 percent chance" to play Saturday; their return would provide a significant boost to quarterback Maty Mauk and his offensive line.

Boehm says communication has been the key to the line’s ability to mesh quickly, and they’ll need it to stop Georgia’s impressive linebacking corps, which boasts four of its top five tacklers and a combined nine sacks in five games. Mauk’s mobility should help as well, even if Morse and Chappell never really know when and where their quarterback might go on his scrambles.

"That’s why we just block until the whistle goes," Morse says. "I think that really showed in the first three games. If we had stayed on our guys longer, the play would progress."

Mizzou’s running backs are a different story, and Chappell has confidence they’ll find the holes when available. Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough have combined for 770 yards, including 141 yards and three touchdowns at South Carolina.

The push up front looked significantly better than it did against Indiana, when Hansbrough’s runs of 42 and 68 yards accounted for nearly two-thirds of Missouri’s running attack. But consistency remains a concern for an offense that has had trouble sustaining drives sometimes this season.

"We’ve just got to keep finishing blocks," Chappell says. "That’s been our big issue this year. We’ll be on the right guy, but we’re just not getting that extra little push that breaks that hole open from a four-yard gain to a 15- or 20-yard gain."

The numbers backed him up at South Carolina, where five of the 23 carries for Hansbrough and Murphy went for 15 yards or more, compared to just two for between six and 14 yards. Those are the runs needed to tire out an opposing defense and take some pressure off Mauk, as well as open up a dangerous deep passing game.

Morse says the Tigers are "on the cusp of greatness" in the running game, and all signs point to the offensive line taking a big step forward prior to this Saturday’s matchup with Georgia. Whether that improvement translates to a strong performance against the best front seven Mizzou has seen all season could go a long way in determining the game’s outcome.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.