Nobody is kicking sand in the faces of Mizzou’s O-linemen anymore

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Eventually, the taste of sand kicked into your
teeth gets pretty old, pretty damn quick. Like the rest of his Missouri
linemates, Mitch Morse didn’t sign up for this gig to play the part of
Mac, the 98-pound weakling from those old Charles Atlas bodybuilding
advertisements.
 
“We set very high goals for ourselves this
off-season, not only with weightlifting, but as the kind of unit we want
to be,” says Morse, the Tigers’ right tackle. “We got in the off-season
and we put on the blackboard, ‘At the end of the season, what do we
want people to say about this unit?'”
 
1. Be physical.
 
2. No excuses.
 

“(We wanted them to) say that, ‘When the tough got going, these guys put it on their backs and went for it,'” Morse says.
 
Fast
forward a few months, and look at the Tigers now — 6-0, knocking on
the door of the Top 10, and one of the biggest bullies at the
Southeastern Conference’s little beach party. According to numbers
crunched on the website FootballOutsiders.com, the Tigers rank ninth in
all of the Football Bowl Subdivision in “value drives” — drives that
begin on a team’s own side of the field and reach at least the
opposition’s 30-yard line (57.4 percent) — and rank 30th in first-down
rate (73.2), the percentage of drives that include at least one first
down or a touchdown.
 
Mizzou has converted 51.9 percent of its
third-down chances, good for 10th in the nation, after hitting on just a
33.3 percent clip last fall. The Tigers’ 164 first downs are 11th in
the country and second in the SEC to Texas A&M. Yes, runner Henry
Josey is back as a complement to Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy,
and that’s huge. Sure, James Franklin had been playing some of the best
quarterback of his life until suffering a shoulder injury in the fourth
quarter against Georgia last weekend.
 
But the wind beneath the
Tigers’ wings starts up front, in the trenches, with the offensive line.
A unit that was sick and tired of being told it wasn’t ready to bang
with the big boys in the SEC, that lush field where future NFL defensive
linemen graze until the big bucks come calling.
 
“Oh, they take
that to heart, man,” Mizzou wideout Bud Sasser says. “And it was great
to see them take it that way. Because, you know, they worked their tails
off all summer, all camp, and just to come out there and prove to the
people that they’re not slouches. And they’re playing very well.”
 
1. Be physical.
 
2. No excuses.

 
The
safest pockets, by and large, are marked by continuity; nothing throws a
spanner in the works quite like revolving personnel. Injuries wreaked
havoc on the Tigers’ crop of linemen a year ago — left tackle Justin
Britt missed the final three games of 2012 because of knee issues; Morse
was at center and got hurt, forcing Brad McNulty to move over for a
spell, becoming the fifth different man to start at that position for
Mizzou over a two-year span.
 
Over the summer, the Tigers
returned 61 career starts up front, 10th fewest out of 14 programs in
the SEC and 70th in the FBS. But familiarity has provided comfort and
stability again: Britt, center Evan Boehm, right guard Connor McGovern
and Morse have each started all six contests together in tandem; left
guard Max Copeland, four of the six. One unit. One heartbeat.
 
“Our
main thing is, we’re not the same offensive line as what we were last
year,” Boehm says. “That’s something that we’re out to prove each and
every week.
 
“This year, we’re going out there with more
confidence and with more poise and we’re going out there and giving our
best each and every time, and not worried about anything. We’re not
worried about the last play. We’re focused on this play, and going out
and having fun and delivering our best and getting our fundamentals and
our technique down to perfection (to the point) where we can win.
 
“Because
when we watch film against Georgia, we were really kind of drawn back,
like, ‘Wow, that was me last year? I really played like that last
year?'”
 
Ah, yes. Georgia. In the Tigers’ SEC debut last
September, the Bulldogs welcomed them to the club with a physical
mauling, wearing them down in Columbia and outscoring Mizzou 17-0 in the
fourth quarter of a 41-20 defeat. Mizzou ran for just 102 yards, gained
2.6 per carry, and held the ball for just 27:37.
 
But the
rematch in Athens last weekend flipped the script, as Mizzou ran for 142
yards on 37 attempts — 3.8 per carry — and held the ball for 30:37.
More important, the Tigers finished what they started, outscoring the
hosts 13-6 over the final period en route to their first road win over a
Top 10 opponent since 1981.
 
“I don’t like to say that we got a
‘taste of it’ last year, and ‘Oh, this is what we’ve got to do.’ We knew
what was ahead of us,” Morse says. “But this year, we had a whole
off-season of preparing (for) what kind of physical football team we
were going to be, and how we’ve got to play. And it’s definitely nice to
have a year under our belt. We got accustomed to the environment last
year, and that’s definitely helped us out.”
 
1. Be physical.
 
2. No excuses.

 
“Oh,
man,” Boehm sighs. “(In 2012), this happened and this happened, and
you’re worried about this and you’re worried about that. And this year,
we’re really making a big emphasis on just going out there and just
having fun. And just delivering your best. That’s one of the special
things we’re really doing this year. Coach always says, ‘If you deliver
your best, it will be good enough.'”
 
So far, it’s been a hell of a lot more than that.
 
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.