Aggies’ dynamic air attack will test Mizzou’s makeshift secondary

Mizzou's defense has five interceptions and hasn't given up more than 200 yards passing in any of its last four games. 

Denny Medley/Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri couldn’t have picked a worse week to be without two of its starters in the secondary.

Coach Gary Pinkel and the Tigers aren’t expecting any sympathy on the road against a dynamic Texas A&M offense, fresh off of a 41-38 upset at No. 3 Auburn in which true freshman Kyle Allen threw for 277 yards and four touchdowns. Despite dismal performances in a 59-0 loss at Alabama and a far-too-close 21-16 win over Louisiana-Monroe, the Aggies still lead the SEC by a considerable margin with nearly 330 passing yards per game.

"I think we know going into this game that they’re pretty potent across the board," Mizzou defensive backs coach Cornell Ford says. "Any time you lose a defensive back, you’re always kind of — I wouldn’t say worried about things, but you’re always cognizant of what’s going on out there and what could go on out there."

That won’t change the game plan against Texas A&M, which Ford says should feature plenty of different looks with zone and man coverage. It’s more about containing the Aggies’ quarterbacks than stopping them. 

Senior safety Braylon Webb will return in the second half after serving his suspension from a controversial targeting call in the Tigers’ 24-14 win over Kentucky, but it’s not clear if cornerback Aarion Penton will wear a Mizzou jersey again this season, if ever. Pinkel suspended the sophomore late last week for "disciplinary reasons" following his arrest on suspicion of possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana last Friday.

That leaves safety Cortland Browning and cornerback John Gibson set to step into the lineup as the Tigers look to stay one game ahead of Georgia in the SEC East title race. It won’t be an easy transition in a loud, pressure-packed atmosphere at Kyle Field, but Mizzou’s other starters are quick to point out their teammates have been here before.

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"I have extreme faith in the guys coming in because we’ve got playmakers across the board," says free safety Ian Simon. "I know everybody out there may not see it every single Saturday, but there are a lot of guys that can cover in our secondary."

Gibson even started three games in nonconference play before Kenya Dennis took his spot for good, and Browning has seen action in eight of nine games. They’re a small part of the reason Mizzou’s defense has five interceptions and hasn’t given up more than 200 yards passing in any of its last four games, but Texas A&M will provide a considerably tougher challenge.

Quarterback Kenny Hill will return from a two-game suspension, but Pinkel says the Tigers also are preparing for Allen, who figures to start his third straight game. The former No. 1 recruit may not have the speed and running ability of Hill or last year’s star, Johnny Manziel, but his performance against Auburn showed off an impressive arm.

Allen averaged nearly 10 yards per pass, but Pinkel and Ford both say that doesn’t mean the Aggies are consistently burning opponents deep. Instead, their talented receivers are often making moves and breaking tackles to turn bubble screens and hitch routes into huge plays.

"They’re very unique," Pinkel says. "They’ve got a lot of different things that they do. It’s a very good system and no matter who the quarterback is, they run their plays."

That led to 511 yards passing for Hill in a 52-28 rout of South Carolina to open the season, and he threw for more than 360 yards to go along with a combined 10 touchdowns in consecutive games against Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Allen hasn’t put up those kinds of numbers yet, but it figures to be only a matter of time, and Ford notes A&M changed its offense considerably for the freshman’s debut against Louisiana-Monroe.

Sophomore Josh Reynolds leads a dynamic receiving corps with 40 catches for 621 yards and 10 touchdowns, including two last week at Auburn. Six different Aggies have caught at least 26 passes this season, a number only senior Bud Sasser has reached for Mizzou’s struggling, injury-plagued batch of wideouts. 

"I’d equate them with some of the Kentucky wide receivers as far as being able to break tackles and just make big plays," Simon says. "So it’s going to be big on us in the secondary to limit those, make sure they’re tackled as soon as they catch the ball."

The Tigers did that well against the Wildcats, and this secondary has shown significant improvement over the past month thanks to the growth of players like Dennis, who broke up four passes against Kentucky. Pinkel says it’s up to the more experienced players to step up and help the new starters, something Simon says he’ll be motivated to do in the absence of Webb, the group’s unquestioned leader and top tackler.

But for Missouri to have any chance to contain an offense as explosive as Texas A&M, the defensive line must continue to disrupt things up front. The Tigers have recorded 11 sacks during their current three-game win streak, and will face an A&M offensive line that ranks 11th in the SEC with 19 sacks allowed. The ability of defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden to bother Allen could be the difference in the game.

"You try to contain (A&M’s passing game)," Pinkel says. "You do it with pass rush, you do it with coverage. It’s difficult. We know that it is. If I had the answers, we’d do it all the time."

Mizzou has overcome plenty of obstacles on its way to an improbable eight-game road win streak that dates back to a 59-29 loss at Texas A&M in November 2012. Surviving with a weakened secondary against the SEC’s best passing attack may be the toughest task yet.

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