By Jacob Bogage, Aaron Reiss and Michael Mandell
COLUMBIA — No. 24 Missouri won its season opener against Southeast Missouri State on Saturday, defeating the Redhawks 34-3.
The top-25 polls, which typically release on Sundays, will come out Tuesday this week because games are scheduled on Labor Day.
The Tigers (1-0) will likely remain in the field.
In their first game, they were solid on defense, but the offense struggled without Russell Hansbrough and Evan Boehm for much of the game. Here’s what we saw in the first complete glimpse of the Tigers.
1. Missouri’s wide receivers carried the offense.
A common thought during the preseason was that Missouri would have a receiving problem.
Tigers pass-catchers accumulated 319 yards receiving against Southeast Missouri.
Four Missouri players — Keyon Dilosa, DeSean Blair, Thomas Richard and Emanuel Hall — caught the first passes of their careers. They combined for 59 yards on six catches.
Nate Brown, who led Missouri with five career catches going into the season, and J’Mon Moore each had three catches and a touchdown. After his score, Brown pushed an opponent in the helmet — showing swagger and eliciting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“There’s a lot of mistakes out there, route adjustments and things like that,” coach Gary Pinkel said of his receivers’ performance. “We got to minimize the adjustments. That might help. … I think a lot of those guys were scared to death.”
2. The Tigers can be aggressive in the secondary.
Missouri came out in a 4-3 defense Saturday, but also showed some 3-4 looks — and some aggressive tendencies in the secondary.
Missouri’s defensive backs played a bit closer to the line of scrimmage than they did under previous defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, and cornerbacks sometimes charged forward on blitzes. The first of such blitzes happened in the first half, when cornerback Kenya Dennis rushed Southeast Missouri State quarterback Tay Bender unblocked for an easy sack.
Back in August, Dennis said he hoped to get some chances at sacks under new defensive coordinator Barry Odom. If Saturday was any indicator, Dennis will get to fulfill a pass-rushing role.
The Tigers didn’t sacrifice much in pass defense by being more aggressive in the secondary. They held Southeast Missouri State to a puny 56 passing yards.
3. Missouri’s return game still has issues to sort out.
The box score shows that Aarion Penton scored a touchdown Saturday, but that doesn’t really tell the full story.
Penton was subpar in the return game. The junior from St. Louis let several returnable punts get downed deep in Missouri’s own territory, and he had trouble fielding kicks — one of which nearly led to points for Southeast Missouri State toward the end of the second half; he muffed a catch and barely got back on top of it.
Penton acknowledged that he has to improve in the return game, which is in flux with former All-American returner Marcus Murphy now in the NFL.
“I felt like I was just rushing it a little bit,” Penton said. “I’ve just got to trust my teammates and hold that extra second to make sure I actually catch the ball.”
Penton’s touchdown came on a blocked punt by Kentrell Brothers.
4. The run game could struggle outside of Hansbrough.
The questions that loom large after Week 1 center around Missouri’s running game, specifically, about who will carry the ball in week two and who will make the running lanes.
Both tailback Russell Hansbrough and center Evan Boehm left the game with right ankle sprains.
Sophomore tailback Ish Witter replaced Hansbrough and ran for a team-high 33 yards. Sophomore left guard Alec Abeln slid over to center to replace Boehm. Senior Taylor Chappell stepped in at left guard.
Missouri coaches and players expect both Hansbrough and Boehm to return for the next game, but also aren’t fazed by their potential absences.
“We have an army of backs that can run the ball,” said senior left tackle Connor McGovern.
Senior Tyler Hunt ran for 20 yards on four carries. Junior Morgan Steward ran for 14 yards on five carries.
5. Missouri’s next opponent could also struggle on offense.
How did Arkansas State do Saturday? The short answer: not well. The Red Wolves, Missouri’s next opponent, fell at No. 8 Southern California 55-6. USC quarterback Cody Kessler threw for 236 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Tre Madden carried 12 times for 106 yards and a score.
The Trojans (1-0) scored two touchdowns in every quarter.
ASU quarterback Fredi Knighten threw for 86 yards on 8-of-23 passing and was intercepted twice. The Red Wolves (0-1) turned the ball over four times.
Missouri is scheduled to play Arkansas State Saturday at 6 p.m. in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.