Who has the edge? Part II
CHEYENNE – People like to say that the game of football is
not played on paper.
They are right. But it’s still fun to look.
Today, we will breakdown the defenses of the Missouri Tigers
and Wyoming Cowboys. The two squads will meet Saturday in the 2019 season
opener at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.
So, who has the edge on defense?
Let’s break it down real quick.
The depth chart says Missouri is returning only two starters from a season ago, but they call it a “depth” chart for a reason. Akial Byers and Chris Turner will be the veterans of the front four, but names like Jordan Elliott, a 6-foot, 4-inch, 315-pound Texas transfer at defensive tackle, Kobie Whiteside and Jatorian Hansford have plenty of big-game experience. Mizzou’s pass rush was not as dominant last season as it has been in recent memory. As a unit, they racked up just 27 sacks. Terez Hall led the team with five. The starting four – Turner, Elliott, Whiteside and Byers – tallied just six all season. However, they gave up just 3.7 yards per rushing attempts (126 yards per game) and recorded 15 tackles for loss.
Graduation and a big transfer/ suspension leaves Wyoming’s defensive line with just a single starter from a year ago in junior defensive end, Garrett Crall. The 6-foot, 5-inch, 242-pounder from Ohio finished 2018 with 4.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. As if the Cowboys weren’t inexperienced enough on the defensive line, Ravontae Holt and his 31 stops from the tackle position went down with an ACL injury in fall camp. Craig Bohl and Co. will lean on senior Josiah Hall to help Crall with a pass rush and Mario Mora and Javaree Jackson to plug up the middle. Those three combined for just 20 tackles and 16 games played last season. More redshirted.
Missouri runs the same 4-2-5 defense as the Cowboys. And the leader of the Tigers, like Wyoming, also resides at middle linebacker. Senior Cale Garrett is on all the preseason award lists just like his UW counterpart (we will get to him in a minute) and finished the 2018 campaign with a team-leading 112 tackles and 6.5 of which came behind the line of scrimmage. Garrett was first-team All-SEC last season. Likely, a four-game stretch of double-digit tackles against Alabama, Memphis, Kentucky and Florida cemented that honor. Sophomore Nick Bolton will take over at the WILL linebacker spot. Last season, Bolton played in all of Mizzou’s games as a true freshman. He finished with 22 tackles and was a spark plug on special teams coverage.
Wyoming has a stud of its own returning in 2019 in Logan Wilson. The Casper product is ranked second among all active players in FBS with 316 career tackles. In 2018, Wilson had 103 tackles, 11 for loss and tied the squad lead with two interceptions. Six times last season Wilson finished with double digits in tackles for the 19th-ranked defense in the nation. The Cowboys also return Cassh Maluia at the outside linebacker position. The senior finished 2018 with 47 tackles, including six for loss. He also picked off a pass and deflected three more. Ben Wisdorf and Chad Muma will also see action this season.
Christian Holmes and DeMarkus Acy return with plenty of experience – and speed – at the two corner positions for the Tigers this season. Holmes led Mizzou with 12 pass breakups and registered 36 tackles. He also picked off a pair of passes, including a pick-six in a win over Memphis. This all came after missing the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury. Acy is the ace of the defensive backfield, intercepting a team-high three passes – two in a blowout win over Tennessee -- while also recording 10 pass breakups. He also added 30 tackles, which made him an easy selection for second-team All-SEC. Backups, Jarvis Ware and Adam Sparks, added 44 tackles and an interception in a limited role in 2018.
Wyoming also returns a pair of starters from last season in Tyler Hall and Antonio Hull. Hall, a 5-foot, 10-inch, 190-pound corner from California isn’t afraid to hit guys in the mouth. He tallied 39 tackles, 28 of the solo variety, while also knocking down nine passes and picking off a pass in the season finale at New Mexico. Hall also forced a fumble and picked up 2.5 tackles for loss. Hull can lay the wood, too. In 2018, he made 44 tackles, which included 30 solo stops. He added a pair of interceptions and batted down eight passes while also forcing and recovering a fumble. Wyoming’s pass defense allowed less than 200 yards per game and less than six yards per attempt. Arizona transfer, Azizi Hearn, and Esaias Gandy will have a back-up role at both corner spots.
ADVANTAGE: Toss up
Mizzou doesn’t return one starter at the safety position in 2019, but two upperclassmen with plenty of playing experience will get a chance to step in. Senior strong safety Ronnell Perkins, who also filled in at linebacker a season ago. Perkins starter just three games for the Tigers, finishing with 18 tackles, a pair of tackles for loss and a sack. Free safety Joshuah Bledsoe enters his junior campaign as a player on the rise for the Tigers. In 12 games last season, Bledsoe racked up 28 tackles, two pass breakups and a scoop and score for 39 yards in Knoxville. Tyree Gillespie, a junior nickel back, returns to the starting lineup in 2019 after spending the final eight games of last season at the safety position. He was third on the team with 48 tackles, picked up a sack and a pass breakup. It appears this group has just been waiting for its turn. And speaking of that …
Wyoming has had a pair of four-year starters manning the safety positions in Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps. Now, it’s time for Alijah Halliburton and redshirt freshman, Rome Weber, to show what they can do in a starting role. Haliburton, a 6-foot, 2-inch, 190-pound strong safety from Colorado appeared in every game last season, tallying 61 tackles, a forced fumble and two pass breakups behind Wingard. Weber, a San Bernardino, Calif., product, won the starting job in fall camp, surpassing an injured Braden Smith. Though Smith will see plenty of action this season at the free safety position, Weber impressed coaches with his knowledge and work ethic. Smith was mostly a special-teams player in 2018 as he waited behind Epps, but this season should add some much-needed depth in the secondary. Keyon Blankenbaker and freshman Allen Smith will share time at the nickel position.
Tucker McCann made 24-of-33 field goals last season for the Tigers twice earning Lou Groza Award Star of the Week. His 50-yarder against Wyoming was a career high, and his 25-yard boot to knock off Purdue as time expired also earned him that accolade. McCann is also listed as the Tigers’ punter this season. Backup running back Tyler Badie handles the punt-return duties and senior Richaud Floyd is Mizzou’s kick returner. Badie was named to All-SEC freshman team, averaging 22 yards per return.
If this game comes down to a field goal, I’m betting Wyoming likes its chances with No. 40 trotting on to the field. Cooper Rothe was named preseason Mountain West Conference Special Teams Player of the Year after becoming a Lou Groza Award finalist in 2018. Rothe nailed 16-of-17 attempts in 2018, including a long of 51. Rothe was the No. 1 kicker in the nation percentage wise and converted on all 28 of his point-after attempts. Ryan Galovich, a walk-on senior, who just earned a scholarship from Bohl, will take over punting duties. He punted 13 times a season ago, averaging nearly 40 yards per kick. He landed a season-high 68 yarder at New Mexico and dropped seven punts inside the 20-yard line. The Pokes have a pair of dangerous return men in Tyler Hall and Austin Conway. Hall returned a pair of kicks for touchdowns in 2017, and Conway also found the end zone on a 60-yard punt return in 2016.