COLUMBIA — Missouri is back at home.
Things have changed a great deal since the last time the Tigers played at Faurot Field, a 38-27 victory against Mississippi on Oct. 12.
The Tigers scored a total of 21 points in their three games since, with that number decreasing each time.
It's tough to pin attributable factors to the slide. The Tigers (5-4, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) have been banged up at quarterback, but Georgia is the only SEC East team to start the same quarterback all season.
Kelly Bryant is expected to play Saturday when Missouri hosts No. 11 Florida at 11 a.m. on CBS. The Gators have won 5-of-7 games with backup quarterback Kyle Trask starting after Feleipe Franks was injured during the Kentucky game, including a 56-0 stomping last week of the same Vanderbilt team that beat Missouri 21-14.
"Kelly's health was very positive, he looked good, took every snap today with the 1s," Missouri coach Barry Odom said Tuesday. "Moved around, said he felt good after practice, so that's a really good sign for us. (Starting slot receiver) Johnathon Johnson last week was sick. He also, and I didn't get into it last week, he had a shoulder strain, I didn't think it was going to be as much to keep him out as the sickness, but that has not improved as much yet that he was able to go through all of practice today, so he'll still be limited, he's day-to-day. But other than that, we've got everybody healthy, and obviously excited about that, because we'll need everybody we can get."
Odom said Bryant was cleared by the medical staff to play this week, and was able to do straight-line running before Saturday's 27-0 loss at No. 5 Georgia, but couldn't do change-of-direction movement the way a healthy mobile quarterback normally could.
Backup Taylor Powell told reporters following the loss he knew by the middle of the week he would make his first career start against the Bulldogs because of Bryant's health. Powell was 10-of-22 for 84 yards and an interception, and true freshman Connor Bazelak, in his second-ever collegiate game, was 8-of-12 for 64 yards on Missouri's penultimate drive of the game. The loss was just the Tigers' third shutout loss of the millennium, following a 37-0 loss to Kansas State in 2002 and a 34-0 loss to Georgia in 2014, both of which were at home.
"You've just got to keep fighting," Bryant said. "It's just adversity. I'm pretty sure everyone's been through that, just maybe a little bit different adversity. You've just got to continue to chip away and find a way at this point. We've dropped a few as of late, so we've just got to get back to what we were doing earlier, in the middle of the season."
What Missouri was doing earlier in the season, apart from scoring defensive touchdowns, was generating chunk plays of at least moderate gain on both passes and runs. That is no longer happening.
According to secstatcat.com, in the first six games of the season, Tigers' passers were 9-of-23 for 298 yards on passes targeted 20 or more yards downfield, for four touchdowns and two interceptions, and on passes thrown 11 or more yards downfield were 34-of-67 for 819 yards, five scores and three picks. In those first six games, the team also had 36 total "explosive" (10-plus -yard) runs, six per game.
During the three-game losing streak, Missouri is 0-of-5 on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield, and 5-of-20 for 66 yards, a score and two picks on throws 11 or more yards downfield. There have been eight explosive runs in those three games, less than three per game.
"They're making it tough, especially whether it's getting an extra backer in the box or an extra safety coming out, either pre- or post-snap, stopping the run" Bryant said. "It's hard. The biggest thing coach (Derek) Dooley's been stressing, especially to the runners and quarterbacks as well, is you've just got to be able to make a guy miss. That's the biggest thing, what the good ones do, so knowing pre-snap there's going to be an extra guy in the box, they might have two or three extra more, being able to find a way and get, whether it's three or four (yards), then that may turn to 12, 10, next thing you know it's 40. So just grinding, staying patient on those runs."
It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, but one way or another, teams have started daring the Tigers, who lack a true deep threat this season, to throw the ball downfield and put an extra defender or two closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
"For whatever reason we've struggled, and I've got reasons I believe in and it seems, we haven't been able to run the ball to the level that we need to," Odom said. "We also haven't been able to connect in some vertical passing game. So I think that hurts a little bit, in, you go three-and-out, and then, really, your belief and your confidence-level on what it takes to get the next first down, you've got to be a mentally tough dude to continue to fight through that.
"And then you struggle a little bit more and you maybe turn the ball over, and you get down in the red area and you miss a field goal, those things are heavy, if you allow them to be, and we've let that creep in a little bit."
Odom acknowledged the slump is a mixture of play-calling and scheme, and a little bit of execution.
Whatever the solution, if the Tigers are able to find it against the Gators, it will be an accomplishment. Florida and Missouri both have a top-15 defense in total defensive yards per game and a top-20 defense in points allowed per game. The Tigers are still No. 4 in pass defense, allowing 5.5 yards per attempt and 147.7 yards per game, while the Gators' run defense is allowing 3.44 yards per carry and 116 yards per game, but is also top-5 in sacks (35) and No. 16 in tackles for loss (69).