Missouri fans got their first look at the 2017 team Saturday afternoon at the team's annual Black and Gold scrimmage. In reality, the scrimmage doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. Only the offense can score, key contributors are held out and the play-calling is watered down this early in the season.
But if you combine the performances from the game with the 14 practices throughout March and April, you can see aspects of the team — from depth to emerging players — come together. That's what happenedon Saturday.
The offense took control of the game early. Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter, Missouri's leading rushers from last season, dressed for the game but didn't play, so, naturally, Dawson Downing scored the game's first touchdown against Missouri's No. 1 defense. Downing finished with nine carries for 47 yards and the touchdown. Along with Downing, freshman running back Isaiah Miller made the most of his opportunity and introduced himself to Missouri fans with 14 carries for 57 yards, showing his elusiveness on an 18-yard run in the first half.
Shortly after, redshirt sophomore quarterback Jack Lowary was called into the game after Lock and immediately made an impact. He lobbed two bombs to Emanuel Hall down the sideline for touchdowns of 42 and 38 yards, including one as the first half clock expired. Lowary helped his chances of winning the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Drew Lock and finished with 7-11 for 113 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Lock will enter the season as the team's starting quarterback, but offensive coordinator Josh Heupel liked what he saw from his Lowary and sophomore quarterback Micah Wilson in the game.
"I think it can give them a sense of where they're truly at," Heupel said of his quarterbacks after the game. "It pushes and gives them urgency for what they got to do in June and July. Understanding defenses, understanding what we're doing and putting their eyes in the right spot. That's why I think there's so much growth that happens from the end of spring ball to when they come back in (fall) training camp."
Most of the wide receivers had slow days, but Hall stood head and shoulders above his peers. It's easy for a guy like Hall to get lost in the wide receiver discussion with J'Mon Moore and Johnathon Johnson holding down starting positions, but Hall reminded fans he can contribute when called upon. He hauled in three catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns on the day and liked what he saw from his unit.
"I think the offense played really well," Hall said after the game. "We put up a lot of points, different quarterbacks scored, we have a lot of good running backs, everybody executed, everybody knew what they were doing and I think we're just a lot better as a team."
As the game progressed, the defense started to find its footing and took control of the game. Although it wasn't counted toward the scoreboard, the unit forced two interceptions in the second half and didn't miss many tackles, which was a main problem area in 2016.
Defensive contributions can often be overlooked in spring games, but several players stood out Saturday afternoon. Defensive end Nate Howard recorded two sacks on the day and Rashad Brandon recorded five tackles. Safety Ronnell Perkins took advantage of his playing time, and had five solo tackles, a sack and an interception of Lowary. Kaleb Prewett, a transfer from Kansas State, played well with the first-team defense at nickel and thinks he locked down a starting position.
"As I've played the position a little bit more, I started to get more comfortable with the spot," Prewett said. "Now I feel like I can fly around. There's still things I can work on, obviously, but I feel like I'm definitely comfortable with the spot now."
Again, the Black and Gold game doesn't mean much right now, but it's a chance for the coaching staff to begin the steps to evaluate their players and field a competitive team come August. Perhaps the most comforting note for Tiger fans came on special teams. Tucker McCann, who struggled mightily a season ago, made all three extra points and a 47-yard field goal.
The players said Saturday's game plan was extremely basic. That was by design. After the scrimmage, football will fade into the background for a few months. The Tigers have 139 days before the season opener against Missouri State.
"I like the progress this team has made for 15 days," Barry Odom said of his team. "We’ll take this, we’ll take the entire body of work through spring practice — the process of 15 days and meetings — and we’ll continue to build and teach on that to try to get the right guys in the right spots on offense, defense and kicking."