Reserve running back Ezra Vaoifi’s 2-yard touchdown run on the last play of Saturday’s Black and Gold Game put an optimistic finishing touch on the Missouri football team’s spring slate.
The 15th and final team session of the spring was the first public event at Memorial Stadium without bleachers behind the south end zone since 1972. The offense, which held a sizeable advantage as the only squad that could possess the ball, beat the defense 30-0.
The touchdown by Vaoifi, a Fort Osage High School graduate, sent spring out on a high note after the Tigers struggled through practices last week immediately after spring break.
“It kinda felt like we were going through the routine of lining up and trying to check it off the list,” coach Barry Odom said. “We stopped practice, regrouped a little bit and Tuesday and Thursday ended up being two of our best days in the spring.”
Five quarterbacks took snaps Saturday, combining to complete passes to 15 receivers. Drew Lock, who was 7 of 13 for 58 yards and a touchdown, fit in both categories after catching a pass that was swatted back in his face in the first quarter. Taylor Powell was 5 of 18 for 116 yards and a touchdown, and Jack Lowary was the most efficient passer, completing 5 of 6 for 49 yards and a touchdown.
Freshman wide receiver Dominic Gicinto of Raytown and junior running back Dawson Downing each had a game-high 65 all-purpose yards. All of Gicinto’s came on a crossing route he stretched for a touchdown in the second quarter. Downing’s came on 13 carries and three receptions. Harry Ballard III and Johnathon Johnson added touchdown receptions.
Sophomore linebacker Aubrey Miller Jr. led the team in tackles with 10, including one for loss. Cornerback DeMarkus Acy and linebacker Alec Pierce each picked off transfer quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr.
Now comes the hard part: finding a way, over the next three months, to prevent the slow start to the season that has plagued Missouri for two straight years.
The Tigers are 3-5 in September over the last two seasons, the only wins coming against Eastern Michigan, Delaware State and Missouri State. Last year, Missouri was outscored 160-102 in its first four games, all at home.
After beating the Bears in last year’s opener, the offense – which returned 10 starters from the year before – struggled in consecutive losses to South Carolina, Purdue and Auburn. The defense was outmatched in all four games to start the season.
“That Missouri State game, I tried to watch it a month ago. It made me so mad I couldn’t even finish the first 20 plays,” linebacker Terez Hall said.
This year’s offense will return 10 starters again. The defense brings back all three starting linebackers and three starting defensive backs, plus standout defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. There’s even an FCS team (Tennessee-Martin out of the Ohio Valley Conference) to beat up on in Week 1.
There will be plenty of youth on defense, too, as an up-and-coming sophomore class begins to break through. Miller, the standout defensive player Saturday at weakside linebacker, is one such player.
“It’s important for our defense for that position to be pretty good,” Odom said. “Terez has taken that over, but we need Aubrey to come on and (senior) Noah (Robinson) to come on and help us out.”
As it stands, Hall and middle linebacker Cale Garrett are the only inside linebackers on the roster with significant playing time on defense. Miller will be key in providing depth in that spot, and he has Hall helping him along.
“Sometimes, guys feel competition, like you got a guy behind you now — I’m trying to get him on the field with me,” Hall said. “Ain’t no need for me to play 60 snaps a game when you’ve got a guy just as good that can be on the field.”
Joshuah Bledsoe, another sophomore, got the start at first-team safety Saturday. Bledsoe is a natural safety but played linebacker for Missouri last year, getting most of his playing time as a strongside linebacker on third downs.
Chris Turner is likely to be a starter at defensive end and Adam Sparks is in line to start Week 1 at cornerback. Tyree Gillespie and Jordan Ulmer are two other sophomores who could fit in at safety. There’s also Jamal Brooks, Kobie Whiteside and Akial Byers – all sophomores who could make an impact on the defensive side sooner rather than later.
“The whole sophomore class, we came in and knew we were gonna be a factor early,” Bledsoe said. “We knew we were going to be on the field.”
A strong September will be key for Missouri next season. A good start to the season generates interest and ticket sales, factors that athletic director Jim Sterk alluded to in a meeting with reporters March 29.
“I think we need to, out of the gate, do better than we did last year,” Sterk said. “Everyone would agree with that. That gives us an opportunity to really engage the community and the state and nationally.”
That starts with the season opener against Tennessee-Martin. Missouri came out flat in last year’s game against Missouri State, but Hall doesn’t see a repeat.
“It’s not gonna happen. Nah. We’re going to play Tennessee-Martin like we’re playing for the Super Bowl,” Hall said. … “We won’t come out flat. We’re coming out like it’s a Super Bowl. Simple as that.”