When these two faced off last year to open up October, Tennessee football and Hendon Hooker had their breakout game offensively under Josh Heupel. The Vols roared off to a 28-3 first quarter and won 62-24.
Saturday’s matchup features a very different Mizzou team. Although they are struggling with a 4-5 record, their defense is significantly better and will present a challenge for the Vols.
“Their front seven are extremely physical,” Heupel said of Mizzou’s defense at Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “It’s difficult to run the football, and they’ve been really efficient against the pass as well.”
This year, Mizzou gives up 21.2 points per game, 303.7 yards per game and 4.8 yards per play. All are significant drops from last year, when they allowed 33.8 points per game, 434.6 yards per game and 6.4 yards per play.
The change? Eli Drinkwitz replaced defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who has ironically stumbled into the interim head coaching job of the Carolina Panthers, with Blake Baker.
Mizzou also added a wave of transfers, including defensive lineman Ty’Ron Hopper from the Florida Gators, linebacker Jayden Jernigan from the Oklahoma State Cowboys and safety Joseph Charleston from the Clemson Tigers. All three are starting.
“In some respects, they’ve got some different personnel from the previous year, just on their roster in who they’re using and where they’re using them at,” Heupel said. “The guys that were there a year ago have done a great job of really developing.”
Tough defense has been the reason Mizzou hasn’t lost an SEC game by more than one score this year. In fact, they haven’t allowed more than 26 points to an SEC team.
Of course, none of the offenses they have faced are like Tennessee football’s, but outside of the Georgia Bulldogs, Mizzou is the best defense the Vols will have faced all year. Yes, that includes the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Last year, we didn’t even know if Hooker would start heading into the Mizzou game, but his performance against them solidified him as the starter. It likely won’t be as easy this time around, as Heupel acknowledged getting the out of position will be tough.
“I think they do a great job with their eyes, and I say that meaning that they have great gap integrity,” he said. “They handle everything that offenses are throwing at them extremely well.”
Such a change in styles has been dramatic, because it also came at the offense’s expense. Mizzou is averaging 23.1 points per game this year along with 350.2 yards per game and 5.2 yards per play.
Last year, the Tigers averaged 29.1 points per game, 413.8 yards per game and 5.9 yards per game. Drinkwitz was hired because of his offensive acumen and had a shockingly good first year in 2020.
Heupel stole his thunder last year, though, partially due when they faced off. It’s ironic because Heupel made a name for himself as Mizzou’s offensive coordinator under Barry Odom, who was fired to make way for Drinkwitz. However, Heupel acknowledged this year is different.
“Both programs continue to grow, change,” he said. “Defensively, with the new coordinator, they’re so different. In some of your personnel cut-ups, you may revert back to some of the things that our guys versus their guys at certain spots where there’s carryover because they’re playing again this year, but for the most part, new scheme, new coordinator, new defense, new attitude and playing extremely physical, so you focus on this year’s product.”