It may have pained Barry Odom to do it, but his decision to relinquish the bulk of defensive responsibility — including calling plays — to defensive coordinator Ryan Walters has gone swimmingly for Missouri’s first two games of the season.
Like it did in the opener, the Tigers’ defense did its duty again Saturday, stifling a meager Wyoming offense in a dominant 40-13 victory.
It is too early to declare Missouri’s defense exceptional, considering the little danger Tennessee-Martin and Wyoming posed offensively. But the Tigers showed in the first few weeks of 2017 that even poor offensive teams can do damage when given the opportunity.
Wyoming averaged 4.3 yards per play Saturday. It gained 248 total yards. Only three of its plays went for more than 20 yards.
"They started exceptional," Odom said of the defense, which forced a turnover on the Cowboys’ first drive and punts on the next six. "They did a lot of things creatively on third downs that gave us a chance to get off the field. For the most part we were fairly assignment sound."
Walters has been out of college only 10 years. He earned Odom’s trust over the last six: first as the defensive backs coach at Memphis, then as Missouri’s defensive backs coach. Odom made him the co-defensive coordinator with DeMontie Cross in 2016.
Almost exactly a year ago, after a Week 2 loss to South Carolina, Odom fired Cross. Walters took on the added responsibility of game planning in Cross’ stead. By the end of last year, he was helping Odom call plays.
Odom finally relinquished the play calling duties this summer as part of a concentrated effort to delegate more responsibilities. But his faith didn’t waver in Walters, whose youthful energy endears him to defensive players and whose relentless film study is legend.
"That man’s an animal in the film room. He doesn’t leave," defensive end Nate Anderson said, adding that Walters’ habits also apply to the rest of the defensive staff, analysts and graduate assistants.
If an offensive player twitches their foot, Anderson said, "one of those guys will find it."
Missouri had seven tackles for loss Saturday, and its front seven was disciplined against Wyoming’s power run game. The Cowboys rushed for 88 yards on 30 attempts.
Anderson and fellow defensive end Chris Turner notched their first sacks of the season Saturday. Terez Hall forced a fumble on Wyoming’s first series.
"I’m confident in how we’re playing," middle linebacker Cale Garrett said. "All of us have a lot more confidence and more experience under our belt. I think our standards and our mindset is a lot better going into Week 3 than it was going into Week 3 last year."
Week 2 set up as a stiffer test for the Tigers than their season opener against UT-Martin, an intermediate step up in competition as Missouri prepares for its first Power 5 opponent next week and its first Southeastern Conference game in two weeks. Wyoming has pedigree: it won 16 games in its last two seasons and went to the Mountain West Conference title game in 2016.
Under coach Craig Bohl the Cowboys carved an identity as a power-running pro-style offense with a stingy defense to match. It couldn’t be further from the style former Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen tried to implement as Wyoming’s coach from 2009-13.
Christensen’s spread offense didn’t have the same effectiveness without Chase Daniel pulling its strings. He left Laramie with a 27-35 record, and he’s now the offensive line coach at Arizona State.
Bohl’s system was similarly undermanned Saturday. The Cowboys arrived in Columbia without their No. 1 running back, Nico Evans, who suffered a rib injury last week against Washington State. Evans’ 279 yards in two games made him the nation’s leading rusher entering the weekend, but his absence, combined with the medical retirement of presumed starter Kellen Overstreet in the offseason, left Wyoming with just three freshmen tailbacks at their disposal against the Tigers. Jevon Bigelow was the leading rusher with 56 yards on 18 attempts.
The Cowboys weren’t much better equipped at quarterback, where redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal made his third career start Saturday. Through his first two games, Vander Waal completed 21 of 41 passes for 204 yards and an interception.
Missouri held him to 13-of-28 passing for 160 yards Saturday.
Vander Waal’s counterpart, meanwhile, was a model of efficiency. Drew Lock completed 33 of 45 passes for 398 yards and four touchdowns, the second game in a row his completion percentage topped 70 percent. He has not thrown an interception through the first two games.
Lock added a significant boost on the ground, gaining 51 yards on five carries. Missouri’s first touchdown was a 12-yard scramble by Lock around two defenders — in the second quarter, he flattened a defensive back on a third-down scramble to move the chains and stared him down as he got back to his feet.
Damarea Crockett, the starter for the second straight week, gained 73 yards on 19 carries. Freshman Tyler Badie gained 46 yards on 11 attempts and Larry Rountree III had 34 yards on 10 carries.