Missouri expected to attack No. 1 Georgia with more screens

Kent State running back Marquez Cooper picks up a first down and is tackled by Georgia defensive back Christopher Smith (left) and linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson on a scoring drive during the fourth quarter Saturday in Athens. Cooper scored a touchdown later in the drive to keep the game close. (Curtis Compton / Curtis Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Kent State running back Marquez Cooper picks up a first down and is tackled by Georgia defensive back Christopher Smith (left) and linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson on a scoring drive during the fourth quarter Saturday in Athens. Cooper scored a touchdown later in the drive to keep the game close. (Curtis Compton / Curtis Compton@ajc.com)

ATHENS — Remember all those screens and hitches that Kent State was hitting Georgia with Saturday? Hard to forget, right?

Now imagine them being called for Luther Burden. He’s Missouri’s five-star freshman wide receiver who spurned defending national champion Georgia to play for his nearby university. But he’s not even the Tigers’ main threat. That would be Dominic Lovett, a 5-foot-10 flanker who has 21 catches, leads the SEC with 376 receiving yards and is averaging 18 yards every time he touches the ball.

No, Missouri is not the great offensive juggernaut it has been in the past. But thanks to Kent State, the rest of college football now knows where the soft underbelly of the mighty Bulldogs defense is located.

It’s in the screen game.

That happens to be where Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz has earned his offensive reputation. Drinkwitz has conducted coaching clinics on a special breed of plays he calls “run constraints.” They’re actually not runs but quick-timed passes his offenses use to ensure that opponents can’t load up against their run game.

Kent State operated similarly and with particularly great effect in the third and fourth quarters when it put together two scoring drives totaling 25 plays and 145 yards to make the Bulldogs earn a harrowingly close 39-22 win. They hit the Bulldogs’ previous impenetrable defense with quick screens and hitches on the outside, then came back inside with heavy doses of Marquez Cooper in the run game. Cooper finished with 90 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. That’s the the most rushing Georgia has allowed since Cincinnati’s Jerome Ford hit it with 97 yards in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the end of the 2020 season.

It was maddening for coach Kirby Smart and his ballyhooed defensive brain trust, including co-defensive coordinators Will Muschamp and Glenn Schumann. Georgia was on its heels for much of the second half.

“We mis-fit one of them, the one really explosive one,” said Smart, referring to a 56-yard touchdown play by Devontez Walker on a simple wide receiver screen on the left sideline. “We just mis-fit it. Kid didn’t get outside leverage.”

That “kid” was sophomore cornerback Kamari Lassiter, a first-year starter. He and safety Christopher Smith were left alone outside the numbers against two Kent State receivers. A play-action fake to Cooper inside kept Georgia’s linebackers at home, Lassiter was defeated by a blocker, and the senior Smith was left to make a one-on-one, open-field tackle.

Smith never even got to try.

Designed for the cornerback to take “outside leverage,” meaning get to the boundary to turn the play inside, Lassiter never made it. And Smith took an early, overaggressive line to the inside. Catching the ball 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage, the fleet-footed Walker was left with nothing but green grass to negotiate. No Georgia defenders were in position to run him down.

“Football 101,” Smart sighed. “You turn the ball back into your defense, and if you don’t, you get outflanked. Didn’t do a good job of doing that. And the safety (Smith) was expecting him to come back inside, and he went outside, and it made for a big play. So, that was a good job by them, poor job by us.”

Enter Missouri. The Tigers (2-2, 0-1 SEC) will play at home in a night game in the cozy confines of Faurot Field. They’ll be happy to do so after suffering a pair of nightmarish road losses, the latest a 17-14 loss to Auburn in overtime.

Drinkwitz earned his reputation as an offensive guru at Appalachian State. There, he perfected the art of utilizing the pass to open the run game. Through a series of what he calls “run-constraint” passes, his teams work hard to perfect quick-timed pass plays such as bubble screens, “now” screens, hitches and slants to draw a defense’s focus outside toward the boundaries. Once they do, they run the ball inside off zone-read gives and keepers.

Last season, that formula got running back Tyler Badie an SEC-best 1,604 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns. This year, Badie is in the NFL, and the Tigers are struggling to get things moving as well under running back Nathaniel Peat and quarterback Brady Cook. Peat leads Missouri with 225 yards rushing (4.8 per carry) and a touchdown. Cook has 158 yards on the ground and is completing 63.3% of his passes for 805 yards, but he has thrown four interceptions to go with four touchdowns.

The hope was that Burden would make a bigger difference than he has made for the Tigers. The 5-11, 208-pound resident of East St. Louis, Ill. – which is located just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis – was the No. 1 wide receiver prospect in America, according to 247Sports. Burden was considered a near-lock in recruiting for the Bulldogs. But he stunned the college football world when he instead chose Missouri’s comparatively moribund football program.

The Tigers are doing their part in getting the ball to Burden a lot. But his 17 offensive touches on 10 catches and seven runs have been good for only 118 yards and two touchdowns. He has been much more dynamic in the return game, fielding five punts for a 22.8-yard return average, including a 78-yard touchdown.

The Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0) can be sure Burden will be motivated Saturday to show them what they didn’t get.

“Size, elite skill set, he’s strong, he’s physical,” Smart said of Burden. “You watch him as a returner, he makes people miss. They find ways to get him touches. He catches the ball out of the backfield, speed sweeps, runs deep, and he returns the ball. He’s a very elusive, physical runner. When people go to tackle him, you can tell, he’s stout.”

Georgia will take on all this with a secondary that just had its confidence shaken. And now, one of its starters is out of the rotation.

Javon Bullard, who plays the Bulldogs’ fifth defensive back position they call the “star,” is expected to miss Saturday’s game because of a disciplinary suspension. He was jailed early Sunday on DUI charges, an offense for which UGA’s policy requires suspension from competition. Georgia has yet to make an announcement, but the Bulldogs are proceeding as though they won’t have Bullard.

“We have a good amount of players at the star position,” redshirt sophomore cornerback Kelee Ringo said. “Everybody works there every single week. I feel like we have plenty of people who will be prepared, if that’s the case.”

Junior Tykee Smith and freshmen Marcus Washington and Darris Smith will have to fill in at star. Meanwhile, everybody on Georgia’s defense is working extra hard this week to be prepared Saturday. As Kent State illustrated, there remain some soft spots in the Bulldogs’ defense of national renown.

One can bet they’ve rehearsed defending wide-receiver screens a thousand times on Woodruff Practice Fields.

“We come into our practices every single week with the mindset of continuing to play physical and stay on our keys,” Ringo said. “Honestly, little things like that can be easily fixed. Just looking forward to continuing to be successful and bringing the right type of energy to Missouri.”