COLUMBIA, Mo. — When things went awry for Missouri last year, the defense was usually the culprit.
It was that side of the ball that gave the Tigers a lift in their opener against Louisiana Tech on Thursday night.
With their offense off to a slow start, the new-look bunch of coordinator Blake Baker came up with a trio of first-half interceptions, including one that Joseph Charleston returned for a score. And that was all the spark needed for the Missouri offense, who got on a roll behind heralded recruit Luther Burden III in a 52-24 victory over the Bulldogs.
“We struggled early to find a rhythm. We were not in sync,” Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz acknowledged, “but we were able to capitalize on the momentum the defense created.”
Brady Cook, who won the starting job in fall camp, threw for 196 yards with an interception and a touchdown run. And the trio of Cody Schrader, Nathaniel Peat and BJ Harris in the backfield each reached the end zone.
Yet it was Burden, the five-star prospect from St. Louis, who delivered on the hype. He caught a swing pass from Cook before making one defender miss and splitting two more for his first score, then he took a direct snap and ran for another.
Burden's only real gaffe came on a sharp throw that bounced off his hands for an interception.
“I see it every day, to be honest with you,” Drinkwitz said of his freshman star. “I just didn't want to build it up too much.”
Louisiana Tech's Matthew Downing threw for 184 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions in new coach Sonny Cumbie's version of the Air Raid offense. Downing didn't get much help from the Bulldogs' ground game, though, which ran 22 times for 11 yards against what was one of the worst rush defenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season.
“That's got to be better," Cumbie acknowledged. "I have to be more patient with the run.”
Indeed, most of the focus around Missouri has been on the defense, which was rebuilt for new coordinator Baker around a slew of Division I transfers. And they got into the act right away: Florida arrival Ty'Ron Hopper and Charleston, a newcomer from Clemson, had two of the Tigers' three first-half interceptions.
It was the first time Missouri picked three passes in a first half since Sept. 4, 1982, against Colorado State.
“When you turn the football over three times on the road against a good team,” Cumbie said, “and your margin for error is very small, and you give them seven points, the momentum builds against you.”
Charleston's pick-six early in the second quarter came two plays after Schrader, who transferred in after leading Division II in rushing last season for Truman State, had catapulted into the end zone to give Missouri an early 7-3 lead.
It wasn't a perfect performance by any means for the Tigers, who nonetheless led 24-10 at the break.
They were on the move after Charleston's score when tight end Tyler Stephens fumbled the ball away inside the Louisiana Tech 10. The Tigers also blew coverage on a simple slant that Griffin Herbert turned into a 75-yard TD reception, and twice spanning halftime the Tigers were stuffed on fourth-and-short conversions.
Burden's short TD run and Cook's 20-yard scoring scamper late in the third quarter put the game away.
“The thing that is kind of good for me, the mistakes are all correctable, all really correctable — lack of execution, turnovers, the penalties,” Drinkwitz said. “There's a bright future ahead of us but we have to get out of our own way.”
Win it for Luper
WR Chance Luper, who was expected to start for Missouri, went to the hospital Thursday with what Drinkwitz called “an illness" that is expected to keep him out at least six weeks. Luper is the son of Tigers running backs coach Curtis Luper.
Louisiana Tech kept slinging the ball, even when the game was out of reach, and backup QB Parker McNeil was rewarded with a pair of late touchdown passes. It was a positive sign for the future of an offense designed around the pass.
Missouri will need much better offensive line play beginning with next week's trip to Kansas State. Along with failing to push the pile on fourth-and-short, the Tigers' front struggled to protect Cook and committed far too many penalties.
Louisiana Tech plays its home opener against Stephen F. Austin on Sept. 10.
Missouri visits the former Big 12-rival Wildcats the same day.