Defensive tackle Darius Robinson, like his coach Eliah Drinkwitz, noticed a change in Missouri football after the bye week.
It has been hard to miss.
MU’s miserable opening seven games drew plenty of attention. The Tigers did not hold a lead at any point during their first three Southeastern Conference games against Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas A&M. Their 3-4 record was padded solely by wins against non-Power-Five opponents.
The run defense — part of Robinson’s responsibilities — bore the brunt of the blame.
For good reason, too. Through four games, Missouri gave up the second-most yards on the ground — 269.2 — of all teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Then the Vols came to Columbia and waltzed their way to 458 yards on the run alone. Then the Tigers were the worst-ranked team in the FBS.
But a week off seemed to trigger a reset.
“The beginning of the season, there was a lot of different things, a lot of different injuries, a lot of different things going on with the team,” Robinson said. “But I feel like after the bye week, everyone started to (understand) this is our season, this is how many games we’ve got left, and what are we going to do?”
Suddenly, like stopping the run had never been an issue, it got better.
The Tigers are now out of the basement of the FBS and up a few more flights, sitting 125th of the 130 teams. That’s because they’ve given up an average of 147.8 yards in the five games since the bye week — less than half the average ground gain in the first five games.
“I feel like we’ve got a good group of men that are willing to compete and play for one another,” Robinson said. “And I think we turned it on right after the bye week.”
Drinkwitz noticed the change, too.
Where he saw relief after wins in the earlier part of the season, he noticed excitement in the locker room celebrations after Missouri beat Vanderbilt — the Tigers’ first game following the bye.
It kickstarted a run of three wins in four games that secured a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl against Army on Dec. 22, an unlikely feat before the break.
“When you feel like that, maybe you feel like there’s too much pressure on the team instead of just playing for the joy and passion of playing and the enjoyment of each other,” Drinkwitz said. “I think maybe we were feeling that, and after the bye week it really came through, the determination to win and knowing that if we won we were gonna get to continue to play.”
The first tangible sign of better days ahead came in Nashville, Tennessee.
But the wheels toward the sudden and surprising shift may have been set in motion a couple of weeks prior.
All signs point toward Al Davis.
Davis was promoted to the role of interim defensive line coach after Jethro Franklin took the brunt of a 62-point pounding at the hands of Tennessee. Franklin was fired after five games on the job.
Now Davis looks set for another promotion, one that will see him stay in the role full time.
And for Robinson, that’s “big time.”
“I feel like Al did a great job this season taking over and bringing a new energy and getting us to play very well,” Robinson said. ... “I feel like sometimes change really makes things very up and down but I think keeping Al is gonna keep everything going forward.”
Change has been part of the norm during Robinson’s time at Missouri. He was recruited by former coach Barry Odom and defensive coordinator Ryan Haley.
“Coach Haley’s not here, Coach Odom’s not here. Jethro’s here, Jethro’s not here,” Robinson said.
Consistency has been hard to come by at Missouri, but he’s beginning to see some with Davis.
During games, he appreciates that Davis doesn’t jump on his back after mistakes.
He said instead, Davis listens and communicates what he wants to see improve between games.
“In our meetings, he’s very passionate, he’s very detailed about what we need to get done, how well, how fast we need to play. He just brings great energy every day at practice,” Robinson said. ... “He does a good job of keeping you confident and keeping you ready to go.”
The confidence, the moment it clicked came at the right time.
For a long time, it looked like it was never going to happen for Robinson and Missouri.
“I was just talking to Isaiah (McGuire), and I was telling him, like, ‘It kinda sucks that we turned it on so fast,’ because, dang, you wish you could get that game back, and that game back,” Robinson said. “But the way football works, you can’t get those back, you can only build on the moments we have now.”