Mizzou-Colorado: Beyond the Box Score Preview

Last year at this time, Missouri was coming off of a tough loss to OSU and a blowout loss to Texas, and they turned their season around with a ridiculously easy 58-0 win over Colorado.  This season, a younger, hobbled, even-more-reeling Mizzou team makes the trip to Boulder, hungry for even a 1-point win, much less a 58-pointer.  Will they get the job done?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?  Because whatever your inclinations, the stats below have something to feed them.  An optimist looks at the matchups below and sees a Missouri team with significant defensive advantages, a Colorado team with no major skill-position threat, run-blocking advantages for both the Mizzou offensive and defensive lines, and such a pronounced speed advantage in the last two years that it simply cannot have all gone away now that Jeremy Maclin is catching passes from Donovan McNabb.

If you're a pessimist, however, you've got plenty of ammo as well.  You've got an immobile, inaccurate quarterback facing a solid pass rush (and a backup who has not inspired a boatload of confidence), a Mizzou secondary that suffered flashback-inducing communication breakdowns a week ago, and a rushing offense that has still underachieved significantly this season.  (Oh, and of course TERRIBLE COACHING PINKEL'S TOO STUBBORN OUR PASS COVERAGE IS TOO SOFT YOST AND STECKEL SUCK!!!!!1!!!!!!!!!  Can't forget that.)  The projections for this game have gotten tighter as Mizzou has begun to struggle, but let's be honest--without knowing how Gabbert's ankle will respond to another week of treatment, and how such a young team (did you see where Mizzou now has 36 freshmen and sophs on the two-deep????) will respond to a three-game losing streak, projections here are rather worthless.  Not that that's going to stop me from diving ahead, of course...

Offense

Colorado: 2009 Beyond the Box Score Preseason Offensive Preview

In the last three years against Missouri, Colorado has scored a total of 23 points.  After a decent 373-yard output in 2006, the Buffs have not managed even 200 yards in either of the past two meetings.  Missouri's defense is actually quite a bit better statistically than in 2008, while Colorado's offense has only incrementally improved.  Plus, Missouri holds the ratings advantage in a vast majority of major "+" categories.

Colorado Offense vs Missouri Defense
Category CU Offense MU Defense
Close S&P+ (Rk) 90.3 (92) 112.4 (31)
Close Success Rate+ (Rk) 98.9 (70) 104.6 (43)
Close PPP+ (Rk) 78.2 (103) 124.0 (30)
Rushing S&P+ 121.5 (25) 101.9 (64)
Passing S&P+
72.5 (108) 120.8 (25)
Standard Downs S&P+ 95.4 (83) 114.1 (27)
Passing Downs S&P+
94.3 (85) 117.4 (32)
Red Zone S&P+ 106.5 (60) 100.0 (68)
Q1 S&P+ 105.5 (69) 96.1 (73)
Q2 S&P+ 107.1 (57) 136.1 (18)
Q3 S&P+ 83.0 (103) 120.9 (24)
Q4 S&P+ 91.8 (93) 113.9 (40)
1st Down S&P+ 95.8 (82) 110.9 (42)
2nd Down S&P+ 89.9 (97) 114.1 (35)
3rd Down S&P+ 98.3 (78) 115.5 (33)
Line Yards+ 126.8 (5) 99.5 (64)
Close Sack Rate+
77.3 (97) 89.2 (75)
Standard Downs /
Passing Downs Sack Rate+
61.8 (107) /
108.4 (61)
78.4 (87) /
96.0 (70)

 

When Colorado Has the Ball...
Colorado Rushing Advantage: Colorado
Colorado Passing Big Advantage: Missouri
Best Time for Colorado: 1st Quarter
Best Time for Missouri: Anything after 1st Quarter


Analysis after the jump.

We'll once again start with where Missouri has the rankings advantage:

Close S&P+, Success Rate+, PPP+
Passing S&P+
Standard Downs S&P+, Passing Downs S&P+
Q2, Q3, Q4 S&P+
1st, 2nd, 3rd Down S&P+
Close, Standard Downs Sack Rate+

And for Colorado...

Rushing S&P+
Red Zone S&P+
Q1 S&P+
Line Yards+
Passing Downs S&P+

Obviously Missouri has significant advantages in most categories, but you do see where Colorado has a sliver of opportunity.  They will likely try to establish the run in the first quarter, and even though Missouri has been improving quite a bit against the run, CU does still have the overall advantage there.  If Rodney Stewart gets going and Missouri has to focus a bit more on the run, then CU might be able to exploit a Missouri pass defense that might or might not now be shaky.  Until the Texas game, Missouri had been playing great pass defense--more than good enough to completely shut CU down.  But some breakdowns against the Longhorns have caused some serious consternation, and until we see that everything's alright--that the sudden miscommunication is alleviated, that Carl Gettis' head is on straight--we don't know for sure that it will be.

Though Colorado does obviously have a road map to success, you could see things pretty quickly turn in Missouri's favor if Stewart isn't finding running lanes and Colorado isn't moving the ball early.  The per-quarter advantage quickly turns in Mizzou's favor after the first 15 minutes, when CU's scripted plays have likely run their course and the game turns to adjustments, counters to counters, and athleticism.  If Mizzou leads after Q1, they are in very good shape.  As with Blaine Gabbert's ankle, we should pretty quickly be able to discern how the secondary is going to play, and if Missouri's speed advantage is going to be enough to shut Colorado down for the fourth straight year.

Quarterback

If the cast of characters surrounding Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen improves considerably, can one or both of them turn into a competent guide for the offense?  Cody Hawkins earned a lot of goodwill during his redshirt freshman season in 2007, primarily because of the win over OU.  Beyond that game, he didn't show a whole lot, but he was a freshman.  Unfortunately, he regressed considerably in 2008, just like everybody else on the Colorado offense.  Hansen was able to very briefly breathe new life into the CU offense just by offering a different style of threat--he was able to generate some offense with his legs, something Hawkins is not capable of doing.

In the end, they were both not very good, but they are still young.  For better or worse, CU still has two more years of Hawkins and three of Hansen.  It really wouldn't surprise me if Clark Evans were given a look if Hawkins/Hansen prove early on that they still can't get the job done, or if one or the other gets injured.

Cody Hawkins: 114-for-228 passing (50.0%), 1,208 yards (5.3 per pass), 9 TD, 11 INT
Tyler Hansen: 24-for-44 passing (54.5%), 281 yards (6.4 per pass), 1 TD, 1 INT

Last year, CU came to Columbia with uncertainty at quarterback.  Cody Hawkins simply wasn't performing well at all, and Dan Hawkins tore the redshirt off of Tyler Hansen to provide some competition.  This year...almost exactly the same story.  Hawkins has been mostly awful once again, and after an early decision to redshirt Hansen, Dan Hawkins decided against it, bringing Don't Call Me Taylor into the Texas game and starting him against Kansas.

Hansen provided enough of a change in style that it gave CU a momentary boost.  The Buffs managed just 322 yards of offense against Kansas in Hansen's first start, but they took advantage of opportunities (twice, KU handed them the ball deep in their own territory) and came away with a win.  Predictably, though, the Hansen magic quickly wore off, just like it did last year.  CU gained just 244 yards against K-State, with Hansen and Hawkins combining to go 17-for-37 for 184 yards (a disgusting 5.0 per pass), 0 TDs, 2 INTs and 4 sacks.  Ouch.

(And that's right, Hansen's redshirt came off halfway through the season, but he's still only splitting time with Cody Hawkins.)

Hansen is elusive enough that he really might be a better option than Nolte-Hawkins (I'm not completely sure I'm not a better option than Hawkins).  He is not necessarily a threat to gain a bunch of yards on the ground (he ripped off a 20-yarder against KU, but that's it), but he is constantly escaping the pocket and trying to buy time for his receivers.  Of course, his receivers are terrible, so that doesn't really work.  But that's not his fault.

Running Back

Beyond Darrell Scott are two guys built on misconceptions.  It seems like Rodney Stewart was pretty good in 2008.  Wrong.  Yardage-wise, he turned out to be CU's most successful freshman last year, posting 632 yards in 132 carries before getting injured himself.  Problem was, as shown by POE, most of his yards came against iffy defenses.  He did well against an okay Florida State run defense (21 carries, 107 yards), but otherwise most of his yards came against West Virginia (28-for-166) and Kansas State (29-for-141), two rather awful run defenses.  Against Missouri and Texas, the two best run defenses on the schedule, Stewart managed just 36 yards on 18 carries.

Rodney Stewart: 120 carries, 467 yards (3.9/carry), 6 TD; 5 catches, 28 yards (5.6/catch)
Demetrius Sumler: 29 carries, 114 yards (3.9/carry); 10 catches, 58 yards (5.8/catch)
Darrell Scott: 23 carries, 95 yards (4.1/carry), 1 TD; 4 catches, 35 yards (8.8/catch)

For the second straight year, Scott has spent a majority of the season either dinged up or out.  He had arthroscopic surgery on his knee early last week and is out for another week or two.  Not that his game log was fear-inducing in the first place, of course.

The main threat in the backfield, I guess, is Rodney Stewart.  Stewart is once again riding a nice performance against West Virginia (21 carries, 105 yards) to prop up his numbers.  In conference play, he is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry (197 yards on 61 carries), and while CU's overall rushing stats are better than last year (and therefore so are Stewart's), I want to see him do something against a fast front seven before I claim to be scared of him in any way, shape or form.  He is a bit of a workhorse--until his 16-carry performance against K-State last week, he had gone over 20 carries for four straight games.  Durability is a virtue, especially when you're missing your supposedly most explosive RB option (Scott), but Stewart's got to show me he can run on Missouri's defense before I believe it (last year against Mizzou: 6 carries, 9 yards).  Missouri had some issues last week, but not up front.

Meanwhile, for the second straight year, I'm almost thinking that Demetrius Sumler is CU's best back.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

[A] bad receiving corps probably got worse in terms of proven talent, but CU fans are putting a lot of hope in Markques Simas, a big-time recruit from Hawkins' first full-year recruiting class who sat out last due to (I believe) academics.  With Smith, Simas could have had a nice role as the explosive #2 guy while Scotty McKnight continued to fill the "possession receiver" role, but without Smith the pressure will be on Simas to make plays from the very beginning.

Beyond Simas and McKnight (46 catches, 519 yards, 5 TDs)...oy.  The seven other names I listed on the projected WR depth chart combined for...wait for it...one catch in 2008.  And that one catch (from RB-turned-WR Kevin Moyd) garnered a loss of a yard.  You never know when somebody will emerge out of the blue and thrive, but you certainly don't want to have to rely on that.  With the level of inexperience here, the WR corps is ripe for an infusion of energy from a true freshman or two--don't be surprised if either/both Jarrod Darden (6'5, 210) and/or Terdema Ussery (6'4, 205) see the field early.

Scotty McKnight: 41 catches, 431 yards (10.5/catch), 3 TD
Jason Espinoza: 13 catches, 136 yards (10.5/catch), 1 TD
Markques Simas: 9 catches, 107 yards (11.9/catch), 1 TD
Patrick Devenny
: 8 catches, 107 yards (13.4/catch), 2 TD

Riar Geer: 28 catches, 326 yards (11.6/catch), 3 TD
Ryan Deehan: 8 catches, 77 yards (11.8/catch)

I'll say this right now: when Hansen escapes the pocket and attempts to buy time, somebody better find the tight end.  Not that either Riar Geer or Ryan Deehan is a threat to take a pass 50 yards or anything, but Geer appears to be the #1 safety valve option, and if somebody is going to bail Hansen (or Hawkins) out on a third-and-long, it's Geer.

Beyond that?  Blech.  Scotty McKnight is performing admirably in his "possession receiver" role, for seemingly the 13th consecutive year, and being that Missouri let Nebraska's possession receiver (Niles Paul, admittedly better than McKnight) go deep on them once, he's at least a bit of a threat.  But McKnight and Geer are the only two players averaging more than two receptions a game.  Markques Simas is the homeless man's Malcolm Williams--we've heard hype about him for a while, and he looks good in a uniform, but he just hasn't lived up to the hype yet.  That said, all nine of his receptions have come in the last four games, so he's at least working his way into the offense a bit.

Offensive Line

If there truly is hope for the Colorado offense in 2009, it probably comes from the potential of the offensive line.  Ryan Miller was another big-time recruit who got thrown into the deep end last year and actually acquitted himself pretty well.  Blake Behrens got a lot of early experience as well.  These two, combined with incoming redshirts Bryce Givens and Ryan Dannewitz, not to mention a host of sophomores (sans guard Max Tuioti-Mariner, who has suffered approximately 26 knee injuries in his brief CU career and is out at least for 2009, if not forever), should bring very solid line play to Colorado in the future. 

I can't say for sure that this will happen in 2009, mind you--the line may not congeal until 2010--but there is hope here.  Injuries and extreme youth decimated the line last year, so it's impossible to say exactly how much potential is here just yet (sounds like the running back corps, no?), but again, we're just talking about hope.  This will still be one of the conference's younger lines in 2009, but if things click soon, the entire offense starts to look a lot better.

Possibly the most intriguing unit-vs-unit matchup in Saturday's game comes here--CU's offensive line versus MU's defensive line.  I have been very impressed with Mizzou's front seven overall in conference play.  Nevada gashed them up the middle, and since then nobody's gashed them at all, aside from a long Roy Helu run after the Nebraska game had been salted away.  They have overachieved their rushing rankings the last 2-3 games, and that's an encouraging trend, but the pass rush still needs to improve.  They have been all-pros at almost getting to the QB, but that doesn't count for a lot.

Meanwhile, the Colorado OL has seen the same type of encouraging results.  Their line yardage figures have been surprisingly great (which brings about even more question marks regarding CU's actual running backs--their line yardage is great, yet they still don't have a back averaging more than 4.1 yards per carry??), but their sack rates leave something to be desired (again, this could be why Hansen is a better QB option...then again, he was sacked four times last week, so nevermind).  Strength vs strength, weakness vs weakness.  No matter what happens when Missouri has the ball, the game could be determined by who wins this matchup.  If Missouri wins it, how exactly is Colorado supposed to score?

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Defense

Colorado: 2009 Beyond the Box Score Preseason Defensive Preview

Colorado Defense vs Missouri Offense
Category CU Defense MU Offense
Close S&P+ (Rk) 114.9 (29) 106.9 (55)
Close Success Rate+ 120.4 (13) 104.4 (52)
Close PPP+ 108.7 (43) 113.4 (56)
Rushing S&P+ 117.7 (26) 103.4 (66)
Passing S&P+
110.9 (37) 112.5 (49)
Standard Downs S&P+ 117.5 (22) 105.7 (59)
Passing Downs S&P+
97.1 (71) 115.9 (46)
Red Zone S&P+ 118.3 (27) 74.4 (112)
Q1 S&P+ 101.6 (58) 113.1 (58)
Q2 S&P+ 120.3 (32) 99.5 (76)
Q3 S&P+ 132.0 (15) 119.7 (32)
Q4 S&P+ 105.9 (48) 112.4 (37)
1st Down S&P+ 112.5 (34) 104.1 (64)
2nd Down S&P+ 112.7 (37) 113.5 (49)
3rd Down S&P+ 114.7 (36) 117.9 (35)
Line Yards+ 106.4 (45) 109.5 (41)
Close Sack Rate+
168.1 (5) 161.7 (20)
Standard Downs /
Passing Downs Sack Rate+
190.5 (4) /
122.1 (38)
189.8 (13) /
118.4 (51)

 

When Missouri Has the Ball...
Missouri Rushing Advantage: Colorado
Missouri Passing Advantage: Push
Best Time for Colorado: 2nd Quarter
Best Time for Missouri: 4th Quarter


Missouri's advantages:

Passing Downs S&P+
Q4 S&P+
3rd Down S&P+
Line Yards+

Colorado's advantages:

Close S&P+, Success Rate+, PPP+
Rushing, Passing S&P+
Standard Downs S&P+
Red Zone S&P+
Q2, Q3 S&P+
1st, 2nd Down S&P+
Close, Standard Downs, Passing Downs Sack Rate+

Pretty jarring to see a Missouri offense with that many disadvantages, huh?  This is the world we live in.  This is also why Blaine Gabbert's ankle is such a huge wildcard for the rest of this season.  If Gabbert can get back to actually throwing accurate passes, then Missouri goes back to having a dangerous offense--most of the statistical regression has come in the last three games, since Donkey Kong Suh's Gabbert roll-up.  Before that, Missouri had a Top 30 offense (only Top 30 instead of Top 15 because of the weakness of the non-con defenses, but better than 55th, no?).  But as it stands now, CU has a majority of the advantages.

With these numbers, we can see a pretty clear picture for how both teams will succeed, if they succeed, when Missouri has the ball.

If Missouri succeeds, it will be through the improving running game (Mizzou's got the advantage in the trenches) and 3rd down passing.  Anecdotally speaking, CU's safeties have been by far their weakest link, and that has led to numerous breakdowns on 3rd downs and Passing Downs.  With experienced, fast route-runners like Danario Alexander and Jared Perry running around, they could wreak havoc in these situations if Gabbert can get the ball anywhere close to them.

If Colorado succeeds, you will know it quickly.  Derrick Washington is stuffed on the first carry of the game, and Gabbert launches a third-down pass 17 yards over Jared Perry's head.  The same thing played out in the second half of the Oklahoma State game and pretty much from the opening snap of the Texas game.  If Gabbert's first pass is far off-target, it will likely be another grind-it-out performance.  The good news is, Colorado's defense simply isn't as good as OSU's or Texas', but it's good enough to make stops if the running game regresses and Gabbert can't throw.  Oh yeah, and CU has a solid pass rush, and they'll happily tee off if given the opportunity.

Defensive Line

Remember how I pointed out yesterday that the CU receiving corps has next to no experience whatsoever?  Well they've got nothing on the CU D-line.  The eight names on the [projected depth chart] combined for 27.0 tackles, 4 sacks, and 2 TFL.  As a reference point, Mizzou's Jacquies Smith alone had 34.0 tackles, 1 sack and 3 TFL in 2008, and he didn't really start seeing a ton of playing time until a few games into the season.

Half of the 27.0 tackles listed above (and all of the sacks) came from Herrod, who by default becomes the unquestioned veteran leader of the line.  CU fans seem pretty excited about Conrad Obi, but it's all potential right now--he had exactly one tackle in 2008.  If he can stay healthy, I think good things could be in store for Curtis Cunningham, but we'll see.  The 7.5 tackles on his resume leave something to be desired.  As we'll see, the CU LB corps and secondary have quite a bit of potential in 2009, but if the line is a sieve, it won't matter.  CU had a mediocre D-line at best in 2008, and unless at least two of the people on the above list (or star recruit DE Nick Kasa) become studs, I don't see how the ranking won't fall in 2009.

DT Curtis Cunningham: 22.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU, 2 3DS (3rd-Down Stop*)
DE Marquez Herrod: 18.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 6 QBH, 5 3DS
DT Will Pericak: 11.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR, 1 PBU, 4 3DS
DE Forrest West: 6.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 2 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 3DS

* I really wish other schools recorded defensive stats like CU does.

The Colorado defensive line isn't asked to do a ton, but Curtis Cunningham's tackle total is impressive for a DT.  He seems like the type who is rather agile for his position but can be pushed around a bit.  In all, you see these individual stats and start to conclude that most of CU's solid sack rates come from blitzing linebackers.  Marquez Herrod, the aforementioned "unquestioned veteran leader of the line," has performed pretty well at end, but beyond that, this isn't a highly productive line.  Nick Kasa has been slowed by injuries and has managed just 2.0 tackles (1.0 TFL) thus far.

So that brings up an interesting question.  Texas aside, no team has blitzed Blaine Gabbert effectively, and even they picked and chose their spots quite well.  Gabbert's instincts are not at the same level as Chase Daniel's, but he's been quite effective in seeing blitzes coming and knowing where to go with the ball.  Teams who have effectively defended Missouri (without Texas' overall talent advantage) have done so by dropping as many as possible into coverage, and that doesn't appear to be Colorado's style.  That could work in Missouri's favor.

Linebackers

Last year, Jeff Smart, Shaun Mohler and Brad Jones combined to make up a solid-not-spectacular LB corps; this year Jones is gone, but a host of potentially capable replacements lie in wait. Jones was the big-time playmaker in the bunch (7 sacks, 7 TFL, 2 forced fumbles), and he will be missed.  While Smart and Mohler aren't big-time playmakers (they combined for just six sacks/TFLs) and Jones was (7 sacks, 7 TFL, 2 forced fumbles), every team needs a tackling machine or two, right?  The trick will be getting some good blitzing from one of the potential Jones replacements.

There really is a nice mix here between experience (Smart, Mohler, Burton) and guys with high ceilings (Beatty, Rippy, Major), but while I think the high-ceiling guys could be quite strong in 2010, I'm not sure where they lie for 2009.  I'm going to say that this unit has a pretty good chance to remain ranked somewhere in the 30s, but I'm not going to call for significant improvement until next year.

Jeff Smart: 59.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PBU, 2 QBH, 6 3DS
Marcus Burton: 28.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1 FF, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 4 3DS
Shaun Mohler: 15.0 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 2 3DS
B.J. Beatty: 14.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 PBU, 3 QBH, 2 3DS
Tyler Ahles: 10.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 3DS
Michael Sipili: 10.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 QBH, 1 3DS
Bryan Stengal: 5.0 tackles, 1 3DS

So far in 2009, it's been a mix of the experienced and high-ceiling guys getting the job done.  Jeff Smart has pretty much collected one of everything--INT, FF, FR, TFL, etc.--but is mostly the prototypical tackling machine.  The worrisome guys to me are Burton (experienced) and Beatty (high-upside).  They are more disruptive types than Smart is, and even though I encourage teams to blitz Gabbert--it usually works out well for Mizzou--if Colorado is going to make a game-turning play on defense, it's as likely to be from Burton and Beatty as anybody else on the team.  Also look out for Ahles, who had a pretty good game against K-State.  Overall, this is likely CU's best overall defensive unit.

As a whole, CU's tackle-splits (by that, I mean how many tackles each unit has made, and what kind of tackles) point to a defense similar to Nevada's--lots of tackles for loss, lots of big pass plays allowed.  Granted, Gabbert had two healthy ankles against Nevada, but I'd much prefer to see that type of defense again, especially if Mizzou's running game has started to improve.

Secondary

The strength of Colorado's defense in 2008, the Buffalo secondary returns a wealth of experience at cornerback...and a wealth of unknowns at safety.  If Anthony Perkins and Patrick Mahnke (or anybody else) can do well in the "last line of defense" role, the depth at corner should serve them well.  Cha'pelle Brown (71.5 tackles, 1 sack, 5 TFL, 10 pass breakups, 1 FF) was quietly strong last year, and either Jimmy Smith, Benjamin Burney or Jalil Brown should serve as a solid #2 CB.  But really, the performance of this unit will come down to the safeties.  I wasn't just amazed by the now-graduated Ryan Walters last year, and I think he is replaceable.  This isn't the biggest secondary, but it should still remain the strength of the defense and remain ranked somewhere in the teens, if not a smidge higher.

CB Cha'pelle Brown: 40.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 8 3DS
CB Jimmy Smith: 39.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 FR, 6 PBU, 4 3DS
S Anthony Perkins: 28.0 tackles, 1 PBU
CB Jalil Brown: 26.5 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FR, 6 PBU, 6 3DS
CB Benjamin Burney: 25.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FF, 3 PBU, 1 QBH, 3 3DS
S Ray Polk: 22.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 QBH, 2 3DS
S Patrick Mahnke: 9.0 tackles, 1 PBU

Last year Colorado had a Top 20 Passing S&P+ defense, and they returned pretty much all cornerbacks who contributed to that unit.  They also, however, lost both starting safeties.  Against Toledo, this cost them dearly.  Colorado simply didn't have the secondary speed to cope when Toledo's skill position players got to the second level of the defense.  Since then, things have improved a bit, but this unit is still a big question mark.  If Gabbert is throwing reasonably accurate passes, then a hungry Mizzou receiving corps should be just fast enough to give the CU pass defense fits.

Of course, if he's spraying the ball like he has been recently, the secondary is more than good enough to thank him for the charity and make some plays.

Special Teams

I didn't even know Colorado was allowed to have a bad place-kicker.  I just assumed that when Mason Crosby left, his replacement would be just as good.  Nope.  Last year, Aric Goodman was...well, we'll politely call him "iffy."  I mean, 5-for-14?  Really?  ...  He MUST improve if Colorado wants to duplicate its strong close-game record from a year ago.  They got lucky that he wasn't more of a liability last year.  Meanwhile, punting was only a hair better.  Matt DiLallo returns, and like Goodman, he must improve.  Seriously, how did Colorado not find somebody better than at least Goodman, if not Goodman and DiLallo?

Punt Returns Rank: 115th (Jason Espinoza: 19 returns, 3.2 average)
Net Punting Rank: 109th (Matt DiLallo: 34.6 Net Avg)
Kickoff Returns Rank: 21st (Darrell Scott: 21 returns, 26.9 average; Brian Lockridge: 13 returns, 24.9 average)
Opponents' Kickoff Returns Rank: 12th

Field Goals: 6-for-10 (Long: 54)
PATs: 19-for-20

Well, the good news is, there have been improvements in some areas.  Scott (who is out) and Lockridge (who is not) have combined for solid kick returning, and they have covered very well on their own kickoffs.  Plus, while Colorado is still one of the worst in the country at field goals (60% is tied for 101st in the country), 60% is certainly an improvement over last year's 36%, right?

Of course, there's also the matter of the atrocious punting and non-existent punt returns threat (I guess Espinoza is the only player on the team who can reliably catch a punt?).  Without a series of terrible bounces, Jake Harry should have little trouble flipping the field on punts, and assuming Carl Gettis' ankle is good to go, he could get a couple of decent return opportunities against a team that has already allowed two punt return touchdowns this year.

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Three Keys to the Game

Field Position

For three quarters against Kansas, Colorado was almost completely listless.  They were outscored in Q's 1, 3, and 4 by a combined 23-10.  But in Q2, they exploded for 24 points, in part because Todd Reesing almost literally handed them the ball at the KU 3 on one possession (leading to a one-play TD drive), then later was picked off by Jalil Brown, who returned the pick to the 1 (leading to a two-play TD drive).  Two drives, three plays, four yards...14 points.  That's how you give a desperate team confidence.  That's also how a team that manages just 322 yards for the entire game managed to score 34 points.  Without easy scoring drives, this team does not score big points.  They just don't.

Colorado's Scoring Drives and Sustained Drives

vs Colorado State

Sustained drives of 40 yards or more: 3
Scoring drives of 30 yards or less: 1

vs Toledo

Sustained drives of 40 yards or more: 6
Scoring drives of 30 yards or less: 1

vs Wyoming

Sustained drives of 40 yards or more: 4
Scoring drives of 30 yards or less: 1

vs West Virginia

Sustained drives of 40 yards or more: 4
Scoring drives of 30 yards or less: 1

vs Texas

Sustained drives of 40 yards or more: 1
Scoring drives of 30 yards or less: 1

vs Kansas

Sustained drives of 40 yards or more: 3
Scoring drives of 30 yards or less: 2

vs Kansas State

Sustained drives of 40 yards or more: 2
Scoring drives of 30 yards or less: 0

In conference play, they have averaged just two sustained drives per game, but they have been handed three scores on short fields.  Get rid of the short fields, caused mostly by turnovers and special teams mishaps, and you only have to score about 17 points to beat them.  Of course, that's easier said than done for Missouri.  Coinciding perfectly with Gabbert's injury, Missouri has averaged a -9.8 turnover points differential per game in conference play.  Plus, Mizzou has gotten murdered in the field position battle the last two weeks (partially due to turnovers).  Hand Colorado 10 points and good field position, and they can absolutely beat you.  Turnovers are always key, but never more than against Colorado.

Missouri's defensive line

Simply put, a) Colorado's running backs aren't good enough to create good rushes on their own, and b) Colorado's quarterbacks aren't good enough to make big plays with under pressure.  If the Missouri defensive line wins its battles versus the Colorado offensive line, Colorado simply cannot score enough to win, even with a handicapped Missouri offense.

Derrick Washington, Kendial Lawrence, De'Vion Moore

I listed them as keys to the Oklahoma State game as well, and while they performed relatively well, they didn't make enough of a difference to swing the game in Missouri's favor.  This one is also quite cut-and-dried: if Missouri can move the ball on the ground and give Blaine Gabbert as little to do as possible, Missouri will score enough points to win the game, barring major mishaps in Key #1 above.  If Gabbert is throwing an accurate ball, Mizzou could kill Colorado.  If he's not, Mizzou could still win if these three keys are clicking.

Prediction

As I've mentioned time and time again, I always go with what my numbers project here (even last week, when I had the distinct impression that the numbers were full of hooey).  The projections say Mizzou by 3.4, so we'll go with Mizzou 24, Colorado 21.  That said, I think the best odds are on one of two scenarios: Mizzou's offense finds a rhythm against a much less fast defense, and they win by 17-20 (at least), or Mizzou turns the ball over too much and loses by about 7-10.

I realize I just spent a couple of thousand words talking about Colorado above, but really this game is about Missouri.  Colorado is good enough to beat a team playing poorly and bad enough to get killed by a team playing well; therefore it's up to Missouri to play well and move to 5-3.  As Gary Pinkel said earlier this week, Mizzou's out of time.  It's time for the senior leaders--Sean Weatherspoon, Danario Alexander, Jaron Baston, Jared Perry, Kurtis Gregory--to take over, and it's time for the younger guys--Aldon Smith, De'Vion Moore, Wes Kemp, Jasper Simmons, Will Ebner, Dominique Hamilton, Dan Hoch, Elvis Fisher, Andrew Freaking Jones--to not only make some good plays here and there, but to take over a game.

This game will define Missouri's season.  We knew from the start that the NU-OSU-UT swing of games represented probably three of Mizzou's four most losable games, and Mizzou lost all three.  The next four games are exceedingly winnable, but it starts with Colorado.  If Mizzou wins on Saturday, a 9-3 record and third straight North title is not only conceivable, but quite realistic.  If they lose, however, then the rest of this season will instead be defined by scrounging around for another couple of wins and a bowl bid.  The North title and a true "eff you" to critics who predicted a major downfall in 2009 will go out the window.  It's a damn shame that Gabbert got hurt when he did--if he hadn't, Mizzou might be as good as 5-1 and ranked in the teens right now.  But he did, and it's time for everybody else on the team to carry him to a win the way he carried them in St. Louis and Reno.  Show us what you've got, Mizzou.

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