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Sometimes no matter how closely we look at the data, the simplest explanations still end up making the most sense. I think that's the case in explaining Missouri's defensive struggles on Saturday. The offense, however, gets more baffling with more thought. That said, if you are ever inclined to spend the time it takes to read one of these posts, I recommend doing it this time. Lots to discuss, lots to explain. And if the numbers make you go blind, just skip to the words.
|Field Position %
|Close Success Rate||44.3%
|Close Success Rate||33.3%
|Close Success Rate||50.0%
|SD/PD Sack Rate
||8.7% / 4.4%
||3.0% / 13.6%
|Turnover Pts Margin
|1st Down S&P||0.783
|2nd Down S&P||1.048
|3rd Down S&P||0.265
|Projected Pt. Margin
|Actual Pt. Margin
We all enjoy simple explanations, and because of that the whole theory of halftime adjustments has become very prevalent. It's how we explained the entire 1998 Missouri season (in which Mizzou led every game at halftime, yet went 8-4). However, as Smart Football and related sites have explained quite well, the concept doesn't really hold water.
The other coaching bogeyman is the aura surrounding "in-game adjustments" or "halftime adjustments," both of which are supposed to be the "hallmarks of good coaching." This is another thing where there’s a kernel of truth surrounding by a lot of speculation. Yes, a good coach will not do the same thing over and over again if it isn’t working, or if the other team has figured it out. And yes, coaching a game involves an ongoing process of what the other team is doing (this is one reason why I think, even if adjustments are part of the game, "halftime adjustments" are very much overrated). But if you want to see a bad coach then I’ll show you one who tries to "adjust" to everything the other team is doing with new schemes and ideas built-in midgame. Instead, teams with good coaching pretty much run only things within their plan — i.e. stuff they had practiced during the week. Indeed, much of what fans or commentators will pick out as an "adjustment" was something in the original gameplan that just didn’t get called until the second half because of the flow of the game.
So if this is true, then what the hell could be the cause of Missouri's very obvious second half offensive troubles? Part of the answer may lie in the next paragraph from that link:
While playcalling is definitely overhyped (hey, the talking heads get paid to talk about something), preparation is extremely important, and much of a gameplan involves contingency planning. It also means that the "base stuff" should have the counters built in, the constraint plays are already there, and the defensive adjustments are easy to make because they are a part of the system.
This offseason, we heard a lot about how the coaching staff had stripped things down in the playbook a bit, allowing Blaine Gabbert to grow into his role and not giving him everything they gave Chase Daniel last year. Is it possible that Missouri's offense is a bit too stripped down and not enough "counters" are built into the system? I honestly don't know. When I'm watching the game from the stands (and from the sideline view, no less, so it's hard to glean too much about any given play), I'm likely to only take into account whether a play was successful or not and who was directly involved. With only that level of understanding about this game and Mizzou's general second-half struggles, I shot Chris from Smart Football a quick e-mail yesterday to see what feedback he may have for the cause of second-half struggles in the absence of "halftime adjustments." Here were his general ideas:
My first guess is that a lot of this is variance. It's just when the touchdowns are happening.
My second guess is that it's tempo related. Mizzou runs a pretty proficient no-huddle, with lots of calls at the line at the line. It can take a good half to adjust to that fast tempo. If you buy that analysis then it's the first halves that are aberrations, not the second.
My third guess is that you're right other teams are adjusting throughout the game and that Mizzou is struggling with keeping up. Some of this is not called lacking counters, it's being exposed. It's clear Mizzou has an issue with the run game -- take away big days against Colorado, Furman, and Bowling Green and the team averages well under 100 yards a game. Once a team tries to take away Alexander and the like it's evident that Mizzou can't get much else going. I remember the Nebraska game Suh and the others just dominated the line of scrimmage.
After that...I don't know. I still think the wide disparity probably has a lot to do with variance as much as anything else. Mizzou's attack is clearly one dimensional this year, and Gabbert has played like a talented but injured first-year starter.
We all lean on the "halftime adjustments" concept because it's easy to understand, but it's a little too simple to blame Missouri's failures on the ten minutes that coaches have to talk things over at halftime. The offense is making adjustments every time the defense is on the field, and vice versa. But whatever the situation, Missouri is laying giant eggs in the third quarter, and it is killing them.
Here are Mizzou's per-game S&P+ numbers by quarter for conference play. Remember, 100 = average.
|Mizzou Offense: "+" Performance by Quarter
|at Oklahoma State||163.2||123.3||10.9||62.9|
|AVERAGE after NU
37.7!! For the season, Washington State's offense is the worst in the country in 3rd Quarter S&P+ at 51.1. That's how bad 37.7 is. Meanwhile, the 132.5 in Q1 would rank in the country's top ten. That's too extreme a difference for there to NOT be at least a little bit of, as Chris put it, variance. In a follow-up e-mail, he also said this:
Only other counterpoint is that during the early stretch of wins wasn't Mizzou basically a second half team? Being down to the likes of Nevada, etc before pulling away?Also curious how much Alexander's big plays skew the data. He's been awesome, but has obviously been more bottled up in the second half?
Otherwise I dunno. I'll just end with a semi related anecdote. Someone asked the Colts great OC Tom Moore if he was going to install any new plays for the playoffs. He said hell no, if he had such good plays for the playoffs he would have installed them during training camp.
It is absolutely correct that Alexander's big plays have come mostly in the first half, and that would certainly skew the PPP figures. It wouldn't skew success rates, and the success rates are falling in the second half too, but that does explain some of the potential variance in numbers.
But "it's just variance--let's not think too much about it" isn't really very satisfying an answer, is it?
Here's what we know for sure: two years ago, with an experienced quarterback and four future NFL targets in the WR/TE corps (including two tight ends...probably cannot overstate that point enough), Missouri ranked 10th in 3rd Quarter S&P+ and 2nd in 3rd Down S&P+. This year, they're 55th in 3rd Quarter S&P+ and 35th in 3rd Down S&P+. All things considered, those aren't terrible numbers, but they represent a couple of the biggest drop-offs between 2007 and 2009. Is it as easy to explain as "the gameplan is good, but the receiving corps isn't good enough to continue to succeed for 60 minutes, and the quarterback is still learning"? We treated the receiving corps as the team's biggest weakness heading into the season, and that was before we found out we were going to get absolutely nothing from the tight end position. With Danario basically lining up as the tight end in the slot (and making plenty of nice plays), we've still needed production from the other receivers, and while all three--Jared Perry, Wes Kemp, and Jerrell Jackson--have made plays here and there, all have suffered absolutely crippling drops at one point or another. While the running game has come and gone at times this year, we've needed other receivers to step up at key times, and nobody really has.
Of course, we can talk about offense all we want, but we're at least slightly missing the point since, in the end, they generated 478 yards on Saturday. The defense that gave up 427 yards was infinitely more responsible for the loss, so let's talk about them.
Cripes, Get Back to Fundamentals!
(Header title in honor of a rather enjoyable football blog.)
The more I think about Missouri's defensive performance on Saturday, the less I start to believe that Baylor's success had much to do with any Missouri adjustments, or lack thereof. Let's break the game up into chunks to show what I mean.
Baylor's First Two Drives: 21 plays, 130 yards (6.2 per play), 9 points
Baylor's Next Three Drives (and first two plays of the fourth drive): 18 plays, 61 yards (3.4 per play), 7 points
After the first two drives, Missouri did, in fact, adjust to Baylor's gameplan. And really, this shouldn't be a surprise--as Kevin Rutland mentioned after the game, Missouri knew Baylor would throw a lot of sideline-to-sideline passes, and Baylor knew they knew, because that's simply what Baylor does. It's part of their current offensive philosophy. It worked early, as Baylor blocked well on the outside and Mizzou missed some tackles, and those quick passes got 8-12 yards instead of 3-5. But Missouri did, in fact, adjust and slow Baylor down considerably. Baylor scored on their final possession of the first half, primarily because of a long kickoff return and two (two!) Missouri personal foul penalties, but the Bears' offense was slowing down.
And then two things happened: 1) Late in the second quarter, Carl Gettis knocked Kendall Wright down using mostly his neck and missed the rest of the game, and 2) Wright pulled off what was potentially the biggest play of the game on Baylor's first third-down attempt of the second half, bouncing around, dodging about 26 tackles, reversing field, and picking up 21 yards on 3rd-and-7.
Baylor's Next Four Drives: 19 plays, 175 yards, 17 points
The stretch from Wright's third-down catch-and-run (-and-run-and-run) to Nick Florence's 59-yard bomb to Wright, in which Gettis' replacement Robert Steeples once again got burned, made the difference in the game.
The fact is, trying to dink and dunk all game long is damn near impossible--eventually you're going to have to go deep successfully, otherwise you're only going to move the ball for so long. Even though Gettis himself got burned for a 30-yard gain early in the game, he is still clearly Mizzou's best cornerback, and while Steeples is likely a better athlete than Gettis, he just isn't experienced enough to be getting the playing time he's gotten in close games. I still have hope for him in the future, and he's shown signs of great potential, but the times he's had to step in for an injured Gettis this year--Q4 against Nebraska, Q3 and Q4 against Baylor--have ended up disastrous for Missouri.
I should stop there, however, because I don't want it to even remotely sound like I'm blaming Mizzou's defensive struggles on one player. I'm not; just about everybody on Missouri's defense (including Rutland and Gettis) got burned at one point or another. The simple fact is, if you can burn a team deep, and they know it, you can go back to the short passes for 4-10 yards all game long. By the third quarter (one-play safety drive aside), Baylor had Mizzou's secondary on a string, and with good play-calling, there's not a lot a defense can do if their secondary is getting beaten short and long. Try to blitz? As long as they have a quarterback making good decisions (and Nick Florence was amazingly mistake-free for a freshman), they'll find a quick pass to make. Play tight to take away the short pass? They'll beat you deep. Give a big cushion to avoid getting beaten deep again? Sideline passes again. There's really nothing you can do from a defensive play-calling perspective at that point. Missouri's struggles came down to plain old tackling, covering, and (cripes) fundamentals, and with so many options at their disposal, it's no wonder that Baylor was able to put up an insanely high 1.208 Passing Downs S&P.
And not to give anybody any excuses to make--in the end, there is still no excuse for giving up 427 passing yards to a redshirt freshman no matter how well he was playing--but I guess it really should be noted just how unlucky Missouri has been with injuries in the secondary this year. Jarrell Harrison missed the first month of the season, Gettis got dinged up just long enough for his replacement to get bombed in two extremely winnable games, Jasper Simmons barely played against Baylor because of an injured thigh (Remember his deep break-ups against OSU? He might have been able to make a difference on at least one of the bombs...or maybe not), Munir Prince has missed most of the last month to a hamstring injury, and now Hardy Ricks is lost for the season. Ricks has never been my favorite defensive back, but he was still a better option than others. In all, Mizzou has not had a healthy, complete secondary all year, and with so much necessary rhythm and communication needed among the safeties and corners, getting burned at some point was probably inevitable. One would have hoped that the Texas disaster would have made the unit congeal a bit better, and it didn't, but losing Gettis and Simmons, our two best overall DBs in 2009, on Saturday was probably every bit as important as anything Baylor did.
Danario Alexander. Mizzou lost track of him in the second half, probably because Baylor was doubling him (I wouldn't know for sure because, again, when I'm watching from the stands, I miss a lot), and until the final drive of the game he only had one catch for seven yards in the second half, but as I mentioned Saturday night, 13 catches for 214 yards was just ridiculous. Again, he's on pace for 103 catches, 1,499 yards, and 12 touchdowns. With a second solid option, or with a running game that didn't come and go from Saturday to Saturday, this offense would be extremely potent because of the job #81 has done, and it goes without saying that we are going to miss the crap out of him next year.
Sunday's podcast, but there was an assertiveness to Gabbert in the fourth quarter that we hadn't really seen before. He's not the type of sideline leader that Chase Daniel was, but he's growing on the field before our eyes, and he made all throws necessary to come back and win on Saturday. It's not his fault that, nine games into the season, his receivers can't consistently catch his passes.
. I'm copping from Ross on
The defensive ends. Mizzou's three-headed monster at end had turned into a one-man show in recent weeks, with Aldon Smith's impact dwarfing that of Jacquies Smith and Brian Coulter. But all three played well on Saturday, equally (more-or-less) splitting 10 solo tackles, 6 assists, and 4 tackles for loss. Of all the troubles Mizzou had on Saturday, getting to the quarterback really wasn't one of them. Of course, that brings two other things to light: 1) Mizzou's poor tackling in the secondary, and 2) seriously, how great was Nick Florence? He got hit a lot and still made tough throw after tough throw. Even some of his sideline passes were thrown just past the reach of Aldon Smith and perfectly on-target to the outside shoulder of the Baylor receiver, where the Mizzou DB couldn't break it up. This is going to piss me off all the more when he makes about 15 mistakes a game for the rest of the season, but he was virtually mistake-free on Saturday despite a decent pass rush, and he deserves commendation for that.
Tackling. Duh. From Dave Matter on Twitter.
Pinkel: #Mizzou had 18 missed tackles vs. Baylor. YikesOuch. With all of the analysis we do on this site and in these BTBS posts, sometimes the answer is quite simple. If Mizzou tackles well, then the short passes don't work. And if the short passes don't work, Mizzou's cornerbacks possibly don't end up getting sucked up closer to the line of scrimmage and burned deep, particularly in the second half. And without those deep balls, Baylor does not win. We know they can tackle well--they obviously have in the past--but they didn't. Fundamentals!
What the hell happened to the running game? As Beef pointed out on the aforementioned podcast (you're all listening to these, right?), Mizzou's lack of success (and, really, lack of attempts) was quite baffling. Baylor entered the game with a solid pass defense and nonexistent rush defense. Well, despite second half struggles, Mizzou passed for 9.0 yards per pass...and Mizzou's tailbacks averaged 3.0 yards per carry. You can't blame Mizzou for passing more when the run failed so badly, but it makes me very curious about the overall gameplan itself. We hear a lot about how Mizzou scripts seemingly all of their plays for certain situations, and I love this strategy--if nothing else, it tells you they believe in some of the general concepts discussed above from Smart Football Chris. In theory, scripting a ton ensures that you are incorporating enough randomness into the gameplan that it's harder to adjust. But did the script actually call for that much passing? In the first half, on Standard Downs (looking only at those, because Passing Downs are obviously more likely to make you stray from the script), Mizzou threw 16 passes and ran just 8 times. Maybe this was a "pass to set up the run" thing? Or as Beef put it, were we so successful at the pass that the run became too much of an afterthought?
Kickoff coverage. Don't think I forgot about you, kick coverage team. Baylor entered the game a pretty solid return team, and they should have been expected to have some success there, but here was Baylor's starting field position after Mizzou kickoffs (excluding the end-of-half kickoff and the squib after Mizzou's last score): Baylor 36, Baylor 31, Baylor 20, Mizzou 42, Baylor 33. That's an average start at the 36-yard line, about 10 yards further than it should have been, and it particularly hurt Mizzou in the second quarter, when the return to Mizzou's 42 gave Baylor scoring position despite Mizzou's (at the time) defensive improvement.
Three Keys Revisited
Seen here. Rarely have the three keys been so prescient.
When Missouri has the ball, one of Baylor's biggest advantages come in Passing Downs. Meanwhile, the fight is about even when Baylor has the ball. Overall, this is a tossup that could go in the Bears' favor, but that's not a huge deal unless Missouri is turning the ball over.
Mizzou's 0.711 S&P on Passing Downs actually wasn't that bad, but it was almost 50% worse than Baylor's. This really could have been the single biggest deciding factor in the game. Baylor was allowed to extend too many drives. Against a freshman quarterback facing a decent pass rush, this should have never, ever happened.
Touchdowns over Field Goals
Let's face it: Missouri's offense has been simply horrible in the red zone this year. ... Meanwhile, Baylor's red zone defense has been downright solid. If Missouri has to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, then Baylor gets to stick around a little longer. BU does not have a lot of confidence, and the key to a game like this is stomping on the throat. Field goals are good, but they don't get the job done as quickly.
Thanks to Mizzou's struggles in opposing territory, Grant Ressel is a Groza Award semifinalist. That's great and all, but how much of a difference could it have made if a couple of Ressel's field goals had actually been touchdowns? Early in the second quarter, Mizzou had first-and-10 from Baylor's 15, got stuffed on the run, and kicked a field goal. Then they advanced to the Baylor 28 before Gabbert very much overthrew Michael Egnew on third down. Then, in the fourth quarter, Gabbert took a terrible sack (I don't want to absolve Gabbert from all blame here--he has to get better at throwing the ball away) on first down, and Danario Alexander dropped a potentially huge pass on 3rd-and-22, and Mizzou had to settle for another field goal. Mistakes have plagued Mizzou in this regard, and it continues to cost them, even with one of the most automatic kickers in the country.
Many an upset was kick-started by a special teams disaster. Baylor's got a good enough return game to make Missouri pay for shoddy coverage, but as long as Missouri plays disciplined and doesn't allow any major returns, Baylor's kicking/punting game and place-kicking aren't good enough to make Missouri pay.
We've covered Mizzou's struggles on kickoff returns, but we should also give a major shout out to Baylor's Derek Epperson and, more importantly, Baylor's punt coverage team. Epperson has made huge kicks all year, but he's pretty consistently out-kicked his coverage (just like I did with my wife, ahem), and it has led to some big returns. Losing Carl Gettis hurt Mizzou quite a bit, but even with Gettis Mizzou probably wouldn't have improved much on Epperson's insane 46.0 net yards per kick. Baylor's kick returns cost Mizzou about 10 yards of real estate, and so did Baylor's punting. In a game so close in terms of yardage and EqPts, every yard counts, and even with Ressel being automatic, special teams cost Mizzou dearly.
As I mentioned back in December, from 2005 to 2008, Mizzou went 15-2 against teams that finished with between a 0.251 and 0.500 win percentage, better than any four-year span in even the Dan Devine era. Fact is, Mizzou was probably due a loss like this, their first since the 2006 loss to Iowa State. I realize that any loss to a team like that is in one way or another inexcusable, but quite frankly it happens to everybody, even the Pete Carroll's of the world. That's not what certain fans (or Maneater writers) want to hear, but it's true.
We can be as dismayed and annoyed by the loss as we want, but let's not pretend it says anything particularly bad overall about Gary Pinkel and his staff. If you're looking for a coach who doesn't lose games like this periodically, be prepared to a) pay that man about $5 million a year (double what Pinkel makes), b) risk losing him to a bigger school that will pay more money than you ever could, and c) risk losing games like this anyway, because s*** happens. Even great coaches get outcoached. Bear Bryant got outfoxed by Al Onofrio. So did Tom Osborne. And John Robinson. Hell, Nick Saban (one of those aforementioned $5 million+ coaches) got outcoached by Charlie Weatherbie two years ago. The trick to long-term success is ensuring that losses like these don't happen often. Can Mizzou recover against K-State (a team that still has at least a chance of falling into the aforementioned 0.251-0.500 bracket)? Can they take care of business against Iowa State and make sure they still get a bowl out of this season?
A good response to a loss like this is what brings you long-term success, and it's time to turn the page and look to the rest of the season. The next three games will tell us more about this team than anything that happened last Saturday.