Morning Border War Links and Discussion

Consider this your pre-game discussion thread.  Below are some gameday links and a discussion I had with the sports editor of the Lawrence Journal-World and a closeted stat-nerd, Jesse Newell.

First, the links:

 

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Between Denverjhawk, KU Doug from the Roundtable, and Jesse Newell, we've had all sort of mostly cordial conversation with Jayhawks this week, and honestly, I feel rather dirty.

Bill C.:
1 - I mentioned in my BTBS preview that I can't take the loss of Toben Opurum too seriously because I think he and Jake Sharp are basically the same quality of back (Opurum a bit bigger, Sharp a bit faster).  If Sharp is 100% healthy, is there any drop-off from Opurum to Sharp?

2 - Last year, Kansas absolutely assassinated Missouri with the dink-and-dunk pass and, when Mizzou's defense finally got tired in the second half (as much a factor Mizzou's offense not being able to stay on the field in the first half as much as anything, I think), KU burned them downfield too.  I would have to figure the same type of offensive strategy will be on display this year, especially since that's the exact strategy that Baylor used to burn Mizzou late.  Do you have any reason to believe KU won't try as many quick sideline-to-sideline passes this year?

3 - There have been all sorts of personnel shifts throughout the season in the KU secondary, leading to nine guys registering double-digit tackles.  Where do you feel the secondary stands coming into the game?  Playing its best?  Less so?

Jesse Newell:
1. If Sharp is 100-percent healthy, then the two are about equal. The question to answer, though, is whether Sharp is healthy or not.


KU coach Mark Mangino has admitted that Sharp hasn't shown the same burst since Sharp's calf injury suffered in Week 3, and the numbers reflect that. In Sharp's carries before the injury he had 42 carries for 240 yards (5.7 average). In his carries since the injury, he has 53 carries for 168 yards (3.2 average). Obviously, KU playing tougher competition in the Big 12 also should be factored in, but that's still a steep drop-off.

I think Opurum was the better of the two backs recently, and where KU will miss him most is in third-and-short situations. He became a Marcus Allen of sorts for them over the past few weeks, as nearly every third-and-one, he came in to move the pile forward two yards for a first down. That kind of player is especially valuable against Missouri, as you have already talked about the importance of KU sustaining drives in the first half to tire MU's defense in the second half. The Jayhawks used that gameplan in 2008, and it certainly paid dividends for them late.

The simple fact is this, though: This year, KU has never committed to the run. I don't know why it is, but KU usually abandons its running game early whether it's working or not. If MU's defense shuts down KU's runs early, most likely KU will abandon the running game completely just a few possessions in.

2. I think you're right on with your assessment. Consider this as well:  In KU's loss to MU in 2007, the Tigers held the ball for 37 minutes, 25 seconds. In KU's win last year, the Jayhawks held the ball 34 minutes exactly. The MU game notes also show that since 2005, when the Tigers have the ball 31 minutes or longer in a game, they are 14-0.

I think KU's only chance of winning this game will be to try to control the football to wear out MU's defense. KU hasn't been able to do much to stop MU's offense in the last two years (other than forcing turnovers), so limiting possessions might not be a bad idea, either. KU's biggest disadvantage to playing this strategy is what I listed above: Not only has KU been ineffective running the football lately, the Jayhawks also have shown no interest in committing themselves to try to run the football.

The short answer to your question is this: Yes, I would expect lots of dinking and dunking to happen in this year's game as well. When those MU corners start to roll up a bit, though, look for KU to start to take some shots down the field, especially with big-play specialist Dezmon Briscoe.

3. KU's defense as a whole peaked about  three weeks ago when it put together solid performances against Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Kansas State. Some of the scores don't reflect it, mostly because KU's offense went through a stretch of 10 turnovers in 10 quarters and started giving away points to the opposition. The defense has fallen hard back to earth in the last two weeks with horrible efforts against Nebraska (bad offense) and Texas (good offense).

The KU secondary merry-go-round has been interesting to say the least. Just when I thought KU had something good going for it a few weeks ago, the carousel started up again and more players were moved in and out of the mix.

I'd say at this point, the secondary is actually playing some of its worst football of the year. NU has just three passes of 35 or more yards in their first five Big 12 games, and KU allowed four, 35-plus yard passes from Zac Lee to Niles Paul alone. KU's corners couldn't do much of anything right against UT last week, either, as a huge cushion allowed some big gains underneath, while the Longhorns also hit the Jayhawks deep for 68- and 38-yard TD passes. Anthony Davis, in his return to the lineup, has been burnt deep consistently, and Chris Harris, though he's had a nice year, was playing way too far off receivers last week. Darrell Stuckey has had a good — but not great — year, and KU's corners aren't particularly tall, either. I'd say it's a pretty good time for MU's pass-happy offense to be taking on the KU secondary.


Here are a few questions for you.

1. I haven't been able to watch Danario Alexander much in the last few weeks. What has been the main reason for his unbelievable success in the last month? KU's corners aren't the tallest, but they've also given up their share of big plays. Alexander seems to have a rare blend of size and speed, so would you say KU should be more concerned with him going above the corners in jump-ball situations or beating KU's corners down the field?

2. Derrick Washington should be able to play against KU after suffering a concussion. Is this significant for MU? Or do you believe the Tigers will mostly stick to their passing game against the Jayhawks?

3. Again, I haven't seen much of the Tigers lately, so what is the scouting report on Blaine Gabbert? What are his greatest strengths? What have other defenses done to slow him down? In what situations is he least effective?

4. I expect KU to pass quite a bit in this game, so can you evaluate how MU's pass defense has performed lately? Who are a couple MU defensive players that have emerged as of late?

Bill C.:
1.  The thing about Danario is, he's been so good over the past few weeks that he has ended up replacing both Jeremy Maclin AND Chase Coffman.  He can beat defenders on the long routes, and he can take a swing pass 70 yards.  His yards after catch have been staggering.  His 63-yard TD against Iowa State came on about a 2-yard sideline route.  His 80-yarder against K-State was on about a 10-yard route.  Meanwhile, his 54-yarder against K-State was caught at the 5.  I try to avoid hyperbole, but he has started to look more and more like Randy Moss in recent weeks, with great all-around ability and ridiculously long strides.  Knowing what he has fought through (a broken wrist early in 2007, followed by a torn-up knee in the Big 12 title game, which required three surgeries and about 18 months of recovery time to get back to 100%), it has been extremely heart-warming to see him come this far.  And if he can duplicate what he did against KU in 2007, he could send KU home a loser.

2.  Derrick Washington is easily MU's most physical back.  He really hasn't shown the top-end speed that he showed in the first half of last season, but if it's 3rd-and-2, I'd much rather D-Wash be getting the handoff instead of De'Vion Moore or Kendial Lawrence, both of whom are relatively capable speed backs but aren't bangers.  As I mentioned in the preview, Tony Temple's success against KU in 2007 was a very underrated facet of MU's win, and since MU's running game was all but nonexistent for three quarters in last year's game, having Washington is certainly a good thing.  KU's D-line has been statistically unimpressive, and if MU can run the ball well, they up their chances of winning considerably.

3.  Gabbert's pocket presence is still a work in progress, but he has shown massive improvement in the recent weeks.  And for the season, taking the sprained ankle into account (he was not even half the QB against NU, OSU, and Texas), his numbers have potentially been as or more impressive than Chase Daniel's were in 2006.  I think KU's best strategy against him will be to confuse him.  Mix coverages, mix how many you rush, etc.  He has improved by leaps and bounds since the Bowling Green game, when BGSU dropped seven into coverage and he started rushing his throws, feeling a pass rush when there was none, but that's still his biggest weakness.  He's got the prettiest deep ball you'll ever see, and if KU's secondary suffers lapses, they'll pay.

4.  MU's secondary is extremely matchup- and injury-dependent.  They handle bigger, more physical WRs pretty well (the first two quarters against OSU's Hubert Anyiam aside), but they are vulnerable to pure speed.  Baylor's Kendall Wright and David Gettis are only decent in terms of route-running and hands, but they are burners, and they burned Mizzou both short and deep.  Iowa State had some early luck with the dink-and-dunk passes (Mizzou's defensive philosophy has always been to give large cushions to WRs and allow the short pass, but avoid getting burned deep), but the success only lasted a while because their WRs weren't fast enough to burn Mizzou deep when the Tigers adjusted.  This is why Dez Briscoe scares me much more than Kerry Meier does, despite what Meier did at the end of last year's game.  Briscoe can get behind them.

Regarding injuries, Mizzou's two biggest breakdowns of the season, in the fourth quarter against Nebraska and the second half against Baylor, both happened when Carl Gettis was injured and on the bench.  Gettis is not quite the all-conference caliber CB we thought we had a couple of years ago, but he is by far Mizzou's most steady DB, and with him on the field, Mizzou's secondary is much less vulnerable to breakdowns.  Plus, safety Jasper Simmons was injured against Baylor too, which didn't help, as he's been by far Mizzou's best safety.  Mizzou's secondary isn't great, and the Briscoe-Meier combo still scares the daylights out of me, but as with most teams, if they are full-strength, they are much, much better.

My turn!

1. You've outlined how KU might not even make a bowl if they win on Saturday ... with that in mind, where do you think they're head is at heading into the game?  Or maybe here's the better question: I expect to see KU's A-game on display ... but what exactly is their A-game?  Top 15 caliber?  Top 25?

2. From what you do know about Mizzou, what scares you the most compared to what you know about KU's strengths and weaknesses?

Jesse Newell:
1. I think KU's players believe that if they win Saturday, they will go to a bowl game. With that mind-set, I would expect to see KU's four senior captains (Reesing, Sharp, Meier, Stuckey) literally playing for their careers (and also remember, this is most likely Dezmon Briscoe's last game, too). Those guys have been a part of the greatest stretch in KU football's history, and I think they know that their previous reputation might be hurt a bit if they can't get to six wins and a bowl game this season. Whether they like Mangino or not, I would expect these guys to be playing for themselves on Saturday. I'm with you: I don't see this as a game where KU's players come out uninspired or unmotivated.

You pose a good question about how good KU's "A" game is. I will say this: KU has been a bit unfortunate in that when its offense has played well, its defense has stunk, and when its defense has played well, its offense has stunk. If KU put its best two units together this season, I would say that a top-20 team wouldn't be a stretch, but once again, that hasn't happened in the last nine games, so I'm certainly not expecting it now.

Todd Reesing went through a tough spell mid-season, but he actually looked pretty good last week against Texas. KU's defense looked solid three weeks ago, but it hasn't played well in the Jayhawks' two games since. For the third straight year, I'd expect a high-scoring game. Even if the Jayhawks have an "A" game defensively, they still probably will struggle to keep the Tigers under four touchdowns.

2. This one's easy: Danario Alexander's ability to break off big plays.

The last three weeks, KU's defense has allowed 17 plays of 20-plus yard plays to opponents. The last two weeks, KU has given up seven, 20-yard-or-more passing plays to opponents.

As I mentioned before, both NU and UT made a habit of picking on KU's cornerbacks the last two weeks. KU's cornerbacks have been routinely beaten deep, but they've also struggled when taller receivers have simply gone over the top of them to bring in receptions. Looks like Alexander can do either. Unless KU's defense tries something exotic to shut down Alexander, I'd say he's a lock for 100 yards and has a decent shot at another 200-yard receiving game.

One more ...

1. I've heard a lot of people say KU has more to play for in this game. However, how would MU's view of its season change if the Tigers were to lose to KU? How would the MU fans' perception of the season change?

Bill C.:
I'm probably not the best Mizzou fan to ask about that, as I try to never let one game impact how I view the season as a whole.  Last year's loss to KU was really annoying, but Mizzou still won ten games and the North division, so it didn't really impact me much beyond the annoyance at the moment.

This season, I had three main goals for Mizzou: win the North again, go to a bowl, and with so much youth playing key roles (there have been between 25 and 35 freshmen and sophs on the two-deep all season), the final goal was to simply not mess up the program's trajectory for 2010 and 2011.  The first goal went out of the window with the fourth quarter collapse (sans Carl Gettis) in the monsoon against Nebraska, but the other two goals have been accomplished no matter what happens at Arrowhead.

That said, I fully accept that I'm not the typical Mizzou fan.  I saw last night on other message boards where some fans think this is easily the biggest game in the series in quite a while (no memory of 2007 apparently) and they would take a loss to Illinois next year for a win over KU this year...which, to me, is absolutely, positively insane.

I guess what matters most, however, is that the players and coaches very much remember last year and have brought it up multiple times.  KU has more to play for, but I do think Mizzou shows up ready to roll.

My final question: I have a friend from Independence who constantly mourns the fact that Paul Rudd went to KU because "he seems like such a perfect Mizzou guy".  Discuss.

(Subquestion: what Mizzou alum would have made the best KU alum?)

Jesse Newell:
I just hope Paul being a KU alum doesn't ruin the hilarious parts he has in movies. KU also can claim Mandy Patinkin! (My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!)

Subquestion: As a KU alum, I would have to say that ridiculously good-looking men attend KU, thus making Brad Pitt the obvious choice (I'm not sure he graduated, but I'm still counting him anyways).

Bill C.:
I must say, one of the most entertaining parts of the MU-KU Gameday in 2007 was the "Famous Alums" section...they had Don Johnson versus Brad Pitt, I believe...but hey, you've got Jason Sudeikis repping KU every Saturday night, so that's something...and yeah, Rudd must be all sorts of funny if we enjoy him despite his, um, obvious flaws...

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