Anatomy of "They refused to run the ball!!!"

I know I hate a certain announcer team when I start disagreeing with them even when they're basically right.  I was so sick of Mark Jones mispronouncing every other Mizzou player's name and Bob Davie constantly expressing his displeasure with spread formations (he never said "I hate the spread", but you could tell) that I even revolted against them when they correctly said Mizzou should be running the ball more.  Of COURSE they should have been running the ball more, but the 13th time Davie said "They REFUSE to run the ball!" when they had, in fact, run the ball quite a few times, I wanted to stab my eyeballs out.

By the third quarter, the official Texas Bowl meme was "Mizzou refused to run the ball!!!!" A look at each possession shows that that analysis is unfair and lazy.  Opportunity and execution killed Mizzou, not runs versus passes.  Sure, Mizzou passed in a few situations where they should have run, but it simply wasn't as bad as Davie and quite a few fans thought in real-time.

To prove my point, let's go possession-by-possession.

Possession #1 (Q1, 14:48, 0-0)

1st-and-10, Mizzou 38: Sideline pass to Andrew Jones for 4 yards
2nd-and-6, Mizzou 42: Sideline pass to Danario Alexander for 58 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Clearly Mizzou's initial script called for a multitude of sideline passes to take advantage of Navy's soft coverage.  The way Mizzou's receivers blocked on this opening possession, that seemed like a pretty wonderful gameplan.  And I already need to make a pretty clear point: sideline passes are basically long handoffs.  They are high-percentage passes that might not get a lot of yards (unless they go to Danario, of course), but they stretch the field horizontally like a lot of running plays -- like the option -- are designed to do.  And on the first possession, they worked wonderfully.

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Possession #2 (Q1: 11:25, 7-0 Mizzou)

1st-and-10, Mizzou 20: Sideline pass to Derrick Washington for 15 yards
1st-and-10, Mizzou 35: Middle pass to Jared Perry incomplete (dropped)

Right here, you can say that Mizzou probably should have tried to run it -- Mizzou had very quickly stretched the field horizontally, and they could have tested the guts of the Navy defense, but in the end, Perry dropped what should have been a pretty easy pitch-and-catch, so you really can't blame David Yost for that.

2nd-and-10, Mizzou 35: De'Vion Moore rush for 4 yards
3rd-and-6, Mizzou 39: Blaine Gabbert "rush" for 0 yards

Mizzou ended up punting, obviously.  After the first-down drop, Moore managed a decent run, but on 3rd-and-6, most teams not named Navy are going to throw the ball.  You can call the first down pass to Perry a missed opportunity if you want, but I think the play-calling was still fine here.

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Possession #3 (Q1: 2:58, 7-7)

1st-and-10, Mizzou 19: Sideline pass to Danario Alexander for 11 yards
1st-and-10, Mizzou 30: Blaine Gabbert sacked for -5 yards on run-pass "decide" play

Mizzou always tries to run some trick(esque) plays, especially in bowl games, and this "decide" play was one of them.  It started out looking like a zone read and gave Gabbert the option of pitching to a receiver (Alexander, I think).  The problem was, it was well-covered, and Gabbert completely and totally froze.  Instead of throwing the ball away, he took the sack.  It was almost like he forgot that he hadn't crossed the line of scrimmage yet.  Regardless, it was a drive-killer.

2nd-and-15, Mizzou 25: Sideline pass to Derrick Washington, inaccurate and incomplete
3rd-and-15, Mizzou 25: Deep pass to Wes Kemp, incomplete

You can try to run the ball on 2nd- and 3rd-and-long, but it's probably not going to get you much.  Regardless, it's hard to make the argument that they should have.  This drive was killed by the sack.

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Possession #4 (Q2: 13:35, 7-7)

At this point, Mizzou had run all of ten plays, six of which came on Standard Downs (1st-and-10, 2nd-and-6 or less, 3rd-and-4 or less) and four on Passing Downs.  Again, if you want to question passing plays on Passing Downs, go ahead, but it's not going to get you very far with me.  The fact is, once you get yourself into Passing Downs, there probably isn't a good play-call to be made.

Of the six Standard Downs play-calls, four were sideline passes (three of which worked), one was an intermediate pass that was dropped, and one was the botched trick(ish) play.  This was still very much within the scripted portion of the play-calling, and clearly the staff decided that sideline passes were a good way to exploit Navy's cushion-filled defense.  For the most part, they were obviously right.  Gabbert was 4-for-4 on those passes for 88 yards and a touchdown.  The other two Standard Downs playcalls were more aggressive and much less successful.  Hindsight 20/20, et cetera, but clearly those were two rushing opportunities that we can now say should have been exploited.

Of course, the bigger issue at play here was that Mizzou had managed to run just ten plays in the game's first 16.5 minutes, wasn't it?  Can't get too far into the gameplan when you have the ball that small an amount of time.

1st-and-10, Mizzou 9: De'Vion Moore rushes for 9 yards
2nd-and-1, Mizzou 18: De'Vion Moore rushes for 5 yards
1st-and-10, Mizzou 23: De'Vion Moore rushes for 2 yards

Now most likely out of the "scripted" portion of the playbook, Mizzou started to exploit what Navy was doing defensively by running the ball ... until it backfired.  This drive got behind (and by "got behind", I mean Mizzou fell into passing downs situations) because Moore ran poorly on first down from the 23.  The play was the typical Mizzou cut-back play, where the running back takes the ball moving side-to-side, then cuts back while the linemen use the defenders' side-to-side leverage against them.  It has worked beautifully for Mizzou over the years, particularly against Kansas over Thanksgiving weekend.  But Moore did not cut back quickly enough, and the one guy in any position to tackle him was able to bring him down.  If he cuts sooner, he gets at least 6-8 yards on the run.  Regardless, Mizzou is "behind" now, and again ... you can complain about calling passes on 2nd-and-8, but it's not going to get very far.

2nd-and-8, Mizzou 25: Sideline pass to Danario Alexander, inaccurate and incomplete
3rd-and-8, Mizzou 25: Intermediate pass to Danario Alexander, barely tipped and dropped

A bad pass and a nice defensive play just barely ended this drive, but again, once Mizzou fell into 2nd-and-8, all bets were off.

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Possession #5 (Q2, 10:14, 7-7)

1st-and-10, Mizzou 23: Derrick Washington rush for 6 yards
2nd-and-4, Mizzou 29: Inside screen to Danario Alexander for 16 yards

Two plays designed to exploit the softness in the middle of Navy's defense.

1st-and-10, Mizzou 45: Kendial Lawrence rush outside for 3 yards

This play wasn't very well-executed.  It was another slight misdirection play, with Lawrence moving to the right, away from most blockers and tacklers.

2nd-and-7, Mizzou 48: Intermediate sideline pass to Michael Egnew, inaccurate and incomplete
3rd-and-7, Mizzou 48: Blaine Gabbert sacked for loss of 4

The run had been working pretty well, and Mizzou probably coulda/shoulda run the ball on 2nd-and-7, but the fact is, the pass to Egnew was open.  If I remember correctly (I'm going by memory here -- didn't think to record the game so I could review it ... didn't think I'd have to), this was a play action pass, and Gabbert just short-armed it.  A good pass means either a fresh set of downs or a 3rd-and-short situation.  And Navy's "drop nine into coverage" strategy was designed to eat up long passing downs like 3rd-and-7.  It did just that, once again with Gabbert freezing up when his first option was covered.

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Possession #6 (Q2, 2:04, 7-7)

Navy had just fumbled into the Mizzou endzone, and Yost/Pinkel had a decision to make: do you try to open up the passing game, or do you try to eat a little clock first?  Potentially the best piece of Gary Pinkel's game management package over the years has been Mizzou's end-of-half ability to eat enough clock that their opponent doesn't have much time to work with if they have to punt, then gunning it if they pick up a first down or two.  That's clearly what they were going to try to do here.

1st-and-10, Mizzou 20: Derrick Washington rush for 3 yards, FUMBLE

Can't blame Yost for a Washington fumble, can you?

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Possession #7 (Q2: 0:45, 14-7 Navy)

So Navy gets a second chance after Ricky Dobbs' fumble, and they take advantage.  Dobbs scores on the third play of their drive, and Mizzou gets the ball back with little time left.  Of course they're going to pass here.

1st-and-10, Mizzou 35: Over-the-middle pass to Wes Kemp for 19 yards
1st-and-10, Navy 46: Deep pass to Derrick Washington for 35 yards
1st-and-goal, Navy 9: Blaine Gabbert rush for -2 yards

Ironically, this was the worst play-call of the game to me ... and it was a run.  I don't know if it was a busted play, or if they thought they would catch Navy off-guard by having Gabbert sneak right, but it very much did not work.  At this point (2nd-and-11), you have to be very careful.  You absolutely have to get some points here, so you can't take too much of a chance and throw a pick.  Either way, Mizzou's clearly going to pass.

2nd-and-goal, Navy 11: Pass to Danario Alexander, inaccurate and incomplete

This was open at the goalline, and Gabbert threw it behind Danario, who got enough of a grab at it that he probably should have pulled it in, but either way, a good pass results in either a touchdown or a 3rd-and-goal from the 1.

3rd-and-goal, Navy 11: Pass to Danario Alexander, well-covered and incomplete

A good pass might have resulted in a touchdown, but let's just say you have to make a really, really good pass when you're throwing into triple coverage.  Regardless, we're lucky this wasn't picked, and Mizzou got three points out of the drive.  Good when you consider where the drive started and how much time was left, bad when you consider they had first-and-goal from the 9.

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Possession #8 (Q3, 10:04, 21-10 Navy)

Alright, you want to complain that Mizzou didn't run enough?  Here's your best opportunity.  Navy had just driven down, converted a 4th-and-1 from the Mizzou 43, and executed a perfect, 5-minute touchdown drive.  Mizzou really needed to get methodical on this drive and get their bearings.

1st-and-10, Mizzou 35: Blaine Gabbert intercepted by Ross Pospisil

I have no idea what the other routes were on the play, but there was no doubt that Gabbert was looking downfield, and whoever he was throwing to (Kemp, I think) never had a chance.  They baited him into this one, and wanting to make a play, he got overly-aggressive.  Regardless, I was really hoping for a run here, and this is the one single play-call that was absolutely wrong, even if there were options open underneath that Gabbert just missed.

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Possession #9 (Q3, 4:30, 21-10 Navy)

Mizzou was given a reprieve here, when Ricky Dobbs fumbled a 4th-and-1 snap and couldn't get the first down after recovering it.  That play, combined with what was about to come, made Mizzou think they might actually come back and win the game.

1st-and-10, Mizzou 4: Derrick Washington rush for 7 yards
2nd-and-3, Mizzou 11: Derrick Washington rush for 4 yards

Here's where I wanted to hurl a shoe at my television (again).  Bob Davie started feigning shock at Mizzou actually running the ball -- he had already said "They refuse to run the ball" about 17 times -- when, as we see from the analysis above, they had very few opportunities to run the ball beyond when they actually did, and the two biggest offensive mistakes in the first half -- Washington's fumble and Gabbert's sneak -- were both rushes.  I realize when you're an announcer, you create in-game storylines and use them as jumping-off points, but this was getting ridiculous.

1st-and-10, Mizzou 15: Derrick Washington rush for 10 yards
1st-and-10, Mizzou 25: Derrick Washington rush for 6 yards
2nd-and-4, Mizzou 31: De'Vion Moore rush for 4 yards
1st-and-10, Mizzou 35: Sideline pass to Wes Kemp for 56 yards

Since we lost, this play will slowly be forgotten over time, but this really was one of the best plays you'll ever see.  I  was getting really nervous when Kemp refused to go up the field and ended up going horizontally, all the way from the left sideline to the right.  But he set up his blocks immaculately, and the blocks he got were amazing.  He eventually got hemmed in at the 9, but what a play.

And of course Davie tried to take credit for the play because he said the run set up the sideline pass, but the blocking was great on the sideline pass all game long, and I really don't think the run set up anything here.  When the pass was on target, the downfield blocking was great, and for the game as a whole, the sideline pass was infinitely more effective than the rushing Mizzou did.

1st-and-goal, Navy 9: Derrick Washington rush for 6 yards
2nd-and-goal, Navy 3: Derrick Washington rush for 1 yard

At this point, I was very torn on whether I would call a run or a pass on 3rd down.  It was a very long 2 (I thought it was a lot closer to 4 than 2, but I guess not).  I probably would have ended up going with a run, but the play-action pass was, in theory, a decent call too.

3rd-and-goal, Navy 2: Blaine Gabbert sacked for -10 yards

Ouch.  In the end, this was an execution error more than a play-calling one.  After the play-fake, Gabbert dropped too far back, and Kurtis Gregory ended up blocking his man basically right into Gabbert.  BG's first option (whatever it was) wasn't open, and he didn't have time to tuck-and-run at that point.  In hindsight, obviously Mizzou should have just run again, but short-yardage, red zone rushing just wasn't a strength for this team this year, and I didn't have a lot of confidence in it either.  I was basically okay, run or pass, but this was by far the worst-case scenario, as it didn't even give Mizzou an opportunity to go for it.  Mizzou cut the lead to 21-13, but they really needed a touchdown on that drive.

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Possession #10 (Q4, 14:23, 28-13 Navy)

I actually really like what Mizzou's coaching staff did here.  They could have gone into panic mode, but they continued to take what Navy gave them on this drive, and a touchdown would have still made it a game.  Unfortunately, when you get into the red zone, you actually have to make a play -- the soft defense isn't going to give you the end zone -- and Mizzou simply couldn't do it today, for a variety of reasons.

1st-and-10, Mizzou 30: Blaine Gabbert rush for 9 yards
2nd-and-1, Mizzou 39: Bubble screen to Danario Alexander for 25 yards

I'm going to miss Danario so much this year.  He really was the total package, and I don't understand why scouts still aren't really seeing it.  I'm missing something (though his hands did leave a little something to be desired a couple of times today).

1st-and-10, Navy 36: Bubble screen to Derrick Washington for 6 yards
2nd-and-4, Navy 30: Jailbreak screen to Rolandis Woodland for 3 yards

Really wanted to see more out of Ro' today, but we simply didn't get enough snaps.  I bet they had more planned, but too many drives ended prematurely, and they just didn't get enough drives.

3rd-and-1, Navy 27: QB sneak by Blaine Gabbert for 2 yards
1st-and-10, Navy 25: Derrick Washington rush for 5 yards
2nd-and-5, Navy 20: Over-the-middle pass to Jared Perry, dropped
3rd-and-5, Navy 20: Derrick Washington rush for 7 yards
1st-and-10, Navy 13: Blaine Gabbert rush for -2 yards

If I didn't know it already, here's where I definitively knew that this was not Mizzou's day.  Navy blitzed only a couple of times all game, but they did here, and it was perfect.  Without the blitz, the up-the-middle blocking was very well set-up, and this play would have gone for 3-5 yards at minimum.  Instead, it put Mizzou exactly where they were at their worst today: in a red zone passing down.

2nd-and-12, Navy 15: Middle screen to Jared Perry, dropped

Just a horrendous game from Perry.  Awful.  I really liked him as a player (most of the time), and I'd never say anything like "We'd have performed better if he didn't play," but ... damn.  This play was almost a disaster, but if Perry pulled this in, I think he had some blocking in the middle.  Instead, it was 3rd-and-12.

3rd-and-12, Navy 15: Fade pass to Danario Alexander, caught out-of-bounds

Just an off-target pass here.  Navy's CB had pretty good coverage, but Danario still got by him.  The pass just took him out of bounds.

4th-and-12, Navy 15: Endzone pass to Jerrell Jackson, inaccurate and incomplete

This was the first attempted pass to Jerrell Jackson all game, and it came with 10:48 remaining in the game.  This was just baffling.  I really do wish he'd have stayed ahead of Perry in the pecking order here.

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Possession #11 (Q4, 4:56, 35-13 Navy)

No need to go into detail on this one.  Danario caught a couple more passes (I'm going to miss him a lot), and the drive ended when a tough pass got through to Jared Perry downfield and was at least somewhat catchable, only it bounced off of ... something.  His knee?  Foot?  Something.  Anyway, it bounced off of Perry and into the arms of safety Wyatt Middleton.  I wish plays like that would go as "interceptions" on the receiver's stat line and not the quarterback's, but c'est la vie.

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Summary

Here's the bottom line: Navy's offense won this game.  Their play-calling was immaculate, their blocking was even better, and whatever we tried didn't work.  They were a step ahead of us all game.  If we played them 2-3 more times, maybe we'd get a better read on what to expect, but a) this was our players' first real exposure to it, and b) for the love of God, let us not play Navy (or Georgia Tech, or any other triple-option team) for another 50 years.

I'm not a big scheme guy, so I really can't tell you what Mizzou should have done differently.  I know that from a 20,000-foot view, your two options against this type of offense are to "read and react" and to "attack."  Attacking (whatever that actually means against a triple option) leaves you infinitely more vulnerable to 60-yard gains, and that's not this staff's philosophy.  They always play to avoid the big gain while allowing shorter ones.  And up the middle of the field, Mizzou's defense was actually pretty good.  But in stopping up the middle, they left themselves vulnerable to the outside, and Navy's slotbacks (and Dobbs) just gouged them.  And in the end, Navy gouged them all night, so clearly they probably should have tried something different than what they actually tried.  But I'll let those more scheme-literate attack the defense.

But the fact is, not only did Navy's offense kill Mizzou's defense, but it kept Mizzou's offense from getting into a rhythm.  Against a Big 12 offense, if you have a bad possession, you're probably going to get an opportunity to redeem yourself pretty quickly.  And for that matter, if you do something good, you're probably going to get an opportunity to build off of that momentum.  Instead, good or bad, Mizzou's offense was off the field for obscene amounts of time.  Mizzou ran 10 plays in the game's first 17 minutes.  Then they only got two non-"two-minute drill" possessions in the second quarter.  What this does is, it magnifies mistakes.  When Perry dropped the pass on Possession #2 and sent Mizzou into 2nd-and-long (and they eventually punted), that was the last time Mizzou would touch the ball again for seven minutes.  When the trick play killed Possession #3, Navy managed to even kill three minutes on a 5-play, 12-yard drive.  Mizzou runs five plays in a minute!  Some bad Gabbert passes killed those early Q2 drives, and while we can look back and say Mizzou should have been running ... again, accurate passes would have moved the chains.  The plays, as designed, should have worked if executed well.

What I'm getting at here, of course, is that for the most part, the problem simply wasn't play-calling.  It was execution, plain and simple.  Yes, they could have tried to establish the run instead of the sideline passes, but the sideline passes worked wonderfully early on.  And yes, there were a couple of plays that, in hindsight, would have worked out better on the ground, but the calls themselves weren't bad.  And in the end, Mizzou simply wasn't effective enough in the first half when they did run.  A lazy Moore cut-back on Possession #4 put that drive in a bad spot.  A Washington fumble not only ended Possession #6, but also handed Navy a touchdown.  An inexplicable Gabbert run on Possession #7 meant Mizzou had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.  Their first play of the third quarter was a terrible play-call, but that was about it.  It wasn't the offense's fault that they only got one possession for the first ten minutes of the third quarter -- that was all on the Navy offense and Mizzou defense.

In the end here, I'm not trying to say that "Everything was fine! They were just really good!"  Fact is that, while they were really good today, our problems came down to missed tackles (and a potentially bad defensive gameplan), dropped passes and poor decisions.  Execution, execution, execution.  It's too easy to just say "They abandoned the run!!!" and leave it at that.  It's rather inaccurate, and it misses the point.  If you want to attack the coaches, feel free -- they were massively outcoached today, and they would be the first ones to tell you that.  And they really COULD have done more to exploit the middle of Navy's defense.  The sideline stuff was relatively effective, but it wasn't the only place they could have attacked.  But to say that Mizzou's play-calling was one of the main reasons they lost simply isn't correct, and it's a shame that that's what a majority of people seem to have latched onto as their main scapegoat.

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