2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs
This sentiment can take a turn at any point in time, but for now, this statement stands: It’s hard not to love Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads.
Rhoads' Iowa State teams are salty and opportunistic. They do everything an underdog has to do to succeed in a major conference – they convert any and all redzone opportunities, they force fumbles, and they prevent big plays – and each season they claim a new scalp. First, it was Nebraska in Lincoln on the strength of eight hilarious turnovers in 2009. Then, in Austin in 2010, they gave Texas a nudge into off the cliff that was Texas’ precipitous downfall. Rhoads is energetic, skilled and, as evidenced by his famous 2009 YouTube video, SO PROUD to be coaching at Iowa State. The one thing he hasn't proven to be yet, of course, is a coach who can bring enough talent to Ames to transform Iowa State from giant killer to giant.
We often make the mistake of using short-term results to make long-term predictions. In Rhoads first season, Iowa State made modest, encouraging improvements, but they won a little too much too early compared to their stats. They forced an unsustainable 20 fumbles, and opponents laid another 12 fumbles on the ground completely umprompted, and it allowed the Cyclones to go 3-2 in games decided by touchdown or less. This left some with the impression that Iowa State would always force this number of fumbles and pull out close games. Instead, Iowa State basically held steady in 2010, watching their offense regress and their defense improve. They went 1-2 in close games in a year when one game made the difference in bowl eligibility. The offense was all over the map, and the defense suffered some serious mid-October cratering before rebounding to play well down the stretch.
On paper, the 2011 Iowa State Cyclones look a lot like those from 2009 and 2010. With the lowest five-year recruiting average in the Big 12, will his teams actually look any different on the field? And if he keeps claiming scalps and occasionally reaching six or seven wins, will it matter? They've won more than seven games in a season just once since Earle Bruce left Ames for Columbus in 1978, and just five times in their history. What are Cyclones fans' expectations, and can Rhoads meet them over the long haul?
What’s worse, an offense that moves down the field but can’t score in the red zone, or an offense that always scores in the red zone but can’t get there with any regularity? From personal experience, Iowa State might argue the latter. On a per-play basis, Iowa State was one of the most efficient red zone offenses in the country, but it apparently came at the expense of efficiency elsewhere on the field. It’s akin to hitting with runners in scoring position in baseball – it's a nice trait to have, but a) down the line, creating a ton of opportunities is more important than maximizing minimal opportunities, and b) if you're much better in the red zone than in the other 75-80 yards on the field, that might not be sustainable. Surveying the entire field, Iowa State left something to be desired, particularly in one overriding category: explosiveness. Empirical evidence (and the law of averages) proves you need big plays, and the ‘Clones didn't get any.
If there is hope in this regard, it comes from sophomore running back Shontrelle Johnson. A backup to efficient yet not explosive Alexander Robinson, Johnson was a bolt of lightning. He received only about three carries per game – and at 5-9, 180 pounds, his durability will be called into question – but he generated 218 yards on more than six yards per carry.
Likable quarterback Austen Arnaud is gone after what seemed like nine years in an Iowa State uniform. His stat line – 1,703 yards (5.9 per pass), 59 percent completion rate, 13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions; 287 rushing yards – was respectable but replaceable, but by whom? The race entering the fall is between junior Jerome Tiller and exquisitely-named junior college transfer Steele Jantz. Tiller, in his two seasons, has compiled decent but wholly uninspiring numbers, averaging 4.8 yards per pass attempt, a 52 percent completion rate, two touchdowns and four interceptions. Jantz was impressive in his time at attended City College of San Francisco (the school responsible for Missouri’s Jarrell Harrison, Kenronte Walker and Josh Tatum), throwing for more than 3,000 yards during an 11-1 season. In addition, both quarterbacks provide a deceptive ground threat, but either Tiller or Jantz will have to use his arm too, and there's no evidence to suggest the receiving corps can hold up its end of the bargain.
The hands team has had its moments, but in general, it has to be considered one of the worst major conference units in the country. Gone are frequently-targeted tight end Collin Franklin and possession receiver Jake Williams, but like Arnaud, that production is replaceable. The problem is with those left behind. To say the least, leading returnees Darius Darks and Darius Reynolds leave something to be desired in terms of down-to-down consistency. Rhoads and company have high hopes for junior college transfer Aaron Horne from a big-play perspective, but he’s still somewhat of a mystery on a receiver corps that desperately needs a sure thing.
Under Rhoads, Iowa State has lived (and occasionally died) by the bend-don't-break credo. Live to fight another down and hope to force a fumble. In two years, the Cyclones have forced 36 fumbles in 25 games, ranking third in the category in 2009 and 20th in 2010. Granted, in the meantime, they've also had one of the least-efficient defenses in the country, but forcing fumbles is Underdog Tactics 101, and Iowa State does it at as high a level as is maintainable from year to year.
Meanwhile, they make sure that while the Cyclone offense doesn't manage any big plays, the opposing offense doesn't either. Iowa State’s per-play numbers show an extremely rare chasm between weak efficiency numbers and strong anti-explosiveness numbers. Despite the lack of efficiency, the Cyclones' defense really did improve a solid amount last year, and they could be in line to do so again in 2011. There is one concern, however: they lose a great deal of experience at the safety position. Strong safety David Sims and his 75.5 tackles are out the door, as are the 78.5 tackles of the Michael O'Connell/Zac Sandvig duo. When you rely so much on your ability to avoid big plays, losing starting safeties can be alarming.
If the safety situation is figured out, the front seven could be decent. Linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein were both tackling machines and playmakers, combining for 178.5 tackles (14 for loss), seven picks and six passes broken up. There is depth on the line despite the losses of end Rashawn Parker and tackle Bailey Johnson, as tackle Stephen Ruempolhamer had a quietly strong 2010 campaign. Often, his best plays opened tackling lanes for Knott and Klein.
The secondary is anchored by outstanding senior cover corner Leonard Johnson, who has amassed a number of All-Big 12 accolades since debuting for the Cyclones in 2008. A starter since his freshman year, Johnson’s 175 career tackles are a testament to his ability in run support, and his five interceptions and 18 passes broken up are actually a sign of quarterbacks’ unwillingness to test his side of the field. Senior defensive back Ter'ran Benton spent a good portion of 2010 attacking the line of scrimmage from the nickel back position, but finished this spring atop the depth chart at strong safety. The rest of the defensive backfield will be charged with the task of protecting the back line from big plays with the same success as previous units.
SERIES SPOTLIGHT: October 14, 1978 (Mizzou 26, Iowa State 13)
Mizzou had already faced some of the game's all-time heavyweights in 1978 -- Notre Dame, Alabama, Oklahoma -- but now an up-and-comer was visiting Columbia. Iowa State was not known as a big-time football program by any means -- from 1955-1969, Missouri went 14-0-1 against them -- but they had become pretty adept at hiring good coaches. Woody Hayes protege (and soon-to-be Ohio State head coach) Earle Bruce had taken over the Iowa State job when Johnny Majors left for Pittsburgh (quick show of hands: how many of you knew that either of those guys had coached the 'Clones?), and after a slow start to his tenure (three straight 4-7 seasons), ISU had gotten hot. In back-to-back 8-win seasons, Iowa State had, among other things, managed to win two straight against Missouri for just the second time since 1933-34.
Iowa State was led on offense by a bouncy, dynamic running back by the name of Dexter Green and a strong offensive line. They did not show much threat in the passing game, but they didn't have to. Green and a rugged defense had made for a winning combination. The defense was powered by Outland Trophy hopeful DT Mike Stensrud and the linebacking Boskey brothers, Tom (soon-to-be 1st-team All-Big 8) and Chris (soon-to-be Big 8 Defensive Newcomer of the Year).
On a cloudy October afternoon in Columbia, the 63,000 in attendance saw a physical contest, determined by big plays and big hits. It started out looking like an offensive showdown. On Missouri's first drive, Phil Bradley moved the Tigers 69 yards for a field goal. ISU responded with a Dexter Green-centric touchdown drive to go up 7-3. Mizzou came right back, marching away. A 13-yard option keeper by Bradley put Mizzou up 9-7, but Jeff Brockhaus missed the PAT.
At this point, the Mizzou defense settled in, and thanks to a Larry Lauderdale interception and a long Brockhaus field goal, they took a 19-7 lead into halftime.
But then Mizzou got conservative. The exciting offense of the first half disappeared, and ISU seized all momentum with a third-quarter blocked punt for a touchdown that made the score 19-13. With under nine minutes left, ISU drove again. They faced a third-and-six from the MU 11 when Earle Bruce got a little too fancy. Green took the handoff and ran right, but pulled up for an across-the-field lob back to the quarterback, who was supposed to be wide open. DE Wendell Ray, however, sniffed the play out and picked off the pass.
Mizzou's offense was still stagnant, however. With under four minutes to go, Brockhaus (notice that he was punting now instead of Monte Montgomery) booted a 45-yard punt to 'Clone return man Tom Buck. Buck eluded tacklers and broke into the open field, but deep snapper Paul Gadt separated him from the ball with an annihilating hit. Mizzou recovered at the ISU 31, and an Earl Gant touchdown finally put the game out of reach.
Iowa State ended up outgaining the Tigers for the day, 384-331, but blocked punt aside, Mizzou made the big plays. They were +5 on turnovers for the day, and ball control moved them to 4-2.
FOOTBALL STUDY HALL
We often make the mistake of using short-term results to make long-term predictions. In Rhoads first season in 2009, Iowa State made modest, encouraging improvements -- from 108th to 82nd in overall F/+, from 97th to 52nd in Off. S&P+ -- but they won a little too much, too early. They forced an unsustainable 20 fumbles, and opponents laid another 12 fumbles on the ground completely umprompted (some occurrences were more amusing than others), and it allowed the Cyclones to go 3-2 in games decided by touchdown or less and 7-6 overall despite, again, only ranking 82nd in terms of overall performance. This left some with the impression that Iowa State would always force this number of fumbles and pull out close games, and that they were dangerous in the Big 12 North (way back yonder when there was such a thing). Not so much.
Instead, Iowa State basically held steady in 2010, ranking 81st overall and watching their offense regress and their defense improve. This, in and of itself, is somewhat impressive; typically, when a team makes a healthy jump in the ratings one year, they regress a little the next. For the Cyclones, the regression came on the scoreboard. They went 1-2 in close games in a year when one game made the difference in bowl eligibility. The offense was all over the map, and the defense suffered some serious mid-October cratering before rebounding to play well down the stretch.