2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State | Iowa State
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs | Wide Receivers (Bonus) | Tight Ends
Despite its status as a fan base that is morbidly infatuated with the ills of its past, Missouri fans are quick to recognize their recent blessings when it comes to games at Faurot Field. Mizzou is 27-5 at home since 2006, but of those five losses, none have haunted those fans more than Oklahoma State’s 28-23 upset of the Tigers in 2008. Only 11 Tigers on the 2011 roster participated in that game, but for a fan base that never forgets, the sight of Oklahoma State on Faurot Field is likely to cause a visceral reaction this October.
That reaction is likely similar to the ones defensive coordinators scheming for the Pokes have felt in recent years. Oklahoma State has scored at least 450 points in four of the past five seasons, at least 530 in two of the last three. With a new line, a new quarterback, a new go-to receiver, and a new offensive coordinator, the Cowboys raised the bar on themselves this past season, scoring 575 points on the way to an 11-win season. Brick by brick, Mike Gundy has built a program that can both withstand losses in personnel and potentially compete in the big-money Big 12, where the antelope play, the money talks, and the only things larger than the offensive line splits are the home field advantages.
Oklahoma State has finished in the Top 20 of combined drive and per-play efficiency measures in four of the last five seasons. Along the way, they’ve done it with rare balance and even rarer efficiency. This year, almost everybody returns on the offensive side of the ball. The main departure actually isn’t on the depth chart but rather on the coaching staff, where offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen departed to eventually take a head coaching job at West Virginia after a media soap opera in the Spring.
If new offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s playcalling can locate the trigger that unleashes a loaded offense, and if Oklahoma State isn't struck by the injury bug, then the Cowboys could continue building toward becoming the Oregon of the Midwest, the historically decent program looking to take a step up to the elite level on the coffers of an aggressive, ambitious donor.
Oklahoma State radio announcer (and Missouri alum) Dave Hunziker is known for his signature "Pistols Firing!" call after Cowboy touchdowns, and to say the least, the catchphrase has gotten more than its fair share of air time. There’s no reason to believe it won’t do the same in 2011. The only place where there isn't a wealth of experience returning for the Oklahoma State offense is the running back position. Kendall Hunter departs, leaving behind a pair of interesting sophomores – Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith – and an incoming blue-chip recruit, Herschel Sims. Though Texas A&M may have the most talented and Missouri may have the deepest, no backfield may have the potential of Oklahoma State’s.
Between the two of them, Randle and Smith displayed every possible trait desireable in a big-time running back. Randle was a homerun threat, with 16 percent of his touches resulting in 10 yards or more. Meanwhile, Smith adapted beautifully to the role of short-yardage specialist. A solid 24.6 percent of his rushes took place inside the opponent's 10-yard line, suggesting solid platoon potential between the two. Looming above the Smith-Randle battle is the presence of Sims, the four-star back with speed and elite strength. You never want to assume good things after replacing a star like Hunter, but Oklahoma State has options aplenty.
And, oh by the way, Oklahoma State still features the best receiver in the country in junior Justin Blackmon. For Missouri fans unfamiliar with Blackmon’s body of work, imagine the 2009 season of Danario Alexander with the added physicality and (sigh) proper national recognition. Blackmon amassed 20 touchdown receptions en route to the 2010 Biletnikoff Award. And he went about his work with astounding efficiency, recording a reception of at least 29 yards in every game of the season. His entire supporting cast remains intact, as Josh Cooper, Bo Bowling, Hubert Anyiam, Isaiah Anderson and Tracy Moore all return.
Despite the departure of Holgorsen, Oklahoma State returns geriatric quarterback Brandon Weeden, the current recipient of pundits’ annual "Pick a lesser-known quarterback with gaudy numbers to be a trendy darkhorse pick for Heisman" exercise. Weeden, who will be 28 years old by the time Oklahoma State faces Missouri, can lose himself in a gunslinger mentality on occasion, but his numbers are undeniable. His 329 yards per game and 34 touchdowns ranked in the Top 10 nationally, and his 154.1 efficiency rating was tops in the Big 12. Even with a new offensive coordinator, the return of nine of his top ten targets from 2010 means valid excuses will be at a minimum.
To the naked eye, the Oklahoma State defense was cause for confusion in 2010. Cornerbacks like Andrew McGee and Brodrick Brown and safeties Johnny Thomas and Markelle Martin could look so fast, athletic and hard-hitting in one moment, and then get outrun by Oklahoma tight end James Hanna for a 76-yard touchdown late in last year's Bedlam Battle with Oklahoma. The unit was inconsistent, which was only highlighted more by the juxtaposition with the ultra-consistent Oklahoma State offense.
For the season, the numbers suggest that Oklahoma State is a pretty good test case for the use of opponent adjustments. The Cowboys ranked 88th in Total Defense last year, but they performed in line with what could have been expected against the strong offenses they faced. Most of the problems came through the air on passing downs. The pass rush was not as good as it should have been given Oklahoma State’s recruiting coups at defensive end (Ugo Chinasa and Richetti Jones were both four-star prospects), and when someone in the secondary made a mistake, it was a pretty big one.
There will be a sizable shift in personnel in 2011. Gone are linebackers Orie Lemon and Justin Gent, who combined for 184 tackles. Gone, too, are Chinasa, defensive tackles Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson, and aforementioned corner McGee. All of these players were solid, and most were multi-year contributors, but they were probably rather replaceable. For better or worse, there is experience in the areas where Oklahoma State were most often lacking in quality in 2010. Thomas and Martin will make for an interesting pair at safety. They combined for 15 pass broken up, six interceptions, and 108 tackles, a disconcerting number at a position considered to be the last line of defense.
A jump in defensive performance may have as much to do with the puppet masters as it does with the puppets. Head coach Mike Gundy is notoriously hands-off with his defenses, famously sitting on a trunk talking to his offense at one point while his defense was on the field against Missouri in 2008. Defensive coordinator, an Oklahoma State alum who rejoined his alma mater prior to the 2009 season. Including his 2008 season at Miami and his 2007 season at Kansas, defenses led by Young have surrendered less than 25 points per game in each of the last four seasons. Unforeseen circumstances not withstanding, most prognosticators would think 25 points should be stingy enough for Oklahoma State’s prolific offense to outscore its opponents.
SERIES SPOTLIGHT: OCTOBER 26, 1996 (Mizzou 35, Oklahoma State 28)
Fifteen years ago, fortunes were a little different for these two programs. Mizzou was trying to snap an 11-year streak of losing seasons, Oklahoma State a seven-year streak. Neither team had done anything memorable (at least, memorably good) since Barry Sanders had left Stillwater, but they played a memorable game on Faurot Field in late-October 1996. Corby Jones destroyed the Oklahoma State defense on the ground (18 carries, 193 yards, three touchdowns), while Oklahoma State tight end Alonzo Mayes obliterated what was supposed to be a solid Mizzou pass defense (six catches, 149 yards, two touchdowns), and the Tigers and Cowboys did a slow dance for 60 minutes. The Tigers took a step forward, then a step back. A step to the side, and a step back. They took leads of 7-0, 14-7, 21-14 and 28-21, and the 'Pokes tied the game each time. The last touchdown, a 15-yard pass from OSU quarterback Tone Jones to Andre Richardson with 37 seconds remaining, sent the game into overtime.
In the end, two fourth-and-goal attempts made the difference. In the first half, Mizzou linebacker Sam Josue stuffed David Thompson. And after Brock Olivo scored from eight yards out to give Mizzou a 35-28 lead in the first overtime period, Jones missed a wide-open Richardson to end the game. Mizzou earned no style points, but in the mid-1990s, style points did not matter. Just win, baby. However you can. It didn't happen enough to worry much about how it happened.
The next year, of course, the two teams played an even more memorable overtime game in Stillwater.
FOOTBALL STUDY HALL
If the decade of the 2010s doesn't play out like the 2000s when it comes to the Big 12 hierarchy (Oklahoma and Texas have won all but one conference title since 2002), it is because of a second tier (Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Missouri, among others) that seems to be improving rapidly. Piece by piece, Oklahoma State has built for the long haul, and if they can overcome the loss of Holgorsen, everything is in place for them to begin moving closer and closer to an elusive conference title.
In the short-term, a step backwards could be possible -- new offensive coordinator, potential regression in terms of both turnover margin and YPP Margin, etc. -- but Weeden's and Blackmon's returns likely assure the prevention of serious regression, the bones of this program are strong, and the upside is tremendous if the defense comes around. Advanced stats show that the defense wasn't as bad as the raw numbers would suggest, but they still held the 'Pokes back.
Oklahoma State has reached Top 25 status in terms of both recruiting and recent performance, and there is an abundance of riches on offense and athleticism on defense. It might be about time for the 'Pokes to start experimenting with uniforms and color schemes -- it appears that's where they might stand on the moneyed Oregon Transformation.
(Fun note: I wrote that last sentence before this.)