Mizzou's skill position players are as explosive as any Missouri has seen since the 2007-08 seasons. But while the quarterback play might be improving, the patchwork offensive line is still an enormous concern.
Through five games, Missouri has had three players break off a run of at least 24 yards, five players catch a pass of at least 26 yards, and nine players catch a pass of at least 17 yards. Its primary punt returner has scored three touchdowns in 14 returns (a fourth return went for 44 yards on a reverse), and despite more coverage-friendly kickoff rules, Mizzou is averaging a decent 23.8 yards per kick return.
In 14 games, here's how the sanctified 2007 offense compared: three players with a run of at least 24 yards, seven players with a 26-yard reception, 10 with a 17-yard reception, two punt return touchdowns, and a 23.3-yard kick return average (24.2 if you only look at Jeremy Maclin's returns).
Given seven or eight more games this year, Mizzou could perhaps add another couple to the tally of receivers with a long catch (Bud Sasser? Gahn McGaffie? Perhaps Kendial Lawrence or Marcus Murphy?), giving this offense a level of depth either comparable to, or better than, that of 2007. Despite this, Missouri's offense currently ranks 69th in Off. S&P+ (in 2007, Mizzou was ninth) and is averaging just 5.0 yards per play (2007: 6.2).
It's easy math, really. An offense trots 11 guys onto the field. Even in a spread, only five of those guys (45 percent) are going to be considered "skill position players." All the explosiveness in the world at those five spots won't matter if the other six players on the field are scuffling.
The quarterback situation was rather combustible heading into the UCF game and remained so well into the third quarter, when Fox announcer Shaun King continuously (and ridiculously) predicted that Corbin Berkstresser was about to come into the game upon every imperfect James Franklin play. But by the end of the game, Franklin had completed 63 percent of his passes for a solid 13.5 yards per completion (an 80-yarder certainly helps out, doesn't it?); when upright, he looked composed and confident, and he made mostly strong reads throughout the afternoon. His running still wasn't very effective (four non-sack carries for 10 yards), but his performance was an enormous step forward from the tentative, less-than-confident game we saw from him one week earlier.
So that's six of 11 offensive players seemingly trending in the right direction. What about the other five? Well ...
From the stands in South Carolina, I was quite discouraged by the performance of Mizzou's offensive line against the Gamecocks. The run-blocking took an enormous step forward, but from what I saw, every time James Franklin looked distinctly downfield, he was sacked before his receivers could settle into their routes. This played out a little bit differently through others' perceptions; I was far from impressed with Franklin's performance, but both fans and fantastic writers like Dave Matter put a lot more of Mizzou's struggles on Franklin than I had. And they quite possibly could have been right. But whether the offensive line took one step forward in The Other Columbia or two or three, they gave back most of the gains in Orlando.
Mizzou's first series of the UCF game ended two plays after a sack on first-and-10. Mizzou's second drive came up short one play after Franklin was hurried into throwing off-target to Marcus Lucas. After Mizzou scored on a one-play, 80-yard drive (Franklin to Dorial Green-Beckham), Franklin was sacked twice in three plays on the next drive. On Mizzou's fifth drive, a bad snap led to a short first-down gain, and Mizzou failed to move the ball on second (one-yard pass to Marcus Lucas) or third down (Lucas drops a hurried pass from Franklin).
The troubles continued in the second half. After a lengthy drive ended with a Franklin interception, Franklin was sacked on third-and-5 to end the next drive near midfield. On the next drive, with Mizzou up 14-10 after Marcus Murphy's punt return touchdown, Franklin was stuffed on third-and-1 (there was major disorganization on this play, and Mizzou should have absolutely used a timeout, so we cannot say the line was entirely to blame here). On the next drive, Franklin was hurried again on third-and-10 and threw an inaccurate pass to Gahn McGaffie.
On the next drive, Mizzou's most sustained scoring drive of the day (three plays), Kendial Lawrence ripped off two carries for 43 yards, thanks to either planned or unplanned changes of direction and solid maneuvering around a backfield filled with UCF defenders. The drive after that ended soon after Franklin was sacked on second-and-7. The next drive ended when Lawrence was stuffed for no gain on third-and-3 (in the I-formation).
The short version of the last three paragraphs: Mizzou's offensive line had a terrible afternoon in Orlando against the worst defensive line it had seen since the opener versus SE Louisiana. While the Mizzou defensive line surged in the second half, the offensive line never really came around. Now it again faces an upgrade in competition this weekend when Vanderbilt comes to down. The Commodores are rather porous against good run blocking, but they are 24th in the country in sack rate. Without better execution up front, Mizzou will be every bit as reliant on big plays on Saturday as it was two days ago.
The good news, of course, is that the line will improve. There is such a strong correlation between experience and improvement, and with every progressive game, Mizzou will get a little more experienced.
- Starting Offensive Line vs. SE Louisiana: 53 career starts (Elvis Fisher 40, Justin Britt 13, Mitch Morse 0, Max Copeland 0, Evan Boehm 0).
- Starting Offensive Line vs. Georgia (beginning): 58 career starts (Fisher 41, Britt 14, Morse 1, Copeland 1, Boehm 1)
- Starting Offensive Line vs. Georgia (end): 17 career starts (Britt 14, Morse 1, Copeland 1, Boehm 1, Brad McNulty 0)
- Starting Offensive Line vs. Arizona State: 21 career starts (Britt 15, Morse 2, Copeland 2, Boehm 2, McNulty 0)
- Projected Starting Offensive Line vs. South Carolina: 31 career starts (Britt 16, Jack Meiners 6, Morse 3, Copeland 3, Boehm 3)
- Projected Starting Offensive Line vs. Central Florida: 36 career starts
Et cetera. Obviously the Injury Bug could decide to strike again at any moment, but in theory Mizzou could begin to reap rewards from the "Injuries hurt in the present tense and help in the future tense" law reasonably soon. A little continuity could go a long way, as well. The South Carolina game will see Mizzou's third line arrangement in four games, and none of the arrangements will be the one we expected to see in August.
Experience doesn't automatically equal success; otherwise Mizzou's performance versus UCF would have been better than it had been the week before. But it increases the odds of success. And if Elvis Fisher returns this week, as rumored, then after averaging about 26 career starts per game since Fisher went down (including the half of the Georgia game he didn't play), Mizzou should be looking at the following this Saturday: LT Fisher (42 career starts), LG Evan Boehm/Max Copeland (5), C Mitch Morse (5), RG Jack Meiners (8), RT Justin Britt (18). That's a healthy total of 78 starts. Fisher's return should allow for Jack Meiners to return back to guard, where he has (to this untrained eye) been much more effective in his career. Fisher's return won't mean that Mitch Morse immediately begins snapping the ball better, but it will help, even if injuries have tamped down his ceiling a bit.
Make no mistake: every time I bring up the line (and I am really tired of bringing it up at this point), I do so with hope. A line that is frustrating and inconsistent when young can become impenetrable with experience. The future is bright -- the 2013 Mizzou offensive line should actually be better because of these injuries. But in the present tense, the line's struggles are still the single most pressing issue for the 2012 team. More than James Franklin, more than Fire Yost™, the line's development will dictate whether Mizzou's ceiling is 5-7 or 8-4 this year. I am getting discouraged that the snap issues have not abated by now, but otherwise we are just talking about the growing pains requisite for, well, growth.
If Mizzou can overcome its issues and beat Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Syracuse at home (and they will be favored by at least 5-7 points in all three games), the Tigers will be bowling despite injuries that have deprived Mizzou of Henry Josey, a healthy quarterback, and a much, much more solid offensive line. That is sign for hope. That Mizzou won despite line regression last week was a very good thing. Hopefully they don't have to do it again this Saturday.