Between our darkest hour, and the shadow of our most sure defeat, is there hope to be taken from the tape?
As we prepare for our impending beatdown...errr...I mean, upcoming game, I want to take a step back and say that, after reviewing the Vandy tape, there is, in fact, progress. No wait, don't stop reading. I'm serious.
I hesitated to even write this article up. Why beat a dead horse? But perhaps we've had enough time to digest it. There's a principle in negotiation that says whenever you present any big change, there is an adjustment period, where the other side has to get used to the new circumstances. Mizzou fans have spent the last week realizing that not only would they not enter the SEC and garner respect, they may end up not even making a bowl. And all the injuries won't matter to the SEC faithful trumpeting how Mizzou is just not physical enough for the conference. We might have to endure another year before having a chance to get respect. Now that we've come to terms with this, maybe now we can objectively evaluate the game.
Perhaps it's the eternal optimist in me, but at the risk of being labeled a sunshine pumper, I saw progress in this game, especially on the offensive line. We only scored 15 points, and the middle two quarters were ugly, but the offense showed spurts of consistency (no contradiction there) unlike we've seen yet this season. We've had explosive plays, but all season long we haven't been able to sustain drives. We only have seven drives of nine plays or more the entire season, and never more than two in one game (in five games against FBS teams outside of garbage time). We had four long drives in this game alone, as well as several six- or seven-play drives, and it surely would have been more with Franklin playing all four quarters.
I've broken this into four parts:
At first glance, the run blocking looked no better last week. Out of 26 running plays by the running backs, a majority (14) were failures, meaning three yards or less. Almost all of those were actually two yards or less. That's about the same rate as against UCF (10 of 19 failed). And yet, when I look at the tape, I see an offensive line that executed by far its best game of the season. There was less confusion, more physicality, more moving people off the ball. But mostly it was just getting the right body on the right person.
So why so much failure? I was able to analyze 12 runs that failed (my DVR screwed up and I lost a couple of drives). Out of 12 unsuccessful running plays, Vandy blitzed into the play five times and gave hard run support another five times. Hard run support means the LBs and or safeties committed to stopping the run and ignored the pass until it became obvious it was not a run. Basically, it's selling out to stop the run. So out of 12 plays, Vandy just committed to stopping us. The other two plays, they just beat us, but two out of 12 isn't too awful.
Watch in this video how the defenders are either blitzing or aggressively coming up to stop the run. That means that on play action, there's a hole behind them, and we occasionally did take advantage of that. That's just one more reason our offense is so much more potent when it's balanced, and it's no mistake that ALL of our longest drives were complemented by good runs.
Now, don't get me wrong, saying Vandy tried to stop the run is not a viable excuse. Mizzou needs to improve here. When LBs and Safeties jump a gap, the O-line isn't helpless. But compared to the basic execution issues of the last month, this is actually progress. Now we move on from how to we block the play as designed to how to block the play when the defense mucks things up. The coaches have made some adjustments, and for all the talk about how Mizzou will have to adjust to the SEC, they have added quite a few power packages to block with the RB and TE. It's just in a shotgun instead of under center.
In the meantime, when Vandy lined up in a basic read and react defense, Mizzou carved it up. The blocking was beautiful, often getting to the weakside LBs and safeties and giving Lawrence big lanes to run through. Unlike last week when Lawrence's runs mostly came off of making the first person miss, there were actually real running lanes there. It looked somewhat like last year's team. Now to do it more consistently. This video shows some of the nice blocking. The first two runs in particular are a coach's dream. 10 of the 11 Vandy players have a body on them, some of them 20 yards downfield. As a former offensive linemen in high school (and defensive end), it's actually less common than you'd think that a play gets executed as it looks on paper, and we had quite a few of these.
The biggest problem for Mizzou's passing game all year long has been giving the QB time to throw. Linemen playing out of position have been getting confused or not having mature technique for the position, and occasionally just getting beat. But perhaps most notably, opposing teams have been able to pressure with four and drop seven into coverage, especially on third-and-long. Not this game. When Vandy sent only four rushers, Mizzou's line held up well. Mizzou either had enough time to let downfield routes develop (about 2.2 seconds), or they completed a long pass in 11 out of 16 passes, and on the remaining five we had three wide receiver drops. So this easily could have been 14 out of 16 even with a backup QB throwing erratically. That doesn't mean all 14 are completed, but that the O-line gave it a chance to succeed.
So the line held up MUCH better this time in standard blocking, and I think that's a big part of the reason why we were 5-for-12 on third-and-long conversions, a huge improvement from when third-and-long meant the QB was running for his life 100% of the time.
The flip side of that coin is that Vandy blitzed like no team I've seen in years. They blitzed on 50% of their downs, standard downs and passing downs. They sent five, six, even seven players at the O-line. And Vandy blitzed beautifully. It came from different places and it was always very well disguised. They never tipped their hand too early. It was honestly the best blitzing I've seen in an MU game since OU in 2007.
To say the least, Mizzou did not handle the blitzing well. Vandy blitzed on 19 passing downs, and Mizzou got 10+ yards only once, and that was on a James Franklin scramble ... you know, where he got knocked out of the game. So ... not so successful. The whole point of blitzing is that it's high risk, high reward. If you don't make them pay, then there's no risk for them. That's what really frustrated me about this. Mizzou may not have a good offense, but it should have an explosive, dangerous offense full of playmakers. When a defense blitzes every other down, you absolutely must make them pay, and we couldn't do that for whatever reason. Mizzou must improve on this, and it will. Like I said about run blocking, you started doing the basics, now it's time to move to the advanced stuff. And this is where experience will really help. Even just learning from this game will make us better.
Interestingly, the coaches made some nice adjustments to the Vandy blitzes, such as keeping the RB in. That said, the coaches could have done more. Move the pocket around, delay the snap to make them tip their hand. That's harder to do with a new QB than with Franklin, who is more efficient about getting on to the next play, but it's still something they could have tried. Watch in the video below how Vandy runs a nice blitz where they overload the right side. They don't tip their hand too early, they time the snap well and they play it so it could go to either side, making it hard for the center to make the right call for help. They ran this three times to end our last drive. Notice how the running back stays in to help on the last one instead of running a route, though Justin Britt gets beat on a speed rush (one of the handful of times where their ends got past us). I have a feeling the running back staying in to block is the coaches getting in the player's ear rather than an "adjustment" but nonetheless we saw a cat and mouse back and forth strategy game all night long.
The deep ball
I think it's stating the obvious that the defense kept us in that game. I've always gotten frustrated with the argument that the defense gets worn down when the offense can't stay on the field. After all, if you force three-and-out, then you don't get worn out any more than the other team. This was the perfect illustration of that. And Steckel called a considerably more aggressive game this time out. Not sure why, but they were not content to let the underneath passing go free. The flip side of that is that it exposed us to downfield passes, and oh my, did Vandy deliver. I wasn't that impressed with Jordan Rodgers, but he had one of the most beautiful deep balls you will ever see. He put those things on a dime, and often put it right where his receiver had an advantage to block out the defender. They made the jump ball look easy. And Mizzou was blanketing them. I mean, the defenders were practically inside the wide receivers jerseys, but there's a reason receivers are often 6'4", and Vandy put on a clinic on how to pass the deep jump ball. Really, aside from a few decent runs, Vandy's entire offense was predicated on trick plays and jump balls. It's not much, but it's enough to get them 19 points. Look at the placement and height of these deep passes. Even the incompletions are perfectly placed from Rodgers.
Room to improve
But I digress. My point is that despite the defensive dominance, I also place share for the loss on them. The coaches said the defense shares blame because they scored more points than us, and most of the time I disagree, but not this time. We gave them multiple penalties to extend drives. Our rushing defense was far weaker in the red zone, and our tackling, while mostly very good against Vandy, had some ugly moments as well. A couple of Vandy's big plays had poor tackling, and we missed two tackles on the final thirrd down that would have given us the ball back with a minute left. We held them to 19, but it is not hard to imagine that we could have held them under 10, even with all the jump balls.
Great opportunity to test our defense
That said, this is a defense that looks like one of the better units in the SEC, which is some pretty elite company. The biggest test will come today, as Alabama will try to just pound us into submission. If we could somehow hold Alabama under 24, we would at least have something to show the ESPN talking heads that we're physical enough for the SEC. With our offense and special teams struggling, that seems unlikely, but Bama has not played a rushing defense as good as ours. We will force them to do some things that previous opponents have not. Game film would indicate they can still remain balanced and effective, but until you press a team, you just don't know. Every champion looks invincible until you punch them in the jaw. Even if we do, I don't think our offense can produce enough points, but it will be interesting to watch nonetheless.
Once again, we find ourselves talking about execution. Pinkel has run a tight ship so long that we don't know what to think when things aren't disciplined. I think we've let ourselves slip into the trap of blaming injuries. But as I showed above, the O-line did it's job last week. Maybe not so well that we would score 40 points, but it is not hard to imagine that with the WR drops and fumbled snaps that we could have easily had 500 yards of offense instead of 400, even with the same beat up O-line and backup QB.
We're not doing the little things that winning teams do
One of the reasons Mizzou has been a winning team the last decade is because we do all the little things. No penalties, good kicking game, catch the ball, block the right person. And we're not doing that. Quite simply, you just don't expect to win tough games when you do things like miss extra points, whiff on long snaps in the end zone, fumble snaps, line up wrong, and drop catchable balls. Look at this clip below of us getting lined up. James is ready to snap the ball for probably close to 10 seconds while the receivers get lined up right, running back and forth and talking. When is the last time, before this season, that you saw that kind of stuff? It's several times every game this year. The execution just isn't as good this year. Can the coaches do more? Sure, but at some point you also have to point a finger at the seniors. I haven't sensed that the leadership on this team is among our better years. Just my impression. But either way, there's no excuse for this if you want to be a winning team.
And speaking of drops, it was a rough day for Marcus Lucas. I'm not quite as down on him as Bill C, but my goodness that was brutal. Most of his drops came with pressure on him, but isn't that part of the position? Anyone could play if you just had to catch wide open passes. It would appear that Mizzou's receiving corps is both what we hoped and what we feared. They're deep. They're fast. They stretch the field. And they have big play potential. But they're also without a real leader who scares opponents and shifts defensive coverages. I had hoped Lucas could be that guy, but apparently he's just another good SEC receiver.
And I can't excuse the coaches from this. When a defense blitzes 50% of the time and you can't have a single long pass play, that's a coaching problem as well as an execution problem. When you call a play on third-and-9 where not a single receiver runs past seven yards, that's a fairly curious call. That said, I've seen more adjustments in the first six games of this year than in the last six years combined. For all the talk about how Mizzou isn't going to adjust to the SEC, they sure are doing a lot of adjusting. For example, we used a lead blocker or a tight end on about two-thirds of our runs last week.
Even before the injuries and the adversity, Mizzou was never going to beat Alabama. Bama so far has looked like not only the best team in college football, but one of the best in the last decade. So rather than hope for an upset, I really just want to see Mizzou execute better, and build on their progress. Bama is a team that just executes perfectly and waits for you to make a mistake so they can pounce. They're well equipped to stop our offense even when it's healthy. But if Mizzou can show me that they can put the right bodies on the right defenders, then even if they get physically beat, or we can't shake open field tackles, that will be something to build on. And if the defense can somehow hold its own against Bama, then I might be more optimistic about the last month of the season. It's funny that in our darkest hour, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. Let's hope it's still there at the end of the day.