Can you learn anything from a blowout? Let's look at the tape.
What can we learn from a blowout? The first thing that jumps out from last week's is that Alabama is really good. "Well, DUH!" you say. But I find it actually pretty interesting to look in detail at what that means: "really good." And I know I'll be labeled a sunshine pumper when I say that I found more than a few glimmers of hope in this defeat. It's ok, I am a sunshine pumper ... when we're losing. That's just my nature. I go against the grain. You'll see me tear the team down when we're winning. The mob of fans tends to overreact to wins and losses, and that the Fire Pinkel/Yost crowd has gotten fairly loud in the last few weeks only speaks to how fickle we are, and how unwilling we are to put up with excuses, founded or not.
In the past 4.5 years, Mizzou has placed in the Top 15 of just about every single statistical category you could imagine at least once, with the exception of defensive yardage, and we've been in the top 3 in the offensive minded Big 12 in those categories. At minimum, Pinkel has shown that when he has the athletes, we can be a competitive unit at any position.
But if this game showed us anything, it's how far the gap is between us and the cream of the SEC crop. I said going into the game that I just wanted to see Mizzou execute well, and if they were physically beaten, so be it. Well, that's exactly what I got, and lots of it. We've all heard about those mythical SEC lines, but this is the first time I feel like we really got just physically pushed around.
I've broken things out pretty simply this time.
Bama just physically took it to us. The interior of the offensive line has had moments this season where we've just been physically beaten, but not so consistently like this, and it didn't usually extend to the tackles. The question then becomes, will we see more of this as the season goes on, or when we face more human levels of competition, will the solid execution finally give us some success when we don't have to face Goro on second-and-3.
Alabama's defensive line didn't quite throw us around like rag dolls, but the defensive line refused to be moved from their spots, and speedy linebackers cleaned up any remaining slivers of a running hole. Part of it is that they just played within the system. They didn't rush upfield, they didn't go for a lot of tackles-for-loss. They just held their offensive linemen in place, clogged up space, and when the play came their way, shed the blocker and it was like catching the running back in a net. There was no escape. This is particularly effective against Mizzou's running where the backs can make you pay if you guess which way to play it. By waiting for the running back to come to them, it removes that element. But for those who want a more power running game, I offer up the following evidence, which shows that a) we have installed many power running elements in our game, and b) no system will work when your line gets pushed around like this.
The first clip shows both DT's extending with their arms away from the blocker and shedding them to make the tackle. The left DT actually sheds a double team. This is quite impressive mobility for such big men. The second clip shows a pretty strong Justin Britt get nearly lifted off the ground by his defender. He manages to hold the block well enough to give Kendial Lawrence a choice of running lanes, but you won't see that happen often to Britt. On the third clip you can see Brad McNulty get stood up and Max Copeland practically get bench pressed. Please understand I don't want to pick on the players. Even in these clips they battled and sometimes won their matchup. But the physicality of Alabama is impressive. Also, watch in all clips how Alabama defenders mostly let the play come to them, rather than rush upfield. And notice how we've got a lead blocker on almost every play. The last two clips are nothing short of a packed-in power formation. No sign of spread there.
The worst part is, when one part of your offense isn't working, the defense can compensate to take away the other phase. Watch how Alabama's linebackers don't even pretend to respect the runs on these plays. The weakside linebacker's first step is actually backwards, and the strongside linebacker is hardly crashing in. Compare this to Vandy and particulary UCF, who crashed a linebacker or safety to the strong side on almost every backfield motion. Against Bama, T.J. Moe had to run an underneath route into LBs who are not only fast and athletic, but waiting for him.
Execution on the offensive line is improving. Mizzou actually executed very well in this game offensively. Bama just shed blocks and made plays. In the first 4 games, I can't tell you how many moments we had, where the players just went "whoah, was that guy supposed to be mine?" I saw almost none of those this game, and almost as few where we didn't block a running play as designed. Mizzou did miss some blitzes in the first quarter that would have been picked up by a more experienced line, but they stiffened up considerably after that.
- Pre-lighting strike, when Alabama blitzed, they got to us in an average of 1.9 seconds, and we only picked it up once (giving over 2 seconds).
- Post-lightning strike when Alabama, they got to us in an average of 2.3 seconds, and we only missed picking it up twice. Once was when they blitzed 6, and the other was when they sent not one, but two weakside blitzers into a naked bootleg. Good guess, I suppose. In ever other blitzing situation, we had at least 2.3 seconds to pass.
- The difference between 1.9 and 2.3 seconds doesn't sound like much, but in reality it's the most important 0.4 seconds in the passing game. Anything under 1.9 is basically all the same because it's essentially immediate unblocked pressure. 2.3 seconds and over gives deep routes time to develop and receivers to make cuts. Anything over 2.6 really stresses even a great secondary.
Additionally, Mizzou did very well when Alabama rushed only four lineman. If I could find a "possible" weakness for Alabama, this would potentially be one. When Alabama rushed only four linemen, Mizzou either had at least 2.3 seconds to complete a pass, or it was a designed quick pass that picked up at least seven yards. That's 100% of such plays. We might not have had much of a passing game last weekend, but you can't pin this one on the offensive line. However, to nitpick, we rarely had longer than 2.6 seconds, which if you recall is the time when you really start to stress even a good secondary. It reminded me a lot of an NFL pass rush actually. Even if they didn't get heavy pressure, the pocket just caved in within about 2.5 seconds.
QB play: I know the stat line wasn't good, and heaven knows a healthy and experienced QB could make this offense night and day better. But life (or in this case, football) isn't black and white. While he didn't exactly carve up Alabama's secondary, Corbin Berkstresser also did a lot of things well. He had good pocket presence, and seemed to sense when to hurry and when he still had time. And he made good decisions despite tight coverage.
To give you an idea of just how good Alabama's secondary was, 100% of the passes beyond the line of scrimmage had a defender within four yards upon the receiver catching the ball, and 76% were within two yards. By comparison, 59% of pass attempts against Vandy had a defender within 2 yards, 46% against UCF and less than 30% against South Carolina. In short, our receivers were blanketed. In a game where every pass was into a tight window, Berk made good decisions about when to force it in and when to hold it or throw it away. Still, it's hard not to wonder what a QB like Chase Daniel could have done with 2.3 seconds.
Against a defense like that, the question becomes, did we not pass well because our young QB couldn't find them open, or because our receivers aren't good enough, or is Alabama just that good? I'm inclined to think the latter. Looking at the sheer speed, athleticism and most impressively the discipline of that unit, I think maybe 3 Mizzou players could see significant playing time for Saban: Sheldon Richardson, E.J. Gaines and maybe Zaviar Gooden. They're just bigger and faster.
Like on the other side of the ball, we got outmuscled, although not as badly. The defensive line actually held its ground pretty well, it just didn't get off blocks. If you've ever watched some of the classic SEC power games in a bowl game, how often have you just seen them pushing the other defensive line back 3 or 4 yards? And there weren't a lot of those holes like you used to see against Nebraska, where you could drive a truck through the hole. Bill C, I don't know what the line yards were in this game, but to the naked eye, it really appeared that Mizzou's line held its ground. (Note from Bill C.: Alabama averaged 3.65 line yards per carry, which is basically what Mizzou averages against FCS opponents.) Outside of Sheldon though, we couldn't shed blocks, leaving sometimes tight but consistent holes for Alabama to run through.
I don't mind that Mizzou plays an aggressive, upfield style of rush defense. But as we saw against UCF, it can backfire against power rushing attacks that like to get to the edge. Compared to Alabama's style, where you wait and stretch the play, it allows the offensive line to get on the linebackers and it sometimes runs you out of the play. If you're going to play that style, then the line and the linebackers have to shed blocks and make plays. Of course, maybe it made no difference anyway. Alabama's blockers used great technique to go with their size and athleticism. When they blocked you, you stayed blocked.
In this video, watch how the line often comes upfield past the play, or they try to come upfield and stay blocked, rather than stretching the play and clogging up lanes. They didn't do this on all plays and sometimes it worked when they did, but I thought it was overall less successful then when they stretched the play. Also, on the last play, not only can you see excellent Alabama blocking, but you can see Sheldon Richardson running like a linebacker to chase down this play. What a beast. I also find it interesting that even in the fourth quarter, our defensive line did not get pushed backward. They may not have always made the stop, but they did hold their ground.
I think Pinkel's comment about our players making Alabama bigger than they were was somewhat accurate. They really seemed blitzed right out of the gate. It's always hard to say how much Alabama let up after the lightning strike, but at least immediately afterward (before halftime) they looked to me like a team trying to go for the jugular, not letting down. But either way, Mizzou had somewhat more success against the run after the lightning strike.
I think part of it is being a bit intimidated, or blitzed by the onslaught. I'm sure part of it is effort by Alabama. But don't discount familiarity. I think we've seen a very clear adjustment period against all of our opponents so far, as the defense gets used to what the other side is doing. After about a quarter, they seem to settle in, and that was the case here to some extent. I guess that's the price of changing conferences. It'll be nice that our opponents don't have two weeks to prepare for us in the coming games.
Mizzou held its own in the passing game. Mizzou gave up big yards on the trick play flea flicker, although I think E.J. Gaines actually played it reasonably well, but he's probably not used to the receiver being as fast as him, and the pass was nearly perfect. They also gave up a lot of yards on Alabama's three play-action naked bootlegs. What can you say, that's why Alabama loves that play so much against everyone. On the remaining 17 passing plays, Mizzou gave up 93 yards, and had quite a few plays for no gain. Considering the stress that Alabama's run game puts on a defense, that's pretty respectable. For all the commentators' talk about how McCarron could throw for 350 a game if they needed to, I really think Alabama's offense remains predicated on the run, and if you could take that away, you'd have a chance. Who could do that against such an offensive line, I don't know.
It's amazing that we're 7 games in, and we're still wondering what this team is capable of. There's been so much instability on the offensive line and quarterback, that things really haven't clicked yet. And whether that's rubbing off on our sloppy execution (e.g. catch the ball), or just a coincidence, we're left to wonder whether this team can pick up the pieces and put together a run. But I think we can make some reasonable predictions.
1) The wide receiver drops will continue. If it's one game, it's a fluke. Two is a coincidence. Three is a trend. We're now on our fourth game of drops. Yes, there was rain, and that does matter. Forget what Pinkel says to the halftime reporter, rain makes the ball slippery. But this is just too consistent to ignore. I'd love to be wrong, but I see no reason to expect that our receivers will become more sure handed overnight, unless we start new receivers. And let's be honest, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas weren't exactly Chase Coffman in the hands department before this year. Most of the drops are coming in traffic, and we can expect more tight coverage in games to come I think.
2) The offensive line will execute well, but struggle physically in the interior at times. I don't think anyone will push us around like Alabama did, except possibly Florida. We've seen two games now where they've got bodies on the right people. I think we'll struggle occasionally with well-disguised blitzes, and line stunts on running plays, but for the most part, this offensive line has come a long way. But getting stronger is not something that changes significantly over the course of a season. Improved technique will help some, but again, it's not something that comes overnight. McNulty and Copeland (and to some degree Morse) are just going to get thrown aside now and then, and that's what we should expect. They'll get stronger. Ironically, the true frosh Evan Beohm has been physically up to the task. He does not get pushed aside easily. He does, however, occasionally get out-quicked. How much of that will improve with more experience, vs physical limitations, time will tell.
3) Gary Pinkel will have the team mentally ready. I like what I hear from Pinkel right now. We're going to win with these players. No more excuses. I honestly wonder whether this year's execution struggles are due to our problems spreading like a disease. It's a poor analogy, but there's truth to the idea that when multiple things start to break down, it can become infectious and spread to other parts of the game. I think Pinkel understands this is crunch time and that we can't wait for all the players to be perfect for us to play Mizzou quality football.
4) We will make a bowl if James Franklin returns and plays like he has in the last two games. Well, the last 1.2 games. The execution has really stepped up on the offensive line. While that may not be enough against Florida, it should at least help us move the ball in our swing games against Tennessee and Texas A&M. If we can get Franklin back at the same form he was against UCF and the first quarter against Vandy, we should score enough to give us a good shot at winning. If nothing else, the defensive level of competition drops dramatically. In the first six FBS games, we played five top 40 defenses and another ranked 52nd. In the final five, we'll face only two in the top 70 (Florida and 2-4 Syracuse). While I think Tennessee and Texas A&M may have defenses better than their rankings indicate, the odds still go significantly up in those circumstances. I would add one more proviso to this: David Yost must get Lawrence more involved. We can't be passing 65% of the time and expect to have a consistent offense. Franklin is good, but he's not Chance Daniels.
For as disappointed as we all are, we've really only lost one game we should have won, and that was with a backup QB and an inexperienced offensive line. With two pretty likely wins against Kentucky and Syracuse, and a likely loss against Florida, games against Tennessee and Texas A&M will be the difference between a modestly respectable 7-5 and an extremely disappointing 5-7. I do, however, think that we'll either win both or neither. A&M and Tennessee are respectable teams, but either we're playing at the kind of level where we usually beat these teams or we're not. My guess is that if we lose to Tennessee, we're going to lose to A&M as well, and vice versa.
Sunshine pumper says: 7-5. Book your tickets to Shreveport now!