Mizzou 21, UCF 16: Tape breakdown

Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Lessons from the Missouri-UCF tape: offense, defense and what it means for the rest of the season.

After looking at the tape, there are a few things that pop up compared to the narrative we’ve heard so far.

I have divided this into three sections:

  1. The myth that the defense made a lot of adjustments
  2. The myth that the offense is completely inept
  3. Observations and learnings

1) Myth: The defense made lots of adjustments

Tape: I just don’t see a lot of adjustments. There wasn’t especially more pressure in the second half. First half average time to throw was 2.1 seconds, compared to 2.0 in second half. Considering there were more obvious passing downs in the second half, it seems our pass rush wasn’t the main factor. While the second half produced a lot of three-and-outs, I think the defense gradually improved throughout the game. It just goes to show that football is a game of series, and small changes to individual plays can have big impacts on how many overall yards you get.

So what did change? Most of UCF’s yards in the first half came from a lot of big running plays, with a bit of play action thrown in, but they also had a lot of negative or short gains. If anything, Mizzou maybe tightened up its underneath coverage a little bit. But mostly I think it was the players themselves adapting.

Mizzou’s defenders adjusted to UCF’s offense

On their final drive of the first half, UCF converted several third downs, often with screens and draws. Mizzou adjusted to these in the second half. And they adjusted to the speed of UCF’s running backs. Several times in the first quarter the LBs took the wrong pursuit angle because of UCF’s speed. Honestly, I think Storm Johnson may have been the best back Mizzou has faced this year. In this video, you can see how Ebner underestimates Storm’s speed, and how Johnson made a juke that would make Barry Sanders proud.

In this video, watch how, in the first few clips, the DTs are coming upfield, and the offensive guards are getting on the linebackers. In the second few clips, the DTs are stretching the play sideways, which creates traffic that makes it hard for the OG to get on the LB. Additionally, the strong side LB is aggressively coming up to the line of scrimmage, which gives them leverage in directing the play where they want it to go. Whether these are just the players having seen the play several times by now, or a coaching adjustment, it seemed to work most of the second half.

UCF called a lot less misdirection

In the first half, UCF ran eight misdirection running plays (not counting draws, screens and play action), six of which were successful and averaged nearly 15 yards per play. They also seemed to keep Mizzou’s defense off balance. They ran zero in the second half.

2) Myth: The offense is hopeless:

Mizzou ran 51 offensive plays in regular situations. I’m not counting the last two drives because UCF completely sold out to stop the run, so that’s not really a normal situation. Of these 51 plays, 25 were successful, a rate of 49%, which on its own would likely rank among the top teams for success rate.

The problem is that when a play is not successful, it’s really not successful. My definition of success mean that you aren’t "behind the chains." E.g, second-and-7 or more, third-and-4 or more. Nineteen of Mizzou’s 26 unsuccessful plays were on first or second down, and 13 of those 19 plays gained a yard or less, essentially a lost play. Considering how bad Mizzou has been at converting third-and-long, the effect of these plays is pronounced.

This is really where my problem with Yost’s playcalling comes in. While watching the game, it was hard to complain when Franklin was racking up the passing yardage. But considering Mizzou’s inability to give Franklin time in obvious passing situations, if you string together two bad plays, you’ve essentially killed the drive. That’s a lot to ask of a passing game, to never have two bad plays in a row. Every single time Mizzou had two bad plays, it had a third bad play which killed the drive, with only one exception, when Mizzou got three yards on first down and two on second down, leaving 3rd-and-5 instead of 3rd and long. By mixing in more runs, I think Mizzou’s offense reaches its full potential and keeps defenses off balance.

Now, in Yost’s defense, UCF was playing the run hard with the safeties. Almost every tackle in the first three quarters in the run game was made by a safety who came hard to the line of scrimmage. (See video below.) And UCF stunted a lot on the line, probably more than any team we’ve played in a while. In some ways, the pistol was a great antidote for that because of its speed, but if you ever saw Nevada run the Pistol, you know timing is everything, and high snaps throw off timing.

What frustrates me is that, if they’re so predictable, why did Mizzou not take advantage? Why not more play action with a back in the backfield instead of empty sets? Why not run a counter against the line stunt (something Florida used to do beautifully and something I’ve never understood why we don’t do). I’m not sure the motion in the video above shows a true counter, since a true counter goes against the strength side, but I think it’s no mistake that Lawrence’s two biggest runs came off cutbacks against the over pursuit. In fact, the second one I initially thought was a called counter (though in fairness I can’t say for certain it wasn’t).

After defending Yost’s playcalling last week and most weeks, I think this game, particularly the first half, was disappointing. He’s forgotten more about offense than I’ll ever know, but this game seemed odd to me. If any theme has emerged this year, it’s that he seems to spend quite a bit of the game just seeing what sticks, instead of just playing the base offense and then adapting.

Why are we failing? Standard downs

Out of 19 bad plays on standard downs, Mizzou had two high snaps, two drops, a fumble, two WRs running the wrong route, and a pass batted down that shouldn’t have been. That’s eight out of 19 plays that just come down to basic execution. And it doesn’t even include the mistakes made on positive plays, like Lawrence’s cutback runs. Forget whether Franklin was accurate, whether the O-line got beat, whether the defensive stunted or just made a play. That’s strictly Mizzou screw ups. You want to know how to get into a lot of third-and-long? Screw up that often. On 42% of the standard down unsuccessful plays, Mizzou is just not doing the basic things that you expect from any team at any level. That’s really what has frustrated me about this team more than anything. Losing to Georgia and even getting blown out by South Carolina are not that bad. But Mizzou is just not executing, in a way that I haven’t seen since Pinkel’s first couple of years.

UCF also did some nice things on defense. They got lucky on several line stunts which took them right into the play. As the line gets more experienced, it should pick up more of these stunts. And on passing downs, they moved people around to get favorable matchups. But you know what? Good teams are going to make a play once in a while, and UCF is a top 50 defense. It’s the stuff that’s in Mizzou's control that bothers me.

Why are we failing? Pass Protection

Mizzou faced nine third downs during regular situations, six of which would be considered obvious passing downs and two more which were third-and-5, a common passing down. So basically in eight of nine, UCF was teeing off to come after the QB. Teams always tee off on third-and-long, but teams are teeing off with four down linemen, as did UCF. Until the O-line shows that it can pick up the basic pass rush, defenses will continue to drop seven into coverage. I think in some ways this is just what we can expect from this team. I don’t think Mizzou will ever have last year’s level of line play, or even what we expected in August. That said, I do expect it to improve.

UCF lined up a DE over Evan Boehm on passing downs, and he got beat several times in the first half, unable to match the speed of the quick DE. Honestly, UCF’s undersized line was a good matchup for Mizzou. Their DTs were like SEC DEs and their DEs were like linebackers. Boehm seemed to do better in the second half, and center Mitch Morse helped in his direction in those situations.

The other DE, also quite fast, got by Jack Meiners a few times on the right side. Supposedly, Meiners was banged up. And yet I don’t think with Meiners it was a question of being too slow; he seemed a fish out of water with his technique on the outside where you see more speed rushes. In this video, notice how he seems in position to make the block. He’s in between the defender and the QB and has his legs under him and his balance on his toes, but lets the DE get leverage with his inside arm. He gets beat on the same move later in the game. If Elvis Fisher can return near full strength, Mizzou may be much better in pass protection. I don’t think he’ll ever be 2010's Fisher, but as you can see, a little bit of experience can make a big difference.

3) Random Observations

Sheldon is a beast.

Duh. But what’s amazing to me is not just that Sheldon Richardson made so many tackles or beat so many double teams, it’s how quick his first step is and how fast he is in pursuit. He looks like a somewhat slow linebacker, much less as defensive end, much less a defensive tackle. With due respect to Aldon Smith, he might be Mizzou's best defensive line player since Justin Smith.

Franklin had probably his best game ever as a passer.

I’m astounded when people say James Franklin didn’t play well enough this game. This is pretty much every pass he threw where he had any time at all. Notice how many hit the receivers in stride, and how aggressive he is in getting balls into tight spots. He looked a lot like Blaine Gabbert and Chase Daniel in that regard this game. And it was more impressive if you consider that Pinkel says the interception was Eric Waters' fault. He wasn’t perfect, but he was far better. Now if we could just get his running game going.

Kendial is officially a playmaker

I think many, including me, have been tempted to view Kendial Lawrence as a serviceable back, but he was the best player on the offense on Saturday, even with Franklin’s output. Again, not perfect, but he made plays go that other players could not have. He consistently made the first player miss, and he single handedly willed us to our only multi-play scoring drive.

Lessons for the rest of the season

I’ve been saying for a few weeks now that Mizzou has the potential to compete with anybody not named Alabama if we just clean things up. But at some point the improvements actually have to come together. The pass blocking was improved at SC but took a step back at UCF. Franklin finally played a good passing game, but the receivers dropped balls. And let’s be honest, that’s not his game. If we’re counting on that kind of game week in and week out, we aren’t going to reach anywhere near our potential. The offense hums when Franklin is a running threat and our line gives him enough time to make teams pay with intermediate throws down the middle of the field.

I really thought Mizzou could be a potential sleeper Top 10 team this year if the DTs and safeties stepped up (one out of two isn’t bad), but now I’m just worried about bowl eligibility. Only Kentucky and Syracuse look like sure wins from here on out. The defense is one of Mizzou's best ever, but until the offense just starts doing basic execution, I don’t think any game is completely safe.

Did Mizzou get in over its head in the SEC? ESPN sure seems to think so. I think we just picked the wrong year to join and got some lousy luck on the offensive line. Every team Mizzou plays except Kentucky and possibly Vandy are up this year. South Carolina showed up with a pretty nice passing game. Connor Shaw was never that patient last year. Why oh why couldn’t Mizzou get the SC that played Vandy? Georgia had to go to a four wide spread game to produce enough offense to pull past Mizzou. Quite Big 12ish of them. And Florida and Tennessee are looking considerably better as well. For all the talk about how A&M got the tougher draw in the West this year, Mizzou actually might have gotten the tougher division, especially if Florida takes LSU to the wire this weekend.

Does Mizzou have what it takes to compete in such a division? I think with a healthy team this year: possibly yes. But with the two best teams in the rearview mirror, Mizzou has missed its chance to prove it. But we can still earn some respect.

If Fisher comes back healthy sometime this month, Mizzou's only really got one position where it is weak on offense. And that could improve if Travis Ruth comes back by November. If Mizzou can squeeze by Vandy and take some lumps from Alabama, there won’t be another stiff test until November. That’s a month to get better. It’s not hard to imagine Mizzou finishing out on a five or six game winning streak. OR, we might be fighting for bowl eligibility at Texas A&M.

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