The offense is getting close. Will it be enough in a brutal November?
It's an interesting mood around the fanboards lately. First SEC win, and people seem neither excited about the historic occasion, nor happy with the play. I suppose that after an ugly win against a bad opponent, it's understandable that people are ready to move on. But as always, the tape does have some value.
- Missouri defense and the value of balance
- Mizzou is on the verge of an offensive breakthrough
- What it means for Florida
Kentucky's first two drives: 110 yards. Next 12 drives: 34 yards. Talk about waking up. One game after they got owned by the best offensive line in college football but at least held their ground in terms of up-front push, the Tigers' defensive line was driven straight backward more in the first two drives than in the rest of the season combined, it seemed. I don't know if the Tigers just weren't awake yet, or if Kentucky's line is just that good. Some of the blocks in the video are on double teams, but you can't just get driven back by a double team, even if you aren't expected to make the tackle. Sheldon Richardson once again had a great game, but he might not want to show the last clip to Mel Kiper.
And yet, the running game was not the story of those drives. There continued to be somewhat successful runs for Kentucky later in the game, if at a reduced rate. And there were still examples in the second and third quarters of defensive linemen getting pushed back five yards. Kentucky was successful on 50% of its running plays in the first half, including in the second quarter when Mizzou really had stopped the UK offense. Certainly the line, and especially the linebackers, played better in the second half. But the real story here is the passing game, and its ability to keep Mizzou off-balance.
In the first quarter, Kentucky found success on 57% of passes. The rest of the game: less than 10% (including 0% in the second quarter). It stresses even a good running game when it has no passing threat to keep a defense honest. And Kentucky wilted without the passing threat. So what was the difference? For starters, we seemed to tighten up in coverage. Mizzou seemed content to make Kentucky execute its way down the field, but by the second half, Mizzou was practically daring Kentucky to make a play. My notes on almost every second half Kentucky pass play were "QB under pressure, tight coverage." Kudos for Dave Steckel to dialing up the aggressiveness. The first three plays in this clip show defenders giving a lot of cushion, and that seemed considerably tighter after the first quarter.
Undeniably, a huge part of Kentucky's early success was great play scripting. A mix of rollouts, bubble screens and misdirection had the defense unsure where to attack. As the defense figured out these gimmicks, they gained confidence and got more aggressive.
I think David Yost is often criticized (including by me) for passing too much, just like Pinkel was criticized for trying to make Brad Smith into a pass-first QB. But I think this really illustrates why. When a defense has no idea what's coming next, it's a compounding effect. Imagine Brad Smith's running combined with Chase Daniel's passing ability. It starts to become an RGIII Baylor or Oregon type of attack that just destroys other opponents. And I think that's probably what he's trying to do this year. Instead of just trying to call the play that gives them a higher percentage in this down and distance, he's trying to let the offense reach its potential, and that means a solid pass/rush balance. We're just not executing well enough to keep up with his aspirations. At least he seemed to finally recognize it this game and let the offense be conservative.
The narrative after this Kentucky win might be considerably different if we had scored, say, 45 or 50 points. And yet, I don't think two or three more TDs is all that much of a stretch if the passing game had been working. I really think this offense could hit a whole other level (at least for this year) if -- and it's a huge "if" -- Franklin returns to the UCF/Vandy form that he showed a couple of games ago. Of course, proving that against the nation's No. 2 defense, according to the latest F/+ rankings, might be a bit of bad timing. But we've shown that we can run well and we've shown that we can pass decently. We just haven't shown that we can do both in the same game.
The passing, to say the least, was ugly in this game. Normally I download the data for each play, and divide up the plays according to rushing and passing for Mizzou and its opponent, then watch each category all in a row to look for trends. Then I look at the successful and unsuccessful plays and try to figure out why they had that result. This game, I just couldn't bring myself to watch the Mizzou passing in detail.
I didn't have time this week to time the pass protection with a stopwatch, but the Kentucky pass rush wasn't particularly potent. Mizzou has never been a brick wall, allowing the quarterback all kinds of time back there, whether against good or bad opponents, and certainly Corbin Berkstresser had pressure from time to time. But the line pretty reliably give enough time for downfield routes to get open, and this game didn't look any different. But one pass over 10 yards is just abysmal, even before you figure in the other poor stats. It was just a bad game. It's disappointing that with nearly a month of practice as the starting QB, we couldn't do better with Berk, but it will happen sometimes with a frosh QB. I have always been a bit higher on Maty Mauk than Berk, but I'm not ready to give up on him based on this year's results. He's got excellent pocket awareness, he's capable of being accurate, he's got a nice arm, and has shown he can be smart with the football. He just needs to learn to attack the defense. We saw a whole lot of "Looking ... looking ... 5-yard dump off."
I also didn't think Franklin had a great game. Outside of his bubble screens, he wasn't asked to do much real passing, and when he was, it wasn't particularly successful. He had two balls almost intercepted, one on a tipped ball (though on rewatching it wasn't a low throw) and one on a bad read. However, upon rewatching, it wasn't as bad as first viewing. Watch how he reads the linebacker and thinks it's safe throw, and linebacker looks at him just as he's beyond the point of changing his mind.
But there's a silver lining here. Mizzou's offensive line had its best game of the season, and the offense moved the ball consistently (if not potently) despite the almost total lack of passing threat. As discussed above, this can't be overstated. When an opponent starts attacking what they think you can do, unless you prove them wrong, it's usually a very bad outcome. But we still had success running the ball. I actually think the quality of blocking was about equal to what it was against Alabama, but Kentucky is obviously not Alabama.
As we discussed last week, the offensive line is just going to have some issues going forward, and that was evident against Kentucky as well. Evan Boehm is occasionally going to be a step slow against a fash pass rusher. Max Copelend and Brad McNulty are still building the strength to push out stronger defensive tackles or hold stretch blocks. And Elvis Fisher and Justin Britt can slow even the faster pass rushers, but won't put up a brick wall against even average ones. And the interior line will occasionally get confused on disguised blitzes. Fellas, this is our offensive line. We've seen the same things for a few weeks now.
But there's a lot to like as well. They're really starting to get the blocking schemes, they're improving at blitz pickup, and nobody has really put on significant and consistent pressure without blitzing in several weeks now. This week nearly 70% of the running plays kept us in front of the sticks, compared to in the 20s or 30s at times earlier this year. Sure, the competition makes a difference, but so does blocking it correctly. This video shows just a few of the successful plays out of the many well-blocked plays last week. Notice how many the defensive line is often pushed back four yards or more at the point of attack.
A final note on the offense: I've been fairly critical of Yost for letting our zone running scheme get predictable in where it goes, since the RB usually goes the opposite direction of where he lines up. I've long been a fan of Florida's approach to this, as shown in this video. The first play in the video is the regular zone read option, and the others are a counter play to keep the defense honest. The player starts one way, and then goes the other. I also like how Florida runs the veer, which is like the zone read option, but instead of the QB optioning to the backside, he options to the same side as the RB is running. You can see them fake it in some of these. But that's another post.
Against Mizzou, teams have attacked this in different ways, but it usually is either crashing a safety or LB on the edge, or stunting the line into the expected gap. Missouri counters this in a few ways. In the past, we would just option the QB, but without a healthy and dangerous running QB, the risk is minimal for the defense. Here is Kentucky stunting into it. The weakside DT will push to the run side to create traffic. Of course, even with the Kentucky defense playing this well, we still could have picked up the two yards for the first down, but Kendial Lawrence picked a bad time to start playing east-west again.
Mizzou counters that a few ways. First, we pass a little bubble screen or quick out to the weak side, to protect against LB pursuit. We haven't seen much of that this year, but we fake it almost every play to keep the defense honest. We also limit the line stunts' effectiveness by blocking a stunting defender into their stunt, which creates a cutback lane, particularly if the linebacker doesn't play it correctly, as shown here. This video shows the defense giving almost exactly the same look, once with the linebacker playing a little better position and the second time with the running back cutting it back.
But I honestly hadn't thought about the fact that the option also counters this. Watch the linebacker freeze and the weakside (play side in this case) defensive end make a move where they think the play will go, allowing not just the Offensive Tackle, but the Offensive Guard to seal the edge, preventing him from spreading the play and giving Berkstresser a lane upfield.
As I noted above, Mizzou actually might make some good strides this week in offensive execution, and we'll never notice it, because Florida's defense is just that good. But this is what we signed up for in the SEC. Granted, not every week is going to produce a Top 10 defense, but at some point, we'll have to show we can move the ball on those teams if we ever want our offense to be viewed as more than a gimmick that racks up yards against weak defenses.
In some ways, that's incredibly unfair. I mean, LSU's awesome power attack couldn't score a TD in two games (including overtime) against Alabama last year. Heck, nobody really scored on Alabama last year and nobody has really put up yards and points against Florida this year. But perception is reality in the media, and while I'm not delusional enough to think we're likely to win this game, I do think a strong showing is a real possibility. A couple of things really worry me though.
1. Florida's pass defense is outstanding.
Did you see them make Aaron Murray look like a true freshman QB last week? The same Aaron Murry that carved up our decent pass defense with a very spread-like attack in the second half. The same Aaron Murray that has already thrown for 8,000 yards in his career midway through his junior season. And yet, three first-half interceptions and a very flustered upperclassman. You know, in some ways, I think the SEC is very much what I expected, and I think as Bill C. pointed out, the East is way up this year. But when you see a team that you just played get offensively dismantled like that, it opens your eyes to the level of competition in a way that you just can't see unless you have some familiarity with those teams.
The speed in Florida's secondary is exceptional. Mizzou's receiving corps may be the most disappointing unit on the team, but perhaps the most disappointing aspect is that they haven't been faster than the other team. Unlike some bloggers have suggested, they haven't been slower, but I'm used to seeing Mizzou at a half a gear higher than the opposition (last year excepted). That doesn't bode well for us. If we are going to move the ball, Franklin will have to ride a fine line between taking care to avoid turnovers, and forcing the ball into tightly covered receivers. He has the capability, but doing it all game long without making a mistake is a lot to ask.
2. Florida's run defense may play well against our style of rushing attack.
I often discount other teams rush defense statistics when facing Mizzou, just because our style of attack is so different than the power attack other teams play. But if Bill C. is right about Florida playing outstanding rush defense with their safeties, that will make it hard on Mizzou's style of blocking. UCF had a lot of success with strong run support from the safeties. We attacked that aggressiveness with a downfield passing game, but against UF, that will be harder given the quality of their secondary.
Given these disadvantages, combined with Florida's notable advantage in special teams, and the margin for a Mizzou victory is small enough that you almost start talking about moral victories before the game. But if Mizzou is to win the game, this is the formula I see:
- Excellent special teams. Mizzou has shown excellence in every phase at some point this year, and mistakes in every phase as well. In special teams, consistency is everything, though. We have to limit Florida's field position advantage and prevent mistakes.
- Super-Franklin. It may too much to ask James Franklin to shake off both rust and injury to play in his top form, but that's what we need.
- Aggressive defense. Not only does Mizzou need to stop the run like they did most of this season (notably excepting the first quarter of Alabama) but they need to not give Jeff Driskel easy passes. Don't let him get his confidence, and don't let him extend drives and wear down the defense the way South Carolina did. Yes, it's risky. Yes, we might lose the game, but you gotta roll the dice because you weren't likely to win straight up anyway.
- Receivers must step up. We can't have the effort of the last few weeks if we're to win. Marcus Lucas needs to shake off the drops, and it would be nice to get either L'Damian Washington or Dorial Green-Beckham downfield.