Syracuse 31, Mizzou 27: Beyond the box score

Bill Carter

Questions, and prayers, to answer.

This week's mini-Numerical contains only two numbers and features basically everything I can think to say about this game.

11.4

Syracuse's sack rate on Missouri pass attempts. The more I think about it, the more I think THIS was the No. 1 factor in the game, not Alec Lemon's explosion. As we'll see below, Mizzou and Syracuse had almost exactly the same passing numbers -- and even with the sacks, Missouri's were a little better -- and a MUCH more efficient run game. But Syracuse managed four sacks and six other tackles for loss, and they all seemed to come at huge times. Meanwhile, as or more importantly, Mizzou got almost no pressure, no push, whatsoever. Like Vanderbilt, Syracuse was able to poke extra guys through the middle of Missouri's line at key times. Combine that with a rash of holding penalties, and you see how Mizzou drives ended prematurely.

Drive No. 3: James Franklin sacked for loss of 11 yards on third-and-13 from the MU 35. Mizzou punts on next play.

Drive No. 4: Franklin sacked for loss of 12 on first-and-10 from the MU 40. Mizzou punts two plays later.

Drive No. 7: Franklin finds Jared McGriff-Culver for nine yards on third-and-8, but Max Copeland is called for holding. On third-and-17, Franklin runs for eight yards, and Mizzou punts.

Drive No. 8: Russell Hansbrough rushes for loss of three yards on 1st-and-10 from MU 23, then Franklin is sacked for loss of 14 on second-and-13. MU punts from its 16 after starting the drive on the 23.

Drive No. 9: Kendial Lawrence breaks off run inside Syracuse 10, but Jimmie Hunt is called for holding. (This is obviously a bad call because Hunt is not capable of doing anything wrong, ahem.) Instead of first-and-goal, Mizzou faces first-and-9 from the Syracuse 30. Lawrence is stuffed for no gain on second-and-1, then Franklin is stuffed for a loss of two on third-and-1. Mizzou is forced to settle for a 42-yard field goal and misses.

Drive No. 11: Lawrence is stopped for a loss of three on first-and-10 from the MU 25. Mizzou punts two plays later.

Drive No. 12: On third-and-1 from the Syracuse 25, Lawrence is once again stuffed for a loss of three. Judging by where Lawrence was pointed taking the handoff, this was supposed to go somewhat off-tackle. Instead, he was forced to immediately cut right because in the 0.5 seconds it took for Berkstresser to hand him the ball, two Syracuse defenders invaded the backfield*. Mizzou makes a 46-yard field goal, but a Syracuse touchdown on the next drive makes the difference in the game.

Not including the final, desperation drive, Mizzou had 12 possessions. Three ended in touchdowns, and seven ended prematurely, in part because of a penalty or an untimely tackle for loss, or both. That's how you let an opponent hang around. And after scoring only 10 points in their first seven possessions, Syracuse found a mismatch it liked and scored three times in its final five drives. Ballgame.

* By the way, to those always complaining about slow-developing run plays, realize this: If the blocking isn't there, it's not going to work no matter what. If Mizzou had lined up in an I-formation, with Ron Janes at fullback, Lawrence would have been stopped for a two-yard loss on this play because the blocking didn't exist. The slow development of those plays allows for blocks to get established and allows the running back (almost always short and quick in Missouri's system) to identify potential holes and choose one. Fast-developing plays don't work any better than slow ones if the line gets blown up.

55.6

Percentage of Alec Lemon's targets that came in the fourth quarter. As you probably know by now, I'm not much of a "SCREW [RANDOM COORDINATOR OF CHOICE]. WHAT A STUPID STRATEGY. WHY DIDN'T THEY JUST [SOMETHING TOO EASY AND SIMPLE TO ACTUALLY WORK]??" kind of guy. Instead, I ask questions. Like, I literally want to talk to the coordinator and find out why something did or didn't happen because I assume there is a pretty good explanation for it that I just missed. Coordinators tend to be smart, experienced and quite well-paid. If they didn't make this or that adjustment, or if they didn't call this or that play anymore, there's probably a reason.

After the game, however, I was bugged by two questions for which I couldn't quite figure out a rational answer by myself:

1. Why didn't Mizzou throw more screens to Dorial Green-Beckham?

2. Why was Randy Ponder on Alec Lemon so damn much?

For the first one, I have about half an answer. Mizzou, and most spread teams, tend to run packaged plays of sorts, where there isn't a single play at hand, but multiple plays for a quarterback to employ based on what he sees from the defense. Most Mizzou plays tend to have short and long options, with different route combinations run by different groupings on each side of the quarterback. It is quite conceivable that a lot of those plays included screen looks to DGB, but the numbers didn't work out for James Franklin, so he went the other direction for the ball. It is also conceivable that, well, a LOT of things were working, and Mizzou was a little bit lucky that, for basically the first time all year, that 70-yard screen touchdown on the third play of the game actually worked out that way. Mizzou receivers have not blocked well on those passes in 2012, and this one just happened to work. But yeah, if James Franklin actually got the pass off, things probably worked just fine. Again, he was 17-for-23 passing. As you'll see below, DGB indeed averaged 15.8 yards per target, but Jimmie Hunt averaged 18.7, Marcus Lucas 14.5, Gahn McGaffie 14.0, T.J. Moe 11.7 and L'Damian Washington 9.5. Everything worked if Franklin was able to get the pass off. Granted, quick screens are less likely to see pressure, but that at least sort of explains things to me. And, of course, other receivers -- like Moe -- saw success on screens, too, so it's not like Mizzou abandoned the short game altogether.

The second question, meanwhile, was bugging me until I broke out Lemon's statistics by quarter and cracked open the game replay on ESPN3. In my head, he consistently damaged Missouri all game, but that is only somewhat true.

First quarter passes to Lemon: 2-for-3 for 37 yards. Lemon dropped a third-and-5 pass from the MU 27, which forced a field goal attempt. And on Syracuse's second drive, he caught a 31-yard pass on Kip Edwards, and caught a six-yard pass on Ponder on third-and-14. Syracuse punted.

Second quarter passes to Lemon: 1-for-3 for 22 yards. E.J. Gaines broke up a pass to Lemon on Syracuse's first play of the quarter, and Nassib couldn't find Lemon on third-and-8 from the Syracuse 33 on the next drive. His only catch came on a 22-yarder from the SU 28 on the next drive. It was the catalyst for a lovely drive, but it did not come against Ponder, instead taking advantage of what looked like a confused, clogged zone defense.

So in the first half, only one of Lemon's six targets came against Ponder.

Third quarter passes to Lemon: 2-for-2 for 45 yards. After basically a full quarter of field-flipping, Mizzou pinned Syracuse at its 2 with 5:30 left in the third. On third-and-4 from the 8, it began. Lemon lined up in the left slot, against Ponder, and ran what looked like a wheel route. Ryan Nassib lobbed the ball over Ponder for a rather easy, 27-yard pitch-and-catch. Syracuse would go on to punt, but the gain allowed SU to once again flip the field, and instead of starting around midfield, Mizzou started its next drive (the one that included a loss for Hansbrough and another big sack of Franklin) from the 23.

On the final play of the third quarter, with Syracuse facing second-and-9 from its 46, Lemon once again lined up in the left slot opposite Ponder. But Ponder blitzed, leaving Kenronte Walker to come up and guard Lemon. Nassib, being one HELL of a quarterback, did not hesitate to throw to the man left open by the blitzer, and what should have been about a five-yard gained turned into an 18-yarder when Walker made a lazy shove at Lemon, and Lemon was able to tiptoe another 10 yards before falling out of bounds.

Through three quarters, Syracuse had only taken advantage of the Ponder-on-Lemon matchup twice, three times if you include Ponder's blitz.

The onslaught then began in the fourth quarter, of course.

Fourth quarter passes to Lemon: 7-for-10 for 140 yards and two touchdowns. This seemed to be a good example of an offensive coordinator cataloging what works but not going to the well too often, too early. Lemon caught a 13-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the fourth quarter, lining up in the right slot, catching a quick out against a blitz and simply outrunning Ponder to the front corner of the end zone. Syracuse went three-and-out on the next drive (which saw two passes to Marcus Sales instead of Lemon), but after Mizzou scored to take a 24-17 lead, Nassib found Lemon for 17 yards on a bit of an out-and-up route (against Ponder). Two plays later, Lemon lined up on the left slot, and Ponder blitzed again. Once again, Walker did a terrible job in pursuit, and a short pass turned into a 29-yard catch-and-run, complete with a face mask penalty on Walker at the end. Only three of his seven catches to date were on Ponder, and two of his biggest gains were actually Walker's fault. Syracuse scored two plays later.

Syracuse's next drive ended on the first play, when Ponder picked off a pass that bounced off of Beckett Wales' hands. Mizzou took a 27-24 lead, but with the game on the line, Syracuse finally leaned on what they had to figure would work. In Syracuse's game-winning, seven-play drive, Nassib went to Lemon six times, completing four for 81 yards. On the first play of the drive, after lovely kick coverage forced SU to start from its 19, Lemon lined up in the right slow (opposite Ponder) and poked a deep hole in what appeared to be a zone (it was either a zone or absolutely dreadful coverage by Ponder, and for all that Ponder may lack in the speed department, he's pretty smart, so I'm going with zone). On the next play, Lemon lined up on the left slot, took a quick slant against another Missouri blitz, and simply outran Ponder downfield for an 18-yard gain. Again, speed is Ponder's main problem, not know-how.

On the next play, Lemon ran a drag route, and Nassib's pass to him was almost intercepted by Zaviar Gooden. (Mizzou had a couple of shoulda woulda INTs in the fourth quarter.) On second down, great Ponder coverage forced an incompletion. After another near-pick on third down (the rare QB hurry forced a low pass to Wales from Nassib, and Will Ebner almost picked it off of the ground before it hit), it looked like the tables had turned. Mizzou had played perfect pass defense for three consecutive plays and was one more away from a win. But on what basically looked like a deep post route, Lemon got past Ponder (who held him on the way by) and made a diving, 19-yard catch. And then, of course, the next play was the infamous "half the Mizzou defense thought it was man, half thought zone, and nobody guarded the really good receiver" play for a touchdown. SU lined up in a really odd formation (one I'm not sure they had shown all game)...

...confused Mizzou, and scored the game-winning touchdown. Perfect play-calling.

TL;DR. Lemon lined up in the slot a lot, and Mizzou seemed to trust Randy Ponder a bit too much in this regard, but Lemon's "12 catches for 244 yards" line wasn't all from taking advantage of Ponder. In fact only about half of it was. I cannot say I really fault the defense Dave Steckel attempted here, but there's no question that Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett won that one-on-one battle, one that, when combined with timely defensive play from Syracuse, a couple of late near-picks by Mizzou, Mizzou's complete lack of a pass rush without Sheldon Richardson, and Ryan Nassib's mostly fantastic decision-making, cost the Tigers the game. Every coordinator loses these battles, but obviously this loss for Steckel came at a really, really bad time.

Syracuse 31, Missouri 27

Missouri Syracuse Missouri Syracuse
Close % 100.0% STANDARD DOWNS
Field Position % 33.3% 42.1% Success Rate 56.0% 44.6%
Leverage % 69.4% 73.7% PPP 0.35 0.38
S&P 0.912 0.825
TOTAL
EqPts 27.5 29.6 PASSING DOWNS
Close Success Rate 51.4% 43.4% Success Rate 40.9% 40.0%
Close PPP 0.38 0.39 PPP 0.45 0.42
Close S&P 0.895 0.823 S&P 0.857 0.817
RUSHING TURNOVERS
EqPts 7.6 9.4 Number 1 1
Close Success Rate 48.7% 30.6% Turnover Pts 1.8 4.4
Close PPP 0.21 0.26 Turnover Pts Margin +2.6 -2.6
Close S&P 0.693 0.567
Line Yards/carry 3.14 2.80 Q1 S&P 1.579 0.704
Q2 S&P 0.631 0.721
PASSING Q3 S&P 0.386 0.622
EqPts 19.8 20.2 Q4 S&P 0.974 1.191
Close Success Rate 54.3% 55.0%
Close PPP 0.57 0.50 1st Down S&P 0.996 0.791
Close S&P 1.109 1.054 2nd Down S&P 0.838 0.843
SD/PD Sack Rate 5.6% / 11.8% 0.0% / 0.0% 3rd Down S&P 0.716 0.782
Projected Pt. Margin: Mizzou +0.5 | Actual Pt. Margin: Syracuse +4

Mizzou Targets and Catches

Player Targets Catches Catch% Target% Rec. Yds.
Yds. Per
Target
L'Damian Washington (WR) 8 5 62.5% 25.8% 76 9.5
T.J. Moe (WR) 6 5 83.3% 19.4% 70 11.7
Dorial Green-Beckham (WR) 5 2 40.0% 16.1% 79 15.8
Marcus Lucas (WR) 4 3 75.0% 12.9% 58 14.5
Jimmie Hunt (WR) 3 3 100.0% 9.7% 56 18.7
Gahn McGaffie (WR) 1 1 100.0% 3.2% 14 14.0
Kendial Lawrence (RB) 1 1 100.0% 3.2% 6 6.0
Bud Sasser (WR) 1 1 100.0% 3.2% 5 5.0
Eric Waters (TE) 1 0 0.0% 3.2% 0 0.0
N/A 1 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
TOTAL 31 21 67.7% 100.0% 364 11.7
TOTAL (WR) 28 20 71.4% 90.3% 358 12.8
TOTAL (RB) 1 1 100.0% 3.2% 6 6.0
TOTAL (TE) 1 0 0.0% 3.2% 0 0.0

Syracuse Targets and Catches

Player Targets Catches Catch% Target% Rec. Yds.
Yds. Per
Target
Alec Lemon (WR) 17 12 70.6% 42.5% 244 14.4
Marcus Sales (WR) 12 8 66.7% 30.0% 85 7.1
Beckett Wales (TE) 5 2 40.0% 12.5% 15 3.0
Jarrod West (WR) 3 1 33.3% 7.5% 6 2.0
David Stevens (TE) 2 2 100.0% 5.0% 25 12.5
Christopher Clark (WR) 1 1 100.0% 2.5% 10 10.0
TOTAL 40 26 65.0% 100.0% 385 9.6
TOTAL (WR) 33 22 66.7% 82.5% 345 10.5
TOTAL (RB) 0 0 N/A 0.0% 0 N/A
TOTAL (TE) 7 4 57.1% 17.5% 40 5.7

Summary

As I said this morning, this game shined a crystal clear light on all of Missouri's upside and flaws. And because Syracuse made one more stinking play, Mizzou is probably staying home for the postseason for the first time since 2004, barring an upset in College Station (which could obviously happen, even if it is unlikely). All the analysis in the world isn't going to change that. It stinks. It doesn't change my level of hope for 2013 -- if the offensive line improves, anyway -- but it stinks. And now we move on, hoping that prayers for an upset at Texas A&M are heard.

**********

A Quick Glossary

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Field Position %: The percentage of a team's plays run in their opponent's field position. National average: 43%.

Leverage Rate: A team's ratio of standard downs to passing downs. National average: 68%. Anything over 68% means a team did a good job of avoiding being leveraged into passing downs.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game. National average: 0.32.

S&P: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rate. The 'P' stands for PPP, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. S&P is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders. National average: 0.747. Standard downs S&P average: 0.787. Passing downs S&P average: 0.636.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down. National Average: 42%.

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