Reason to hope, reason to doubt.
I have to be honest: This week's video breakdown was fun. I know, we're not supposed to like moral victories. And truth be told, this wasn't a moral victory, because we should have won that game. Maybe we're not a better team than Florida over a whole season, but head to head, I think we win that game more often than we lose it. And that's really why I find my spirits lifted, because I now have hope for the rest of the season. Of course, our remaining opponents present a different kind of challenge, but we'll get to that in a minute.
I had a hard time narrowing down what to talk about, and that's without giving much time to the defense. So I'll take a shotgun approach:
The narrative around this game started with James Franklin and ended with James Franklin, with a sprinkling of defense in between. A lot of public criticism led to teammates, coaches and some journalists defending him. Personally, I thought he mentally had a great game, but as many have noted, his throwing motion was off. His stride seemed a little abbreviated, and he didn't launch off of his back foot forward the way he often does.
I thought that mentally, however, this was Franklin's best game. After his first interception (which looked at first like an underthrow but on reviewing appears to actually be a ball that sailed badly), he looked so dejected. I thought to myself, "oh crap, here comes Kansas State or Kansas from last year all over again." But he bounced back. Yes, he had three more interceptions, but I don't actually think he was careless with the ball. Two of the interceptions just sailed on him, as in the video above, which goes right back to your throwing motion. On the last interception of the game, it was 4th down with no time left and we had to take a risk, with pressure in his face. And the other one ... well, let's just say seeing this linebacker was a bit like playing "Where's Waldo," except you have 0.2 seconds to find him. Here's Franklin at the point of deciding to throw the ball, and the linebacker camoflauged against a sea of orange and blue fans right at field level. I'm not saying Franklin shouldn't have seen him, but it's not a terrible mistake either. Seriously, Boise State is thinking about adding orange and blue fans in the background of their blue field to achieve Sniper-like camoflauge.
The numbers tell a similar story. Out of 28 unsuccessful passing plays (not counting sacks and trick plays), nine were due to great Florida coverage, eight were bad throws (including five overthrows), seven were from protection breakdowns and only two were bad reads or decisions. That's 10 bad plays out of 59 passes for an injured Franklin -- a number he can improve on, but also not a terrible one. And while four interceptions obviously isn't a great day, where would we have been without Franklin? Probably a lot worse. For one thing, Franklin's scrambling changed everything. We were actually more successful, both on passes and rushes, when Franklin extended the play with his feet than when he didn't. Five yards per play when Franklin scrambled vs four when he did not. Doing better when your line breaks down is a nice thing!
Franklin had seven successful scrambles, including six that went for nine or more yards. That's as many as the rest of our running game combined. It forced Florida out of man to man coverage on most snaps, and into a (mostly) Cover 3 zone, which our receivers ate alive. Which brings me to...
This was the receiving unit we thought we'd have at the beginning of the season. Not only did individual players have big games, but I think our depth as a unit wore on Florida over the course of the game. I can't stress enough how good that Florida secondary has been this season. This was an impressive outing.
Welcome back, Marcus Lucas. It's good to see you again. He only caught two of five targets, but he didn't have any drops, and both catches were tough. Also, welcome to your coming out party, Dorial Green-Beckham. I know we've tried to get you more involved lately, but this is the first game where you looked like a highly-recruited receiver. This Florida defense is known for blanketing receivers, and he got open regularly and adjusted well to the ball. He is like the ultimate "500" player, where one guy can always just get the ball in a crowd. And what's more, he makes it look easy.
And I'm glad to hear T.J. Moe strongly backing Franklin in the press. After some half-hearted and even backhanded support earlier this season, I thought this might be becoming an issue based on Moe's sideline body language. Hopefully his public comments mirror his locker room support.
I'd like to thank the coaching staff for reading my articles, and I'll be sending you a bill for my consulting services shortly! Just a week after I again questioned where the Counter play was in our offense, it suddenly appeared. I just about fell out of my chair. Perhaps I just missed it before, because it can look suspiciously like a zone read option with a cutback to the casual eye, but this was definitely a counter. They ran it three times, and while it was only successful once, for nine yards, it was a nice constraint play to keep the defense honest on the zone read option and the inside zone.
Where have you been, my friend? I was so excited about Marcus Murphy this August, but it seemed like he just could never find a rhythm. He found it on Saturday with an aggressive, north-south running style that favored immediate yards over "what if" yards. Kendial Lawrence's gut instincts tell him "if I could just beat this guy I could go the distance." Marcus Murphy seems to think "I see easy yards and I want them now." A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, after all, especially against SEC speed.
Murphy also seemed to find more comfort running in traffic this game. That said, Lawrence mostly ran well this game, and Murphy wasn't without an east west moment. Not to belabor Bill C's points, but I feel very good about our running back corps for next year. And with some offensive linemen getting experience this year, if Henry Josey is like his old self (a tall order to be sure) ... wow, we could terrorize defenses.
Not a lot of execution issues. And Franklin had time to throw against a three- or four-man rush on most snaps. Interestingly enough, we didn't necessarily have a higher success rate when Franklin had longer to throw, or even when he was under pressure. Franklin, mentally, was just in the zone. The receivers were open pretty early, or they weren't there at all.
Yes, I'm fully aware that this is listed in the "good" section above. It was that kind of day. All or nothing in many ways for the offensive line. Pass protection against a four-man front was quite good actually, and almost half our running plays were successful. But especially after Justin Britt went down, some of the issues we've dealt with earlier this year reared their ugly head again. The execution wasn't terrible. In fact, on running plays, 11 of 13 unsuccessful running plays (out of 33 total) were just Florida defensive linemen either being too fast or too physical for our offensive line. Hey, it happens. Florida is an elite defense for a reason. They're big, fast and use their hands really well.
But don't mistake that for saying we just need to get bigger and faster. A defensive tackle shooting a gap with a quick first step might be a sign of athleticism, but as an offensive linemen gets experienced he can anticipate that. We had a lot of opportunities to learn from this game. I always hate to single out linemen, because you don't notice them when they do something right, but the breakdowns were similar to what I've been saying for the last few weeks. When Britt went down, those problems became amplified. Anthony Gatti very much looks the part of an SEC linemen, one year from now. But he had a rough introduction to one of the best defenses in the country. You just can't overstate the effect of these injuries. Before Britt's injury, 57% of running back rushing plays were successful. A respectable, but noticably lower, 37% were successful afterward. Our offense hums when both pass and run are a threat, and that extra 20% makes a difference. Still, you saw linebackers close to the line of scrimmage all game long, partially to spy Franklin, but also out of respect for the running game.
Our runs, however, were all or nothing. Either we got a body on a player and it went 10 yards, or it was stuffed for nothing. Similarly, Franklin had to deal with a few speed rushes after Britt went down, and we did not pick up the blitz well, giving Franklin two seconds or more on only two of 11 blitzes. Lots of work to do this week so we don't lose the gains we've made on the offensive line.
This video shows the power of missing just a single block. The first clip shows what it looks like when we get a hat on every player. After that, all of these plays can be traced to a single missed assignment, even when there's a swarm tackle. Make that one block, and it often goes for nine yards. Five players playing in unison is what it takes and it's pretty hard when people keep going down. And it also shows just how physical and athletic the Florida D was.
It takes absolutely no imagination to think we could have shut Florida out. If not for three bad plays, really, our seven measly points would have won it. Still, we could have also given up other home runs had we not made that one critical tackle by the safety or linebacker. But one play definitely stood out. Thankfully, Sheldon ensured it didn't stand, although they scored two plays later anyway. Look at the confusion caused by Florida's shift, and the ensuing mess in coverage.
This was the defense's best game of the year by far. And yet, I have a hard time shaking one thought from my mind. Florida is 103rd in total offense. I know it's dropped a bit after facing Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Missouri in the last month or so. But still. That's not a good offense. Shut down the run, and they can't beat you. In many ways, this is kind of what I expected in the SEC. Great defense, mediocre passing offenses and elite athletes that can make big plays. Turns out the offenses are just a bit better this year.
Still, I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few things. First, the Florida receivers were, generally speaking, not open. This may not be an All-American crew, but they are athletic and dangerous after the catch. Second, we tackled really well. If we had played defense like this against South Carolina, they would have struggled to get 17 points.
Mizzou fans have been calling for an aggressive defense for years, and for maybe only the second time under Pinkel, we have it (funny how it tends to come when we have both a good secondary and a good pass rush). But make no mistake, Mizzou has always played aggressive rush defense under Pinkel. We bring our linebackers and safeties up to stop it cold, and when we don't, it's bad. For example, take the Nebraska game in 2010 when they had 44% of their offense on 3 plays from Roy Helu.
When a running back gets past the first few yards against Mizzou, it's not uncommon for them to go well into the secondary, if not the distance. So it's not surprising that Florida had two big plays that, despite coming on short fields, would have scored from any distance. I said Mizzou needed an aggressive gameplan and roll the dice. It burned us, but overall I think holding a team to 14 points gives you a chance to win most games.
Adjustments or luck?
Muschamp said going into halftime that they saw some opportunities, and he looked correct as they scored on two of their first eight plays in dramatic fashion. I think it was more chance personally. Here is the TD screen, as well as similar screens that Mizzou defended correctly. And if they really thought the Jet Sweep was the answer, why did they fake it all day and only run it once?
Sheldon Richardson continues to amaze me. He is easily one of the best defensive tackles I've seen in some time for any team. He runs like Jacquies Smith but 50 pounds heavier. And yet, I think he'll be an odd fit in the NFL, at least at tackle, where I'm not sure he's big enough to be a physical run stopper. I think perhaps he'll find a home in a 3-4 defense where they need a stout defensive end to clog the run, but someone still fast enough to rush the passer and seal/stretch the edge. Of course, the NFL tends to beef players up, so perhaps that will change in time. Either way, this video is pretty impressive. He manages to play both the zone read handoff and the QB keeper, ala Jarvis Jones. While the QB cuts back in toward him, you can see he easily would have had him regardless.
But as others have noted, it's not just Richardson in there. Matt Hoch is playing at a whole new level the last couple of weeks. For a tall guy, he doesn't get stood up a lot, and he is very physical. And while we're at it, when's the last time you noticed Lucas Vincent, Marvin Foster or even Jimmy Burge getting pushed around. There's definitely a big drop from first to second team, mainly in athleticism and physicality, but there is usable depth there, which is promising for next year. In this video you'll see Hoch show a combination of both power and speed, and Jimmy Burge - yes, the great white hope - hold his ground against a double team and pressures the QB. Watch the right defensive tackle in this video.
I have no idea. I'd love to say this means we've turned a corner and will go on a tear. But the injury to Britt is significant and we saw the effects last week. Plus, the remaining teams are just so different than Florida. It was nice to get some measure of respect, though. Even the announcers, for once, seemed to acknowledge Missouri's competitiveness and the fact that the spread can work in the SEC if your QB isn't spraying interceptions all over the field. (Speaking of announcers, how refreshing is it to get color analysts that aren't idiots?).
As Bill C. pointed out, we needed about 17 points to beat Florida, but we may need on the order of 30 or more to beat Tennessee. Are we both consistent and explosive enough on offense to score that much? And how much will we miss Justin Britt? One thing that gives me hope is that our starting cornerbacks have been lockdown on the bigger receivers we've faced this year, so Tennessee may have to look to depth at receiver to beat us. We've gotten a familiarity with Texas A&M, so College Station won't be intimidating, but this is a better A&M team this year, and so far, we're worse. Can we handle the balanced attack and running QB on the road? And while Syracuse would appear to be a win, the latest F/+ rankings show that's far from a cakewalk.
I said before, and I'll say it again: Win Tennessee, and I think we run the table. Lose and we probably miss a bowl. Let's hope I'm right, and it's the former. Despite all the injuries, if we could somehow not only make a bowl game, but get eight wins and finish on a four-game winning streak (with a bowl), then the narrative about Mizzou in the SEC changes dramatically this offseason. We might know the answer this Saturday afternoon.