Missouri at Ole Miss preview: Trenches, little things, and the passing downs pass

Wesley Hitt

In many ways, Missouri and Ole Miss will be looking in the mirror when they face off in Oxford tomorrow night. And in the end, the game, like so many, will probably come down to line play and the little things.

Confused? Visit the Advanced Stats glossary here. Or just skip to the words. I won't be offended. (Okay, I'll only be a little offended.)

Missouri at Ole Miss

Record BCS
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
Missouri 9-1 8 12 25 12 87
Ole Miss 7-3 24 27 36 19 83

Projected Score: Mizzou 26, Ole Miss 24

We'll start with our weekly look at win projections.

Texas A&M: 64%
at Ole Miss: 59%


We can debate (again) whether we wanted Missouri to be "handed" the SEC title last week or whether we wanted the Tigers to "earn it" or whatever, but the bottom line is this: The ball is completely and totally in Missouri's court now. Win, and you're in. There is no other route to Atlanta.

When Ole Miss Has The Ball…

I wrote about Ole Miss' and Missouri's balance this morning at SB Nation.

Each team has 11 players averaging at least 2.0 touches per game, though Ole Miss' Evan Engram is injured and out for the season. Of the 22 players above, 20 have averaged at least 5.0 yards per intended touch (10 for each team), and 15 have averaged at least 6.5 (8 for Missouri, 7 for Ole Miss). There are stars in this group -- at the very least, Josey, Washington, Green-Beckham, Franklin/Mauk, Moncrief, Wallace, Scott, and Treadwell should be names most college football fans recognize at this point -- but the ball goes wherever the defense dictates it go, and wherever the ball goes, it probably generates positive yardage.

In many ways, playing this game will be like looking in the mirror. Ole Miss has three smaller running backs, a young, former five-star receiver, a healthy mix of possession and explosiveness in the receiving corps, no tight end (thanks in part to the injury to Ole Miss' Evan Engram), a salty line, and a need to distribute the ball to every inch of the field. And on standard downs, the offenses might as well just about be the same.

Standard Downs
Ole Miss Offense Missouri Defense
SD % Run 57.6% (77th)
S&P+ Rk 50th 12th
Success Rate 50.2% 46.7%
PPP 0.58 0.44
S&P 1.080 0.908
Rushing S&P 0.998 0.811
Passing S&P 1.191 1.001

Targets & Catches
Laquon Treadwell: 51 targets, 41 catches, 351 yards (6.9 per target)
Donte Moncrief: 42 targets, 23 catches, 272 yards (6.5)
Ja-Mes Logan: 24 targets, 19 catches, 252 yards (10.5)
Evan Engram: 15 targets, 10 catches, 167 yards (11.1)
Jeff Scott: 10 targets, 9 catches, 60 yards (6.0)
Vince Sanders: 8 targets, 3 catches, 111 yards (13.9)

Like Missouri, Ole Miss will run the ball about 11 of 20 times on standard downs with a passing game that is slightly more effective. The Rebels use their blue-chip wideout, Laquon Treadwell, in Marcus Lucas' "big slot receiver" role, and he produces results pretty similar (slightly better) than Lucas. They both play tight end on standard downs, basically. Treadwell is bigger and stronger than he is fast, but it works well on these downs. And while Ole Miss will take deep shots, like Missouri the goal is to almost as horizontal as vertical on standard downs. Force the defense to commit to stopping something, anything, then take whatever they give up.

It will be interesting to see how Missouri chooses to defend Treadwell here. Like a good tight end, he is devastatingly efficient with his 80 percent catch rate on standard downs, but he's not much of a downfield threat. Missouri's bend-don't-break ethos suggests the Tigers will try to keep a 4-3 on the field, with Kentrell Brothers and Donovan Bonner both on the field at linebacker, instead of subbing one out in favor of a nickel back -- Duron Singleton, Ian Simon, or whoever. With Treadwell primarily in the slot, it might be tempting to put Singleton, the biggest safety in the rotation, out there and see what happens. But from what we've seen in 2013, the 4-3 is the first preference. And it could work: Of all the S&P+ matchups here (one team's O vs. the other team's D), three are almost dead even. But Mizzou's D has a pretty significant advantage over the Rebels's O on standard downs.

(The personality of the offense changes, of course, when run-first, run-second quarterback Barry Brunetti comes into the game.)

Passing Downs
Ole Miss Offense Missouri Defense
PD % Run 23.3% (120th)
S&P+ Rk 48th 41st
Success Rate 35.4% 30.7%
PPP 0.66 0.45
S&P 1.010 0.755
Rushing S&P 0.946 0.803
Passing S&P 1.030 0.741

So here's where Mizzou and Ole Miss differ. On passing downs, Mizzou likes to steal free yardage and protect its quarterback with a heavy dose of the run. As we've seen (and I've said) throughout the season, third-and-5 is a running down for Mizzou, and it works well for the Tigers. Ole Miss, on the other hand, says "Screw it" and goes downfield.

Only five FBS teams throw more frequently on passing downs than Ole Miss. Bo Wallace is nothing if not brave -- he knows going in that his stats are going to be negatively impacted by how frequently he's throwing against blitzes on second-and-9 or third-and-11 (and how frequently his standard downs plays are occupied with Brunetti behind center), and he takes a lot of hits. But he makes a lot of plays, too.

Targets & Catches
Moncrief: 40 targets, 19 catches, 397 yards (9.9 per target)
Logan: 26 targets, 17 catches, 245 yards (9.4)
Treadwell: 17 targets, 11 catches, 115 yards (6.8)
Engram: 13 targets, 10 catches, 98 yards (7.5)
Sanders: 12 targets, 10 catches, 164 yards (13.7)
Jaylen Walton: 10 targets, 9 catches, 117 yards (11.7)
Jordan Holder: 10 targets, 7 catches, 86 yards (8.6)
Scott: 8 targets, 6 catches, 41 yards (5.1)

This is a speedy receiving corps, with Moncrief, Logan, or Sanders capable of burning you deep (and Walton or Scott potentially getting free and into open space out of the backfield). Thirteen different Rebels have a catch of at least 20 yards, and nine have at least one 30-yarder. It would behoove Mizzou's pass rush to hurry Wallace a good amount; if he has time, he'll find somebody open downfield.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
Missouri Offense Ole Miss Defense
SD % Run 54.7% (97th)
S&P+ Rk 29th 27th
Success Rate 50.7% 48.3%
PPP 0.62 0.46
S&P 1.128 0.947
Rushing S&P 1.075 0.885
Passing S&P 1.191 1.045

At the time of James Franklin's injury, Missouri was running the ball 53 percent of the time on standard downs. That went up slightly with Maty Mauk starting, but it hasn't been so long ago that we've forgotten the drill. With Franklin behind center, Missouri is going to swing the ball from side to side, attempting to stretch the defense out and open up the middle of the field for both the run and some slant passes.

Again from this morning's SBN post:

With Franklin, the Tigers are more efficient. With Mauk, they are more explosive. For all we know, Franklin might still be rusty, and any sort of rotation between the two might fail miserably (Mauk wasn't really a fast starter in his time on the first string). But on paper, Missouri is in good hands either way. The Tigers will need to be in good hands against Ole Miss because the Rebels can defend. Ole Miss is sound across the board -- between 19th and 29th in Rushing, Passing, Standard Downs and Passing Downs S&P+ -- and balances out its relative lack of size with speed and big-play prevention. In this sense, one could make the case that Missouri's offense could be in better hands with Franklin since he takes smaller bites than Mauk, so to speak.

If the standard downs routine is working, I like Missouri's chances a good amount. Unless there are some serious one-on-one wins in Missouri's favor when it comes to downfield passing*, the Tigers' best chances is to peck away with five yards here, eight yards there, and four yards over there. Do it successfully enough, and the big plays could open up.

(* The wildcard here, of course, is if the DGB of the Kentucky game is the New DGB, the one we see from here on out, winning jump balls with authority and dragging tacklers for extra yards. That would change pretty much everything.)

Targets & Catches
Marcus Lucas: 42 targets, 24 catches, 249 yards (5.9 per target)
L'Damian Washington: 40 targets, 23 catches, 419 yards (10.5)
Dorial Green-Beckham: 38 targets, 22 catches, 341 yards (9.0)
Bud Sasser: 19 targets, 11 catches, 132 yards (6.9)
Jimmie Hunt: 14 targets, 12 catches, 168 yards (12.0)
Jaleel Clark: 7 targets, 6 catches, 50 yards (7.1)
Darius White: 7 targets, 4 catches, 50 yards (7.1)

L'Damian Washington, evidently bothered by a turf toe, did catch a pass against Kentucky. If all of the options are consistently generating positive yardage here -- the three-headed RB, Lucas, Washington, DGB, Jimbud Sassunt -- then Missouri should have a very good chance, even if those gains aren't enormous.

Passing Downs
Missouri Offense Ole Miss Defense
PD % Run 40.5% (23rd)
S&P+ Rk 15th 19th
Success Rate 41.0% 33.9%
PPP 0.73 0.56
S&P 1.141 0.903
Rushing S&P 1.109 0.770
Passing S&P 1.162 0.977

One of the benefits of a bad pass rush -- something Ole Miss very much has -- is that it forces you to stay true to yourself. Mizzou has taken advantage of aggressive defenses with a run-heavy approach on passing downs, but Ole Miss stops the passing downs run quite well. So it might be up to James Franklin completing passes on third-and-7 to keep drives alive. He's done it before, but it's still rather scary.

Targets & Catches
Lucas: 27 targets, 21 catches, 272 yards (10.1 per target)
DGB: 19 targets, 15 catches, 215 yards (11.3)
Washington: 18 targets, 11 catches, 243 yards (13.5)
Sasser: 11 targets, 6 catches, 73 yards (6.6)
Hunt: 5 targets, 5 catches, 50 yards (10.0)
Henry Josey: 5 targets, 5 catches, 39 yards (7.8)

The worst remaining habit James Franklin has might be in the way he freezes up when his initial reads are covered. It doesn't happen often -- his receivers are good enough, and the play-calling is strong enough to present open options most of the time -- but if Ole Miss frequently drops seven defenders into coverage, he might struggle to figure out where to go with the ball and risk some coverage sacks. Mizzou's sack rate was much higher with Franklin in the game, and this could bog things down pretty quickly. It will be interesting to see how Josh Henson handles the play-calling in this situation.

Summary

So here are the key factors, then:

1. The passing downs pass

If Bo Wallace has enough time to work through his reads before Mizzou's pass rush closes in on him, or if the swing pass to Jeff Scott or Jaylen Walton results in lots of running room (yes, this is a concern), Ole MIss will, to put it mildly, score a lot of points. Meanwhile, if James Franklin's reads are well-covered enough that coverage sacks come into the equation, Mizzou could be down 14 points pretty quickly. As many do, this game could hinge on which team is more capable of making up ground after falling behind schedule. That is at least the case unless one team (more likely Ole Miss) is falling behind schedule at a much steeper rate.

2. The trenches

Of course. As important as it has been to not only have a healthier James Franklin but also a rambunctious, incredibly competent backup, the biggest difference for Missouri between 2012 and 2013 has been on the lines. In 2012, Missouri had a porous, banged-up, inexperienced offensive line and a defensive line that consisted of Sheldon Richardson and a bunch of pass rushers that were typically a step too slow. This year, that has changed dramatically. The offensive line has turned into a seasoned, salty-as-hell unit, and the defensive line goes nine players deep with similar quality no matter who's in the game. The only times Missouri didn't significantly win the battle in the trenches came against Georgia and South Carolina, when the two teams basically split. Those two games represent Missouri's only loss and (tied for) closest win.

Ole Miss is solid in the trenches, but not necessarily spectacular. The Rebels are great in run defense, shaky in pass rush, and typically good enough on the offensive side of the ball. If Mizzou's ends are wreaking havoc and Mizzou's running backs aren't having to make moves three yards in the backfield, one has to like Missouri's chances.

3. The little stuff

This game is nearly a projected tossup. As such, it will be decided as much by turnovers, special teams, and field position as anything else. If you get a chance at a field goal (gulp), make it. If you have to punt, flip the damn field. If there's a big return, you better be the one making it. Look at turnovers, field goals, and starting field position, and you'll probably figure out who won this game pretty quickly.

*****

I've been alternating between confident and ... less so all week. There's a chance James Franklin's rusty and Maty Mauk doesn't fare well on a one-possession basis. There's a chance that Jaylen Walton or Jeff Scott breaks off a 50-yard gain (or two) on a screen or swing pass. There's a chance that Andrew Baggett misses another big kick. Of course. If you want to be worried, it's justifiable.

But there's also a chance that Mizzou's defensive line wears down both the Ole Miss line and Bo Wallace just like it has to so many other opponents this season. There's a chance that DGB keeps right on snaring jump balls downfield (or in the end zone). There's a chance that Mizzou's big receivers are catching eight-yard passes with aplomb and blocking like crazy downfield. There's a chance that Mizzou can win this game the way Mizzou has won most games this way. It'll probably come down to a small handful of plays, but Mizzou has a solid chance of moving to 10-1. And that's pretty awesome. Let's see what happens.

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