It's easy to want to look at the Indiana game and see big things for Mizzou this year. By all accounts is was the best performance this team has had in well over a year, probably since Blaine Gabbert's masterpiece at Texas A&M. Even ESPN's SEC bloggers admitted that Mizzou's offense looked better than it ever had last year, regardless of the level of competition.
Now, lots of QBs look good when they have all day to throw, and lots of secondaries look good when the opposing QB is running for his life. Mizzou will face much stiffer competition. But still, I've had a gut feeling for some time now that Mizzou would surprise people this year. However, as an unabashed homer, it's hard to give my own opinion much credibility. Bill C's statistics cut through homerism, but stats miss things too, like leadership, team cohesion and ... injuries. The only way I know how to assess the team is on two fronts: execution and talent gaps.
Mizzou's offense has always been about precision execution rather than overwhelming speed, talent or scheme. In 2007 and 2008, it's true we had phenomenal playmakers, and they made us explosive. But those teams could also execute their way down a field. Reports from practice said the ball never touched the ground. Franklin may not be operating at Chase's level, but he looks really comfortable. He will face more pressure this year to be sure, but he just seems to know where he should be looking. He knows what the defense is doing and he knows where his receivers are going to be. And yes, those two interceptions are two of the worst he's thrown, but unlike in the past, it didn't seem to phase him at all. The next drive out he wasn't timid or indecisive. I'm worried about how our tall, but not especially quick, receiving corps will do agains a fierce pass rush and tight man coverage, but we will still win a lot of games with no more than we saw last Saturday.
Perhaps nowhere is execution more evident than the offensive line. Five players all have to execute their assignments as a cohesive unit, each playing off the others. It's no mistake that the best o-lines are experienced. This offensive line is already executing as well as it ever did last year. They pick up blitzes, they hit their blocking assignments and they don't make many mistakes.
I counted 24 designed runs that I would consider successful, and 20 that I would consider unsuccessful. Now, that success rate doesn't thrill me. But even the best rushing teams have bad rushing downs with regularity, and when we were successful, we got yards in chunks. But more important is why they weren't successful.
In reviewing the video, I see three themes for unsuccessful runs: 1) failure to get a body to the linebacker level, 2) linemen moving too slowly on pulls and 3) running backs being impatient. The last two are related. Our backs need to wait for a hole to develop, particularly Russell Hansbrough; but our offensive linemen need to remember they have a fast back behind them. Get to business and sprint to your block.
What you don't see a lot of in the video is linemen getting manhandled or confused about assignments. Here's an example of how the linemen are sometimes not getting to their blocks fast enough and/or running backs not waiting for them.
One final note on execution: I have never seen our running backs do so well in pass protection. They're really roaming back there to pick up blitzes. Josey literally knocked this player out of the game for a play.
Concern in the preseason was that we could potentially have talent gaps on offensive line interior, defensive tackle and secondary. It sure has been nice to see players step up there. Let's review each one at a time.
I'm still concerned about this line being physical enough for the better defenses we'll face this year, but they're clearly better than they were last year. We may not have last year's Alabama or Texas A&M line, but we'll compete. I picked on them above, so here are some of the nice wide holes they gave James Franklin, and a few examples of the generally excellent pass protection they gave. A couple of these ended in interceptions or sacks, but not due to lack of line blocking.
The emergence of Harold Brantley is nothing short of a marvel, and Lucas Vincent looks twice as good as he did last year. Matt Hoch doesn't have the best technique or instincts, but he is a physical presence inside. Brantley (#90) has impressive mobility and power, and it's hard to believe he's only two years out of high school. Most impressively, he seems to have a nose for the ball. Defensive tackles play as much by the "feel" of the blocking than seeing what's happening in the play. He seems to have a sense where to go. And watch his ability to throw aside blockers (despite the TD being scored on this play). If we stay healthy at this spot, it could account for two or three wins alone. Now we just need to see how they hold up to Georgia pounding at us.
This play by Brantley in the Toledo game is worth its own clip. Watch his speed to chase down the a running back from behind in this video. Just wow.
I'm still waiting for the time this year when we're saying "Why the heck are these guys so open?" But it hasn't really happened yet. I'm amazed that almost every ball an opponent has caught this year, a Mizzou defender has been right on their hip. Randy Ponder is playing like a man possessed. Aarion Penton is a very pleasant surprise and even Matt White is showing speed he never showed before.
All is not perfect, though. The tackling gets sloppy every once in a while, and the younger linebackers are out of position sometimes. As a side note, Andrew Wilson may not have NFL speed, but I never realized how much we needed him until we missed him. But overall, this is very good. We've faced two solid passing attacks and come out ok. Georgia will test us, as will South Carolina among others. Connor Shaw will dink and dunk with five- and seven-yard gains and then throw the prettiest deep ball in college football. That will be a challenge. But unlike a month ago, I actually feel we have a chance in those games.
With these pieces in place, I really think we've got a shot at an eight- or nine-win season if we (knock on wood) stay healthy. And if an elite offensive playmaker emerges (paging Mr. Green-Beckham and Mr. Josey), then 10 is not beyond reason. The flip side is, this is the SEC. There are no off weeks. You can't throw three interceptions and expect to beat anyone except possibly Kentucky. Can we perform near our best every week? Probably not, but the difference is that our 'A' game looks like we can compete with just about everyone in the East division and our 'B' game looks better than our best game last year. As long as the games are fun to watch then the record is less important than the ability to compete every single week.