Cotton Bowl 2014: Line play, chess matches, and hopes for one final celebration

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

The 2014 Cotton Bowl between Oklahoma State and Missouri will come down to line play and an interesting chess match between coordinators. Can the Tigers take their 12th win of the year?

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.)

Oklahoma State vs. Missouri

Record BCS
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
OSU
10-2 13 11 28 8 70
Missouri 11-2 8 17 22 12 79

Projected Score: OSU 26, Missouri 23 (Mizzou win probability: 38%)

Now it's time to play for pride.

Barring some dramatic blowout loss, Missouri is all but certain to finish the 2013 season with its second highest poll standing of the Gary Pinkel era. A win will probably land the Tigers at fifth or sixth, just behind the No. 4 finish of 2007. A loss would probably mean they end up in the No. 12-16 range, just ahead of 2010 (No. 18) and 2008 (No. 19).

That Missouri will finish in the top 20 for the fourth time in seven years is further proof that this is the best era for Tiger football since the 1960s. (And technically Mizzou did not do the four-in-seven routine in the 1960s, either, though that's partially because the AP only did a Top 10 for a while. Four top-10 finishes between 1960 and 1969 still trumps this decade's accomplishments.) That the Tigers have pulled this off in a new, great conference, while coming off of a terribly disappointing 5-7 campaign, makes the accomplishment that much more endearing.

Really, if you think about it, tonight's game is for Missouri. That's about it.

You can find plenty of columns that tell you how important this game is for perceptions or momentum or whatever, but that's only because you can always find these pieces. There are certainly stakes here -- No. 5 or 6 sounds a lot better than No. 13, and there's the whole "New conference pride" angle -- but honestly, the biggest reason to root for your team tonight is because of the team itself. Rankings or bragging rights are great, but I want Missouri to win tonight because the team's leaders deserve it. L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas deserve it. James Franklin deserves it. Michael Sam deserves it. Andrew Wilson deserves it. E.J. Gaines deserves it. Justin Britt … Max CopelandRandy PonderDonovan BonnerMatt WhiteEric Waters … every senior deserves it.

The Tigers have done everything they can to assure a happy ending to their careers; hopefully fate allows that to play out.

When OSU Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
OSU Offense Missouri Defense
SD % Run 57.7% (77th)
S&P+ Rk 44th 16th
Success Rate 49.4% 47.6%
PPP 0.53 0.47
S&P 1.028 0.945
Rushing S&P 0.910 0.933
Passing S&P 1.188 0.960

OSU is kind of caught between identities at the moment. As discussed yesterday, the Cowboys have shuffled personnel pretty dramatically at quarterback, running back, and offensive line as the season has progressed, and while there was absolute improvement from September to November, there were glitches along the way. The passing game improved while the running game just came and went.

As a whole, however, OSU wants to pass. The 'Pokes do it slightly more frequently than average on standard downs then do it very frequently on passing downs. This makes sense because OSU's much better at passing than running.

Targets & Catches
Josh Stewart: 46 targets, 36 catches (78%), 365 yards (7.9 per target)
Tracy Moore: 39 targets, 24 catches (62%), 360 yards (9.2)
Charlie Moore: 28 targets, 19 catches (68%), 254 yards (9.1)
Jhajuan Seales: 27 targets, 18 catches (67%), 230 yards (8.5)
Brandon Sheperd: 11 targets, 5 catches (46%), 91 yards (8.3)
Jeremy Smith: 11 targets, 8 catches (73%), 26 yards (2.6)
Marcell Ateman: 10 targets, 6 catches (60%), 85 yards (8.5)

The ball distribution here is lovely. Three guys see about one standard downs target per game, three see two to three, and Josh Stewart sees about four. And the production levels are incredibly similar. This is a read-and-react offense. Chelf reads the defense, fields the snap, and throws the ball for about an eight-yard gain. He will get time to do so on these downs, both because OSU's line protects the passer quite well and because the Cowboys run enough to keep you honest. This game will test Mizzou's nickel formation, most likely, and put a lot of pressure on players like John Gibson, Ian Simon, Aarion Penton, and Duron Singleton to do well in isolated situations. (How isolated? Check this out: Against OSU, opponents made 2.23 solo tackles for every assisted tackle. Against a tighter, more physical team like Alabama, that ratio is nearly 1-to-1.)

Passing Downs
OSU Offense Missouri Defense
PD % Run 27.6% (107th)
S&P+ Rk 18th 32nd
Success Rate 37.1% 32.2%
PPP 0.65 0.51
S&P 1.025 0.833
Rushing S&P 1.060 0.817
Passing S&P 1.012 0.839

Targets & Catches
T. Moore: 30 targets, 15 catches (50%), 230 yards (7.7 per target)
Stewart: 26 targets, 16 catches (62%), 261 yards (10.0)
Seales: 23 targets, 14 catches (61%), 175 yards (7.6)
C. Moore: 17 targets, 8 catches (47%), 102 yards (6.0)
David Glidden: 12 targets, 8 catches (67%), 120 yards (10.0)
Ateman: 11 targets, 6 catches (55%), 52 yards (4.7)

On passing downs, OSU passes almost three-quarters of the time and does relatively well, both because of the multitude of passing options and the fact that quarterbacks Clint Chelf and, if necessary, J.W. Walsh are good runners if space opens up. (They're pretty good regardless, but you know what I mean.) That Mizzou plays zone defense as much as possible helps with the scrambling -- it assures that defenders don't have their backs turned to the pocket -- but it could still be an issue a couple of times.

Of course, the biggest issue we've come to worry about with some teams against Missouri is the screen. Mizzou doesn't blitz, so it's not like opponents have been dumping to running backs in wide open spaces. But the teams that have executed the screen well and with proper spacing and good running backs (hello, South Carolina) have found success. OSU's backs Desmond Roland and Jeremy Smith are not huge features in the passing game, so a "screen" for OSU might be of the bubble or tunnel variety, but opponents know Mizzou ends are going to pin their ears back, and that they won't have a lot of time to set passes up. The Tigers have to be ready for the counterpunch. They frequently have been this year -- for the season as a whole, this hasn't been as much of a liability as we want to think -- but certain teams have done a great job of counter-punching. We'll have to see if OSU is one of those.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
Missouri Offense OSU Defense
SD % Run 56.3% (90th)
S&P+ Rk 37th 21st
Success Rate 49.7% 40.5%
PPP 0.61 0.42
S&P 1.104 0.828
Rushing S&P 1.052 0.745
Passing S&P 1.171 0.935

Targets & Catches
L'Damian Washington: 54 targets, 31 catches (57%), 546 yards (10.1)
Marcus Lucas: 51 targets, 31 catches (61%), 308 yards (6.0)
Dorial Green-Beckham: 50 targets, 30 catches (60%), 467 yards (9.3)
Bud Sasser: 21 targets, 13 catches (62%), 149 yards (7.1)
Jimmie Hunt: 17 targets, 13 catches (77%), 179 yards (10.5)

Here's what I said in yesterday's OSU depth chart piece:

OSU can rush the passer, but the relatively undersized line can be prone to getting pushed around at times against the run. Because of an awesome LB corps, this hasn't necessarily cost the 'Pokes too much, especially against teams that can't pass incredibly well. Texas had its moments on the ground this year but rushed for just 151 yards on OSU. Baylor rushed for 94 (albeit without Lache Seastrunk). Mississippi State rushed for 111. Just like stopping OSU's offense requires balance, moving on OSU's defense does, too. Luckily for Mizzou, the Tigers have that balance. [...]

I'm really, really curious about the matchup of Mizzou's WRs and OSU's DBs. This is a deep, experienced unit, one that has more size than we're used to seeing. Mizzou's receivers are still bigger, obviously, but of the six regulars, four are at least 200 pounds, and three are at least 6'0. Like I said, Mizzou might be able to run pretty well as long as it can also pass. The Tigers will need to attack each portion of the field well.

Mizzou trended toward the run in the latter stages of the regular season, in part because of matchups and in part because Henry Josey was finding fifth gear. Over the first nine games of the season, Marcus Murphy averaged 7.4 yards per carry, Russell Hansbrough averaged 6.8, and Josey averaged 5.7. Over the last four games, it flipped: Josey averaged 8.9 while Hansbrough and Murphy sank to 5.0 and 4.9, respectively. Not surprisingly, Josey saw almost as many carries (48) as the two others combined (54).

Mizzou rides the hot hand, and the run was pretty hot in November and early December. That makes this offense really hard to stop, since opponents are naturally made to fear the big guns in the passing game. On standard downs, Mizzou will likely attempt balance of about 55 percent run plays and 45 percent passes. OSU is good at taking away your strengths, but balance creates too many strengths for you to handle. We'll see who's winning first down early on; it will be a pretty good indicator.

Passing Downs
Missouri Offense OSU Defense
PD % Run 41.7% (20th)
S&P+ Rk 17th 12th
Success Rate 40.2% 26.8%
PPP 0.72 0.43
S&P 1.121 0.696
Rushing S&P 1.087 0.503
Passing S&P 1.145 0.779

Targets & Catches
Lucas: 31 targets, 22 catches (71%), 285 yards (9.2)
DGB: 29 targets, 22 catches (76%), 340 yards (11.7)
Washington: 24 targets, 14 catches (58%), 289 yards (12.0)
Sasser: 17 targets, 10 catches (59%), 177 yards (10.4)
Hunt: 9 targets, 6 catches (67%), 55 yards (6.1)

Missouri always had pretty good standard downs offenses under David Yost, but the Tigers improved dramatically this year on passing downs with Josh Henson calling the shots. He has done a lovely job of both creating easy passes for his quarterbacks and calling enough runs to prevent opponents from teeing off on the pass (and the passer). As we've seen, third-and-5 is frequently a running down for the Tigers.

Glenn Spencer, OSU's new defensive coordinator, loves to be aggressive and force the issue. He wants to take away your strengths and force you to think; when you're thinking, you're moving more slowly than you want to. But I get the impression that Henson and company have done a lovely job of self-scouting this year and haven't really revealed any primary tendencies. Sometimes you'll see a lot of speed option on third-and-5, sometimes you won't see it at all. Sometimes slants to Lucas are the primary passing downs weapon, and sometimes deeper passes to DGB and Washington play primary roles. Sometimes the H-receiver (Jimbud Sassunt) plays a featured role, and sometimes they combine for 1-2 targets.

This will be a pretty fun tactical battle to watch, in other words. OSU wants to take away your strengths, but Mizzou's strengths change from game to game.

Summary

So here are the key factors:

1. The trenches

I've said it before, but if Missouri fans learned anything over the last two years, it's the value of line play. For the most part, the Tigers have been the better team in the trenches on both sides of the ball in 2013, and they have a gaudy 11-2 record to show for it. But they lost on the offensive line against South Carolina, and they lost on the defensive line against Auburn, and it made an enormous, crippling difference.

Oklahoma State's lines are hard to figure out. On offense, the 'Pokes don't do a wonderful job in run-blocking, but when combined with the quick passing game, they keep Clint Chelf upright at all times. On defense, they don't rush the passer with much vigor, but they occupy blockers against the run and let their awesome linebackers flow quickly to the ball. It's strength vs. strength in this matchup (OSU's pass blocking against MU's pass rush, Mizzou's run blocking against OSU's run defense), and the winner of those battles will probably determine the winner of the game. This is, to me, by far the most important factor in the game (and in most games).

2. The chess match

I kind of know what to expect in the battle of OSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and Dave Steckel. Mizzou is pretty well-built to handle OSU's balanced passing attack, and OSU is pretty well-built to counter Mizzou's aggressiveness up front. Execution will matter a lot when OSU's got the ball, especially when it comes to the defensive backs I mentioned above.

But the other battle, Henson vs. Spencer, fascinates me. From a game plan perspective, I really don't know what to expect from either Mizzou's offense or OSU's defense. Watch not only how each unit is doing early but what they're trying to do. It should tell us a lot.

3. Turnovers

Always, of course. Turnovers are worth about five points or so on average; the projected score has a three-point margin. Turnovers could make an enormous difference.

4. The bowl break

It gets reinforced every year. Some teams handle the bowl break better than others. Some are incredibly focused, and some leave their focus back at school. It's a fool's game to try to predict which team will be more ready -- this is something we usually just assign a narrative to after the fact -- but obviously if one team comes out sharper than the other, it could develop a big enough early advantage to define the game.

*****

We draw such stark conclusions from such small sample sizes. And when it comes to bowls, that's even more counter-productive than normal. Conferences are deemed overrated or underrated because of single bowl games. We decide coaches can or can't "win the big games" because of bowls. And a good portion of a team's preseason ranking the next year is based on a single game that took place in an odd locale after a monthlong break.

All of these things apply to the Cotton Bowl. People will stick an SEC vs. Big 12 exclamation point to the end of the season based on this game, some will definitely shout "Pinkel can't win games!!!1!" if Missouri loses, and it's almost certain that the Tigers will be ranked quite a bit higher in preseason polls if they finish 12-2 and around fifth. That's just the way things work.

I care about those things, I guess, but only so much. I want Missouri to win this game because I'm attached to this team, and I want to see these guys celebrating and happy one last time. I'm greedy like that. A top-6 finish would be awesome and a large feather in the cap, but really, I want this team to win one more game because I want to watch it win one more time.

And the Tigers can. I know exactly why the numbers favor the Cowboys in this one. Mizzou's defensive standing dropped a lot in the SEC title game (hopefully for option-related reasons that don't apply to this game), and even while losing to Oklahoma, the Cowboys' fundamental stats were strong. The 'Pokes of November and early December were vastly superior to the team that took the field in September, and if that growth continues in January, this is one hell of a team. But Missouri can be one hell of a team, too. Hopefully we see it one last time in this wonderful season. The book has been excellent regardless; now we get to find out how it ends.

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