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The Mizzou Exchange: Dave Matter (Part Two)

We pick up where we left off in Part One...halfway through the "during spring football" portion of the exchange...

The Boy: Things have gone pretty smoothly this spring for all positions not named "linebacker".  Um...how concerned should Mizzou fans be about the LB corps right now?  I'm sure Weatherspoon will be more or less fine come the fall, and until I hear otherwise I'll assume the same about Van Alexander, but what was the thinnest unit in terms of proven talent has become infinitely thinner with the losses of Marquis Booker and Connell Davis.  The starters ('Spoon, Christopher, Alexander) are great, and the fourth man (Lambert) looks quite solid as well...but after that?  You've seen more of these guys than most...can somebody like Steve Redmond step in and log some quality playing time?

Dave Matter: I'd hold off on being alarmed until late August. If Weatherspoon is tackling pain-free the week leading up to the Illinois game, then things are OK. Trainers and doctors think Alexander will be back for the first game. Much will depend on how aggressive he attacks his rehab plan, and knowing Van, I'm confident he'll do all he can to get back for the start of the season. If not, if it takes a few games to get up to speed, the defense is fine with Lambert as the other starter. Short-term, as in just this year, as long as you have five healthy linebackers, and I'd include Redmond as the fourth and walk-on Jeff Gettys as the fifth, things are stable. Long-term, you'd like to have some younger players getting reps and experience, but given the attrition and injuries the position has dealt with, things aren't as bad as they might seem, especially considering MU has only two linebackers on the field against spread teams and on most third-down situations.

Click 'Full Story' for the rest.

TB: Plus I guess Tyler Crane's move to LB could help in the long-term, as he didn't appear to be excelling at DE.

Alright, so I was wanting to move on to statistics right here, but now I have to ask about something else in light of Austin Wuebbels' arrest the other night.  What's happening with all these football players getting arrested?  Is this a disturbing trend as far as the character of our recruits?  Just a bad streak?  Columbia cops getting tougher on athletes?  :-)  I guess my real question is, is Pinkel doing enough in handling these incidents to be as preventative as possible toward future incidents?  Here's what I said about it on RMN (figured I should just regurgitate it instead of typing something new):

You can't have prospective recruits fill out a "Do you think there's a chance you'll be arrested for marijuana/alcohol/guns over the course of the next 5 years?" questionnaire, and if their backgrounds are incident-free, then they're incident-free.  It's a different story once you start recruiting the Willie Williamses of the world, but as far as anyone can tell, none of these guys--Bracey, Stull, Booker, Wuebbels, random walk-on guy--had any sort of major issues in high school.  So it's how you handle the trouble-makers that becomes the issue, and so far I've more or less agreed with how punishments have gone down.  Suspending Bracey for his final game had to have been a hard decision to make, but they did it.  They gave Stull a second chance, and he blew it.  Booker blew it so bad his first chance that he didn't get a second one.  Wuebbels' punishment will likely be in the 'moderate' category (made worse by the whole "Pinkel had to find out from the media" thing), and that's probably where it should be.

That said, if this continues, more people will start to notice and question the character of Pinkel's team...and it wouldn't be totally unreasonable for them to do so.  Thoughts?

DM: I'm not belittling any of the crime stuff, but I think when it comes to athletes getting in trouble, you have to look at the big picture and realize Missouri's current string of arrests isn't really that different from other programs around the country. Missouri went a while without any arrests, so, if anything, the Tigers are catching up with the law of averages. Another point: This isn't a pat on the back for myself or the collective MU media, but I'd guess that misdemeanor arrests of athletes at other schools often go unreported. That doesn't happen in Columbia where you've got so many reporters and would-be reporters through the journalism school. Truth is, you can't get away with anything in this town. (Although, there's people who cover MU who don't even report on all the MU arrests unless they're the ones breaking the news.)

None of which is any excuse for the most recent arrests. Perhaps there's a mentality among some players that they're bulletproof and can get away with making poor judgments. I'd rather not play psychologist and try to analyze what drives a college kid to make poor choices. In some ways, it's part of the culture of belonging to a big-time college program, and other than the Booker incident, the behavior isn't all that different from normal college students who drink, party, do drugs and make poor choices. Should they be held to a higher standard because they're on athletic scholarship? Well, yeah, probably. But you don't have to be a cynic to expect this kind of behavior from kids occasionally. Perhaps Pinkel thought he had put his foot down with Booker's dismissal, but one punishment doesn't necessarily sink in to the minds of 80-something players, especially at 3 a.m. when you're driving home with weed in the car.

TB: That's pretty much my point of view as well, but when a pretty well-read blog continues to try to convince folks the Mizzou's some sort of rogue program, then it will become more of a problem than it should.  And really, who cares what a random blog says I guess (especially one that's otherwise pretty entertaining!)...is just annoying.

POST-SPRING FOOTBALL

Alright, so being that I am who I am, I'm going to wrap this conversation up by asking about statistics.  You've posted plenty of times on your blog about www.cfbstats.com, a wonderful site.  I was hoping you could talk a bit about how you see the relationship between football and football stats (if that makes any sense).  What I mean by that is, do you see football stats as something entertaining but peripheral--just a way to back up what your own eyes told you--or do you see areas where stats could actually change the way we look at the game while we're watching it?  It was funny doing my Beyond the Box Score pieces during the 2007.  I looked at things like Success Rates (by down and quarter) and Points Per Play, and knowing teams tendencies--when (and on what downs) they tend to excel and when they tend to struggle added a certain level of interest to certain situations.  Same with the Points Per Play measure, really.  It tells you who's actually more dangerous with the ball and who's more likely to rack up less useful yards.  Anyway, I was just wondering if this sort of thing is interesting to folks outside the "Bill James is God" cult...or if I enjoy it simply because I enjoy numbers...

DM: I love using stats in my stories because I think they give the reader a better understanding of the game and strategies and it uncovers some myths that people have about their favorite teams (like believing that Missouri doesn't have an effective goal-line offense. Complete BS if you actually bother to look up the numbers.) The problem with football stats, as compared to baseball and basketball, is that the sampling size is so much smaller having only 11-14 games a year. Plus, I'd guess that football teams can change their strategy from game to game more than baseball and basketball teams, and that can produce some unusual looking numbers that can be misleading and misinterpreted. And the numbers can be skewed so disproportionably (if that’s a word) and be read so many different ways.

A great example is last year’s Missouri-Texas Tech game. If you just look at that boxscore, you’d come away thinking Missouri was a clock-chewing run-first offense. The Tigers ran the ball 50 times and threw just 20 passes against a defense that all but conceded running lanes in favor of taking away deep passing routes — similar to what Arkansas tried in the bowl game. On the flip side, Missouri gave up almost 400 passing yards against Texas Tech, 20 first downs by passing and ran 14 fewer plays from scrimmage. But, everyone remembers the game being a complete blowout (MU won 41-10) as Tech turned the ball over five times. Point is, football stats are probably more skewered by strategy and game situations than they are in any other sport. And with so few games to regulate the averages back to normal, a statistically odd game can really tilt numbers in one direction or the other. (See Tony Temple’s rushing averages pre-Cotton Bowl and post-Cotton Bowl.)

But I think there are a lot of great stats that can help writers have a better idea of interpreting a team’s tendencies and flaws. I love the split stats and situational breakdowns on cfbstats.com. They’ll tell you that Chase Daniel posted a 170.2 QB rating in November in 2007 as opposed to 142.2 in November of 2006. That’s a huge difference (and partly explained my Heisman vote for No. 10). Also, when MU faced third down and needed between 4 and 6 yards to move the chains, Daniel was unreal, posting a 190.8 QB rating, including five touchdowns and zero interceptions on those 36 throws. Also, nowhere on the field was he less accurate but also more efficient than in the red zone, where he completed only 61 percent but posted a 164 rating, throwing 19 TDs to just two INTs. Here’s another great stat from cfbstats.com. Temple carried the ball 24 times last year on a play that started between MU’s goal line and its 20. He averaged a whopping 9.1 yards per carry on those plays. And lastly, and this might be my favorite: On third down last year, Missouri’s passing distribution was about as equal opportunity as it gets: Rucker caught 17, Maclin 16, Coffman 15, Franklin 13, Saunders 12 and Alexander 11. Those 12 third-down catches represented almost 30 percent of Saunders’ catches. Alexander’s third-down reception rate was just a bit higher. For Maclin, though, his third-down catches represented only 20 percent of his total. He only caught a third-down pass in eight of 14 games. Alexander caught one in seven of eight. That tells me that defenses probably keyed on Maclin on the money downs, and Daniel intelligently looked elsewhere.

This is stuff that probably doesn’t entertain or interest the masses, but I enjoy poring through stats like that, and it I’d like to think they give me more ammo when writing.

TB: Since you mentioned it, I should just say that of all the areas where Chase Daniel has spoiled us for the last two years, third downs are the biggest.  His absence in 2009 will be felt more on third downs than at any other point.  With Chase, I'm more confident on 3rd-and-6 than I was on 3rd-and-2 with other QBs.

It's quite interesting to look at situational stats, especially considering that the sample size problem isn't a problem in that regard.  If you're looking at per-game numbers, then you're absolutely right--one crazy game (good or bad) can completely skew the numbers.  However, if you look at per-play and situational numbers, a story emerges, both for individual players and teams as a whole.

Alright, so being that this thing has stretched over two months now, I say it's time to wrap this up, rapid-fire style...

1 - Your take on the Bissinger-vs-Bloggers battle, in 50 words or less?

2 - Who's going to be better this fall, Kansas or Colorado?

3 - Who's going to be better this fall, Kansas State or Nebraska?

4 - Royals or Cardinals?

5 - Finally, what joke got the biggest laugh during your stand up comedy debut?

DM: 1 - Bissinger had a chance to represent the professional, distinguished side of sports journalism. Instead, he came off like a bullish ass, an out-of-touch, crusty old dinosaur who’s threatened by the Internet and the blogosphere. It was so ironic that his beef with Deadspin was its crude, derogatory content — and he couldn’t make his point without yelling, cursing and personally insulting someone he clearly didn’t know. It was a shameful appearance by Bissinger. I thought Leitch could have defended himself with a little more oomph, but in fairness, he seemed completely rattled and freaked out by Bissinger’s behavior.

2 - They’re pretty even. Looking at their schedules, I’m making early predictions that both go 7-5 and 4-4 in the conference. Kansas’ defense will be solid as always, but I think they lost too much on offense. Plus, the Big 12 scheduling gods finally catch up with them. Colorado was an average team last year in just about every statistical category. The offense should be better with more experience, but the defense has to replace its two best players in Dizon and Wheatley. I’ll give KU the slight edge only because it plays host to Colorado in Lawrence.

3 - I have no faith in Nebraska. In fact, I’m leaning toward voting them sixth in the North, behind K-State and Iowa State. The defense was flat-out miserable last year, and it has to replace some of its most productive players. If not for that N on the side of the helmet, nobody would be giving this team a chance to be .500, but there seems to be a mythic belief that Bo Pelini will magically turn a team with very little speed and talent into a winner. Maybe in three years, but that team was a step slower at every position against most teams it played last year. Plus, the Huskers play the three best teams in the Big 12 this fall: Missouri, Texas Tech and Oklahoma, plus Kansas. K-State, Iowa State and Nebraska all look like teams that will be around 5-7 or 6-6. In other words, Missouri has absolutely no excuse to cruise through the North.

4 - Born and bred in the Lou. My blood is pure red. (Actually, I have nothing against the Royals. I like their approach to building and they clearly have better young, homegrown talent. I got to meet Trey Hillman at a function a few months ago. Great guy, lots of energy, quasi-mullet.)

5 - I had a long bit about why Gary Pinkel is God’s gift to newly married men. The gist was he gives us guys a blueprint for patience. (It was probably funnier on stage.) And I did a list of top five explanations for the low attendance at MU basketball games (including a below-the-belt Quin joke). All in all, it went better than I thought.

TB: Thanks Dave!