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The Border War: Beyond the Box Score

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.

I'm not going to lie.  As Mizzou-Kansas ended early Saturday evening, one of my first thoughts was that I was going to need help from the BTBS numbers to make sense of everything I just saw.  In a game that featured over 1,100 yards of offense, Mizzou's defense made the plays in the last five minutes that won the game.  In a game where Danario Alexander and Dezmon Briscoe combined for 29 catches and 475 yards (seriously), it was Andrew Gachkar, Jake Harry, Brian Coulter/Aldon Smith, Derrick Washington and Grant Ressel making the breakthrough plays down the stretch.  So many people did so many amazing things ... what do the numbers say about what took place?

The best receiver in the country



Close %
Field Position %
46.6% 46.7%
Leverage %
65.8% 66.7%
EqPts 31.9 33.3
Close Success Rate 50.7% 45.3%
Close PPP 0.43 0.44
Close S&P 0.944 0.898
EqPts 5.7 18.2
Close Success Rate 50.0% 51.5%
Close PPP 0.35 0.55
Close S&P 0.854 1.066
Line Yards/carry
3.15 3.53
EqPts 26.3 15.2
Close Success Rate 50.9% 40.5%
Close PPP 0.46 0.36
Close S&P 0.969 0.766
SD/PD Sack Rate
2.8% / 4.8% 0.0% / 5.0%
Success Rate 56.3% 54.0%
PPP 0.36 0.42
S&P 0.927 0.960
Success Rate 40.0% 28.0%
PPP 0.58 0.50
S&P 0.977 0.775
Number 3 1
Turnover Pts 14.3 4.9
Turnover Pts Margin
-9.4 +9.4
Q1 S&P 1.103 0.952
Q2 S&P 0.976 0.492
Q3 S&P 0.730 1.779
Q4 S&P 0.949 0.456
1st Down S&P 0.838 0.803
2nd Down S&P 0.730 0.888
3rd Down S&P 1.529 1.116
Projected Pt. Margin
-10.8 +10.8
Actual Pt. Margin
-2 +2

So many things here that I didn't expect to see:

  • Mizzou's offense was almost nonexistent in Q2 and Q4.  Their passing numbers?  Only decent, despite Danario Alexander's unbelievable third quarter (7 catches, 181 yards).  And they still struggled on passing downs.
  • Both teams were only decent on 1st and 2nd down, but automatic on 3rd down.  KU, especially, had Mizzou's defense on a string on 3rd down ... until their final two, in which Mizzou came up with two game-turning sacks.
  • Both teams were exactly the same from a Field Position and Leverage standpoint, despite KU starting three drives from inside their 3.
  • Unsung heroes: Mizzou's offensive line, which allowed one sack and plowed away for over three and a half line yards per carry.

What to make of Mizzou's pass defense

I was on Big 12 North Talk Radio Sunday night and was asked about Mizzou's struggling pass defense, and I stammered through an answer about how you probably shouldn't take much away from a rivalry game (after all, Texas A&M gained 530 yards on a dominant Texas defense Thursday night), and how Mizzou's struggles have been caused by different things at different times (no pass rush and poor LB play against KU, poor tackling against Baylor, complete miscommunication against Texas, Carl Gettis' backup getting burned against NU, etc.), but despite that, there's no question that something has been amiss in recent weeks.

Here are Missouri's Passing S&P+ numbers in terms of individual game "+" scores (disregarding Furman).  Remember, a) 100 = average, and b) the higher number, the better the performance.

  1. Nevada (193.5)
  2. Colorado (182.3)
  3. Bowling Green (148.9)
  4. Nebraska (109.6)
  5. Oklahoma State (105.4)
  6. Illinois (103.7)
  7. Iowa State (95.6)
  8. Kansas (84.0)
  9. Kansas State (72.9)
  10. Texas (66.8)
  11. Baylor (59.4)

Over the first five games (not counting Furman), Missouri averaged a 132.2.  Over the last six, Missouri has averaged a 93.5, and that's with the Colorado outlier.  Missouri's five worst games this season all came in the last six weeks (and remember, this is adjusted for opponent, so even if the offenses Mizzou faced improved, that doesn't mean Mizzou's numbers should automatically fall).  Meanwhile, Missouri's sack rate has actually improved over that time (from 1.0% on Standard Downs and 8.9% on Passing Downs, to 6.0% on Standard Downs and 9.9% on Passing Downs), actually giving the pass defense numbers a bit of a boost.  Obviously the pass rush wasn't great against Kansas, but it's been decent down the stretch.

So what has changed in the last six weeks?  For one thing, Carl Gettis got hurt.  It was hinted in October and early-November that he hurt himself worse than anybody thought against Nebraska, but while his and Jasper Simmons' injuries absolutely played a role in the Baylor debacle, he's still seemed steady enough that his ankle alone can't explain a 29.2% drop in pass defense.  What else has changed?  Well, Hardy Ricks was lost for the season.  I wouldn't have thought that would have made a difference, but maybe it did?  Plus, opponents got film on Simmons and Jarrell Harrison and were probably better able to take advantage of whatever weaknesses they may have.  And quite frankly, Kevin Rutland has been maddeningly inconsistent, matching nice pass break-ups with horrible mishaps.

Is there something else I'm missing here?  It's not like the scheme has changed.  Like it or not, the general philosophy of pass defense is simply not going to change as long as Gary Pinkel is in charge.  We are going to run a basic Cover-2, and we're going to give receivers giant cushions and allow the short passes while hoping to tackle well, not get burned deep, and bend just long enough to force a mistake from the opponent.  When and how we blitz may change, but in general, we defend the pass as we always have under Pinkel, and that's just the way it is.  It's not like opponents suddenly figured out what we were doing and changed their approach halfway through the season.  Anyway, I'm all ears.  Let me know why you think things have regressed.

No matter what the cause, there's no question that, with opponent taken into account, this pass defense is not as good as in recent years.  Whether you want to believe it or not, the opponent had as much to do with last year's regression in raw stats than anything else.  Missouri ranked 26th in Defensive Passing S&P+ in 2008 and 17th in 2007, but they rank only 66th this season.  Maybe this is just what we should have expected in losing three of four starters in the secondary (and a hit-or-miss pass rush hasn't helped).  Or not.

But that's enough negativity.  We did, after all, beat Kansas.

Three Positives

  1. Always. Be. Closing.  For 55 minutes, the 2008 and 2009 MU-KU games were strikingly similar.  For the first half, KU's offense was strong and Mizzou made a series of mistakes, leading to a halftime deficit that could have been a lot worse than it actually was (19-10 in 2008, 21-13 in 2009).  Then, Mizzou found their offensive rhythm in the third quarter and stormed back to take a fourth quarter lead (30-26 with 6:52 left in 2008, 36-28 with 13:29 left in 2009).  But thanks to some combination of Reesing, Briscoe, and Kerry Meier, KU got the momentum back and, with roughly five minutes left, faced a third down in Mizzou territory.

    Here's where things start to diverge.  In 2008, Reesing completed a 31-yard pass on 3rd-and-11 to Marcus Herford, setting up a go-ahead TD pass to Meier (who forever earned the middle name of "Effing" after this game).  Mizzou responded with a go-ahead drive of their own, but as we all know, Reesing and Meier connected again to win the game in the final minute.  For the last five minutes, Reesing was 8-for-11 for 106 yards and two touchdowns.

    For the last five and a half minutes on Saturday, Reesing was 0-for-3 passing with two "sacks" (the second one was considered a rush, not a sack) for a loss of 19 yards.  After 55 game minutes of stress and momentum changes, KU faced a third-and-goal from Mizzou's 5, and there was absolutely no reason to think KU wouldn't convert.  All game long, if Mizzou blitzed, they got burned; if they dropped into coverage, they eventually got burned.  Todd Reesing was able to do whatever he wanted to do.  But for the first time all game, Mizzou blitzed effectively.  Kevin Rutland came at Reesing on a CB blitz, and while Reesing got away, Andrew Gachkar tracked him down and forced an intentional grounding penalty (and yes, it was a good call, as the pass landed about two yards short of the line of scrimmage).  Then, nursing a three-point lead, KU now-notoriously attempted to pass out of their endzone and landed two incompletions before Reesing was sandwiched by Aldon Smith and Brian Coulter.  He came within about two inches of getting out of the endzone, and those two inches gave Mizzou two points in a two-point win.

    Those two inches took 2009 from a decent season to a good one.  Coffee is for closers.

  2. Blaine Gabbert's ankle.  How freaking big and fast did Blaine Gabbert look in those first-half keepers??  He had a 30-yarder and a 40-yarder in the first half, and while his arm was scattering some inaccurate passes in the second quarter, his legs kept Mizzou in the game before Danario took over in Q3.  This goes without saying, but it really is simply amazing how much different Gabbert looks now than he did about six weeks ago, and if Mizzou has any sort of steady receiving weapon in 2010 (Jerrell Jackson, you've got all the opportunity in the world to show what you can do), I cannot wait to see what #11 might be able to do if/when healthy for an entire season.

  3. Domino Axelrod.  Remember when Danario Alexander caught eight passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns against Colorado and was the primary reason Mizzou broke out to a 30-point first-half lead?  Yeah, that was his eighth-best game of the season.  His output from just the last three games (606 yards) would have led the team in receiving in 2005.  His three 200-yard receiving games in November match Mizzou's all-time total of 200-yard receiving games before November.  The list of Alexander's superlatives this year top anything Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, etc., ever managed ... and trust me, I know what I just said, and I mean it.  As I said during the game, we are never going to see sustained WR play like this again, and we need to soak it in for all it's worth.

Three Negatives

  1. Bad time for the linebackers' worst game of the year.  I'm a forgiving soul, and I try to stay even-keeled as much as possible.  I'm willing to accept that Todd Reesing was simply in a zone for much of the game, and no matter what Missouri did on defense -- blitz, drop everybody into coverage, etc. -- he was just going to make some plays, as was (obviously) Dez Briscoe.  But there was one part of the defensive play that I found completely unacceptable, particularly in the first half: coverage of Jake Sharp (and later on, Rell Lewis) out of the backfield.  For three years, Sharp has been a more dangerous receiver than runner, and it was no surprise that Reesing would check down to him whenever possible.  And yet we left him wide open with run to room, over and over again.  For the game, Sharp/Lewis had nine catches for 120 yards.  Seven of Sharp's eight catches came in the first half, and four went for first downs, including an inexcusable 17-yard reception on 3rd-and-11 from KU's 1 that allowed KU to get momentum, eventually scoring a touchdown to cap off a 99-yard drive.

    How did the dump to the RBs succeed in ways it hadn't in the previous two games at Arrowhead?  Who was to blame for this?  Again, I have more questions than answers, but in the Cover-2 structure, the main people responsible would appear to be the outside linebackers and the cornerbacks.  Indeed, in previous seasons, it was Sean Weatherspoon and Van Alexander making most of the tackles or defending the pass to the RB.  Maybe the strategy changed this year, or maybe the LBs were just overloaded with coverage responsibilities considering how long the coverage lasted (thanks to the lack of a pass rush), but between Sharp's and Lewis' success, and the awful personal foul penalty on Spoon that allowed KU to prolong a drive and get seven points instead of three, and the fact that Gachkar went completely missing until the late-game sack, this did appear to be the worst game of the season for the Mizzou LB corps.  We survived, and that's good, but they picked a bad time to have their worst game.

  2. "The Scorpion".  Again, all's well that ends well, but do you remember at the beginning of the season, when we thought the "Scorpion" defense (where Mizzou features three DEs in passing downs, lining up Aldon Smith at DT) was going to wreak havoc on most of Missouri's opponents?  That didn't so much happen.  Missouri now ranks 84th in Sack Rates+ this season, and even though things have improved in general over the last half of the season (again, while the overall pass defense was regressing), the pass rush produced almost nothing whatsoever for the game's first 55 minutes on Saturday.  That's not a good thing when your general defensive strategy is to blitz as little as possible, drop a ton of defenders into coverage, and hope your pass rush gets to Reesing before somebody comes open.  Reesing had a ton of time to find receivers, and his receivers are good enough that they're going to break open eventually.  This was like playing Missouri in 2007, and honestly, Reesing looked better for most of Saturday than Chase Daniel did in 2007 when facing the same strategy.

    Considering the mid-season improvement, and considering the overall youth of the defensive line (only Jaron Baston and Brian Coulter leave this season, and a majority of the team's DL playmakers return), I'm still guardedly optimistic about this unit in the future, especially considering how well Mizzou stopped the run in conference play, but for the season the pass rush has still been a major disappointment.

  3. The two-point conversion.  When Mizzou scored early in the third quarter to get to 21-19, I told my dad to brace himself -- with Gary Pinkel's history with the two-point conversion, there was absolutely a 100% chance that we were going for two, even though it was still early, and there were obviously a ton more points yet to be scored.  It's not right, but it's what he does.  And being that it's a consistent mind-set, I can more-or-less accept it even though I disagree with the strategy.  But man oh man, that one point could have made a huge difference.

    (And if you insist on going for two, and you've had to blow a timeout early in the half to figure out what play to call, at least make sure to not call the single most predictable play of the game after the timeout.  Those five minutes, which included the decision to go for two, the blown timeout, and the awful play call, were the worst-coached five minutes of the game for Mizzou.)

Three Keys Revisited

Seen here.

Passing Downs

KU's offense will likely be relatively efficient on Saturday, meaning Mizzou must make stops on passing downs when given the opportunity.  They have a pass-rush advantage in those situations, but if they don't make the sack or force a poor throw from Reesing, their propensity for breakdowns makes them extremely vulnerable.  If they're giving up the dink-and-dunk stuff and allowing big plays on Passing Downs, they probably cannot win.

In the end, KU's 40% success rate on passing downs was neither great nor terrible.  But the plays they did make on passing downs were gigantic.  The 3rd-and-11 dump-off to Sharp that set up the game's first touchdown.  The 33-yard pass to Tim Biere on 3rd-and-18 that set up the second touchdown.  The 33-yard pass to Briscoe on 3rd-and-9 that set up the third touchdown.  And of course, the 74-yard TD bomb to Briscoe on 3rd-and-12 in the fourth quarter.  On almost every KU scoring drive, Mizzou had the Jayhawks on the ropes and let them off the hook, and while Reesing deserves quite a bit of credit for the role he played in those passes, that many breakdowns is still inexcusable, and it almost cost Missouri the game.

Danario Alexander vs Dez Briscoe

Alexander has been the best receiver in the country over the last month, and if he performs to that level again, Mizzou could score at will.  Primarily because of Domino, Mizzou's offense has a significant advantage over KU's defense in terms of The Big Play, and if KU successfully takes that away (lord knows they've got the talent and experience to do so), they take away the biggest weapon in the Mizzou arsenal.  Meanwhile, the other scariest guy on the field is Briscoe.  While Meier gives Mizzou fans nightmares after last year's heroics, Briscoe is still the more dangerous guy.  The winner of the Alexander/Briscoe battle will go a long way in determining the winner of the game.

Rarely will I nail a game key this tremendously, but for the first 55 minutes, this game was absolutely decided by these two players.  Back and forth they went, with Briscoe winning the first two quarters, Alexander almost scoring a TKO in the third quarter, and Briscoe bouncing back in the fourth.  For the game, Alexander had more catches (15 to 14) and Briscoe had more yards (242 to 233), but Briscoe's two fumbles and the two miscues to Briscoe on KU's final drive give Danario the edge here.  But what a freaking battle it was.

MU's Running Game

[I]f Mizzou's slowly improving run game can eat away chunks of yards and Mizzou is able to both overpower KU and beat them with the big play, then they can both run up points and dominate the flow of the game.  Potentially the most underrated facet of the last two games at Arrowhead was MU's running game.  In 2007, Tony Temple racked up 98 yards in 22 carries.  In 2008, Derrick Washington ended up with a respectable 54 yards in 11 carries but averaged under four yards per carry for the first three quarters, when Mizzou's offense was struggling and the defense was unable to get off the field.  If Mizzou is running well from the start, their passing game will open up like a Venus Flytrap.

Again, nailed it.  While Briscoe and Alexander more or less canceled each other out, thanks to Meier and Sharp, KU won the battle of the passing games.  But Mizzou won the war because of Derrick Washington and Blaine Gabbert.  Gabbert took advantage of openings in the first half and ended up with 94 yards rushing for the game; meanwhile, Washington was the finisher, closing with 111 yards and setting up Grant Ressel's game-winner with a wonderful 27-yard run on 3rd-and-2.  Throw in Jerrell Jackson's 37-yard end around for a TD, and Mizzou's running game came up bigger than it had all year.  Just in time to give us extreme optimism for 2010, huh?


While at home yesterday, I watched the replay of the game on ESPNU, and it really is amazing how many times the momentum turned and, over the course of the game, how many players made contributions to this win.  Blaine Gabbert with his first-half rushes and great decision-making in the second half.  Jacquies Smith with the forced fumble of Briscoe, and Carl Gettis for a forced fumble and two recoveries.  Danario Alexander with his third quarter for the ages.  Wes Kemp with his killer down-field blocking.  Jerrell Jackson with his end-around (and De'Vion Moore with his amazing blocking on the play).  Kip Edwards with his interception of Reesing, ensuring a one-possession deficit at halftime.  Derrick Washington with his devastating second-half rushing.  Andrew Gachkar with his fourth-quarter sack.  Kevin Rutland with his fantastic man-to-man defense on the bomb to Briscoe on KU's final drive.  Coulter and Agent Smith for their safety.  Jake Harry for getting THREE punts downed inside the 3.  Grant Ressel for capping off the most improbably great kicking season ever with a ride on the shoulders of his teammates.  Despite all the breakdowns and all the stress the game's first 55 minutes produced, Mizzou made every play when the game was on the line, and they came away with one of the more satisfying, endearing wins of the Pinkel era.  We now await the bowl announcement, knowing that a) Missouri will finish no worse than they did in 2006 (Chase Daniel's sophomore season), and b) Todd Reesing's career ended in the same endzone in which KU's national title hopes ended two seasons ago.  There's poetry, and then there's poetry.