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Mizzou Beats San Diego State: Links and Reflections

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Via Bill Carter. Tommy Saunders says...YAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!

September 20, 1969.  Leading 16-10, tenth-ranked Missouri allows two improbable completions, and Air Force quickly drives the length of the field, scoring to take a 17-16 lead with under a minute left.  Just as improbably, Mizzou's Terry McMillan finds John Henley for a 56-yard bomb, and Mizzou escapes with a last-second field goal, 19-17.  The Tigers get hot afterward, finishing the regular season 9-1, winning the Big 8 title, ranking as high as fifth in the country, and throwing a scare into a great Penn State squad in the Orange Bowl.

September 20, 2003.  Trailing 34-26 to Middle Tennessee with under five minutes remaining, Mizzou drives 73 yards, gets a score and two-point conversion to tie, then wins in overtime, 41-40, when the Blue Raiders miss an extra point and Mike Matheny boots a 35-yard PAT (after a personal foul penalty) to win.  The Trib headline the next day is, "The Great Escape."  Mizzou goes on to get roughed up in Lawrence in their next game, and though they qualify for their first bowl game in five years, they limp down the home stretch, finishing 4-5 after a 4-0 start.

October 5, 1996.  Mizzou needs two blocked PATs to take a late 27-26 lead over lowly SMU, then an attempted game-winner from the Mustangs hits the upright as time expires, giving Mizzou a wobbly, one-point win.  The win moves Mizzou to 2-3 on the season.  They go 3-3 the rest of the way, neither building nor losing momentum on the way to a 5-6 finish (which, actually, was a semi-success for the program at that point).

In other words, we should probably refrain from drawing any season-long conclusions about what we saw last night.  Maybe this is a great momentum builder, and maybe this is a foreboding sign for what is to come.  We have no idea.  What we do know, however, is that this was Mizzou's first final-minute, game-winning touchdown since the epic win over Ohio State in 1976.  It was their first at home since 1958 against Idaho.  It was only the third time in Mizzou history that they threw a game-winning touchdown pass of over 30 yards while trailing (the others -- 1976 against Nebraska, 1967 against Nebraska ... credit for these tidbits comes from the great Tom Orf).  The worry comes later.  For now, let's celebrate this for exactly what it was: a near-disaster that turned into one of the more miraculous, exciting finishes in Mizzou history.

1. When the weight of the world has got you down/and you want to end your life/Bills to pay, a dead-end job/and problems with the wife/But don't throw in the towel/'cause there's a place right down the block/Where you can drink your misery away/At Flaming Moe's....

Sorry, there was no way to quote just a portion of the Flaming Moe's song (more background here, but surely you don't need it, right?), so instead you get a gigantic header.

On Facebook last night, I shared the athletic department's video of T.J. Moe's touchdown (like hundreds of others), the comment of "The moment T.J. Moe became a folk hero."  Clearly we were already building toward this.  Who doesn't like the gritty possession receiver who takes more hits than a running back and fights for every last yard, right?  The fact that he was already a St. Louis folk hero because of his exploits at Ft. Zumwalt West didn't hurt matters.  But any holdout has now been won over.  The new Faurot Field P.A. announcer took to inserting a giant, pregnant pause anytime he had to say "T.J. ... ... ... Moe" last night, and honestly it was a little cheesy and forced.  He said it even after a couple of nothing plays.  To his credit, however, he could not possibly have chosen a better time to get it started.  The (remaining) crowd started joining in a bit by the fourth quarter, and the ENTIRE (remaining) crowd shouted "MOE!!!" after the pause after the touchdown.

Memory is a funny thing.  Mizzou fans who lived through the game last night, either in person, via PPV, or via radio, suffered through all the moments: the dropped passes, the just-an-inch away passes, the Ronnie Hillman touchdowns, the turnovers, the continued near-misses, the epic San Diego State punts, and everything else.  It was a miserable experience.  But five years from now, we'll remember one play.  The two-paragraph narrative of this game will have turned into ten words: "The game sucked, then T.J. Moe won it for us."  Everything about the play was incredible -- Moe's initial juke, Jerrell Jackson's ridiculous block, the sideline's reaction, and everything else -- and it deserves to go down as one of Mizzou's greatest ever, no matter what you think about San Diego State.

2. It's not a thang when I lower the gradient lens frames/I'm cooler than Clyde Stubblefield, drummer for James

The defense gets the ultimate compliment from me -- a quote from a great Roots song (NSFW) -- not because of what they did (allow a freshman running back to rush for 228 yards and two long touchdowns), but because of what they didn't do.  Despite having every reason in the world to fold, they did not.  They stayed cool.  They bounced back from two of the flukiest* touchdowns you will ever see and made stop after stop despite no help from the offense.

* To any San Diego State fan reading this, I don't intend "fluky" quite as harshly as it sounds.  They were flukes in that a) the first touchdown came on a third-down draw play, where everybody in the stadium knew they were going to run a draw play, and b) the second came on a play where the Mizzou defense had Hillman wrapped up until his offensive lineman literally picked him up and slung him forward and away from all Mizzou defenders who thought the play was over.  If the draw play were attempted 10 times, it goes for a touchdown once, maybe twice.  If the second play were attempted a HUNDRED times, it goes for a touchdown once.  Both plays displayed incredible pure speed from Hillman, who did one helluva Marshall Faulk impersonation last night (a comparison Missourians from the eastern part of the state will appreciate), but they were still fluky.

Last night I jokingly called this the greatest defensive performance ever from a defense that gave up over 225 rushing yards to a true freshman, and ... well, I stand by that comment.  They bounced back after repeated setbacks.  After Hillman's end-of-Q2 touchdown, the Tigers forced four consecutive punts to start the second half.  After De'Vion Moore's odd fumble at the Mizzou 7 (he absolutely fumbled, but his forward progress had been stopped for quite a while with no whistle when the ball came loose), Kevin Rutland picked off a pass.  After Hillman's second touchdown, they forced a three-and-out.  After two Gabbert picks gave the Aztecs the ball in Mizzou territory, they were only able to manage a field goal and a punt.

Fact is, Ronnie Hillman put together an amazing stat line based on two runs.  His two touchdowns covered 168 yards.  His other 21 carries netted just 60.  I talk a lot at Rock M about efficiency and success rates; well, while Hillman's overall stat line was incredible, Mizzou won because they kept his success rate extremely low.  He had two great plays, a couple of decent ones, and probably 15-18 nothing carries.

In all, Mizzou was two plays away from an incredible defensive performance.  They held a semi-scary passing attack to 184 yards in 45 attempts (including sacks), a paltry 4.1 yards per attempt.  Meanwhile, aside from two carries, SDSU runners managed 88 yards in 30 carries.  But those two plays still count, and they kept the game close enough that Mizzou's offensive struggles mattered.

Hey, speaking of offensive struggles...

3. Friday night I laid in the devil's arms/Saturday was a catastrophe

Granted, I don't know what Blaine Gabbert did Friday night -- whether it entailed devil's arms or not -- but this Ike Reilly Assassination quote is still quite applicable because ... well, Saturday was a bit of a catastrophe.  ESPN's College Football Final listed Gabbert's 351 passing yards and last-second touchdown as one of its breakthrough performances.  Nevermind that that completely negates the impact that T.J. Moe had on the final play (it should have been "Moe's touchdown reception," not "Gabbert's touchdown pass") -- let's just say that if the Mizzou defense put together a great performance with a bad stat line, Gabbert did the exact opposite.

It started out innocently enough.  Gabbert went 4-for-6 for 50 yards on the opening drive of the game, completing a gorgeous sideline fade to Michael Egnew (who had a simply incredible game -- he's moved past just trying to catch the ball and is showing more and more Rucker-esque tendencies with each game) in the process.  As The Beef said later in the game, that completion to Egnew might have been the worst thing possible because it led to many, many more downfield attempts that were just inches off.

That was the story of the game, really.  For the first three quarters, Gabbert was just an inch away from a perfect pass every single time.  Dropped passes and balls glancing off of outstretched fingers killed the Tigers again and again.  For those who like to say that football is a game of inches, this game was the perfect example.  By the fourth quarter, however, the near-misses had added up, and after Hillman's incredible touchdown, he started forcing the issue with disastrous results.  He threw two fourth-quarter interceptions, further solidfying the fact that the whole "fourth quarter comebacks" stat is complete rubbish.  He now has as many fourth quarter comebacks this season as Chase Daniel had in his entire career, but last night did as much to remind Missouri fans why they miss Daniel as any game in the last two seasons.

Three games into his junior season, Blaine Gabbert's biggest enemy still comes between the ears and below the flowing locks.  He is still a very good quarterback who, with some in-season growth, could be the best in the Big 12 this year.  But near-misses still get into his head, usually with disastrous results.  This was Bowling Green v. 2.0, and as with the 2009 Bowling Green game, Mizzou was very lucky to escape with a win.

4. So we Kick, Push/Kick, Push/Kick, Push/Kick, Push/Coast

Until T.J. Moe's heroics, I was completely and totally prepared to give MVP honors in this game to San Diego State punter (and Lupe Fiasco all-star) Brian Stahovich.  I mentioned how great he was in Thursday's BTBS preview, but he was beyond great last night.  Almost every single one of his ten punts left Mizzou with awful field position and prevented the Tigers' struggling offense from catching a break.  The box score says he only pinned three punts inside the 20, but ... it felt like 17.

If I were to rank the five best players in last night's game, Stahovich would have definitely made the list ... and Mizzou's Matt Grabner may have as well.  He pinned three of eight punts inside the SDSU 20 and almost got a fourth (he was about a yard too long on one that punting team all-star Carl Gettis couldn't quite corral).  Both teams consistently faced a long field.  SDSU's average starting field position for their first 11 possessions was their own 20; Mizzou's average starting field position for their last 11 possessions was ... you guessed it, their 20.  Stahovich and Grabner defined the game as much or more than Hillman, Gabbert, Moe or anybody else.  One botch from either of them down the stretch, and the game would have been over before the final minute or two.

5. You can't always get what you want/But if you try sometimes/You just might find/You get what you need

I know this is a losing battle -- who each of us is as a fan at this point probably isn't going to change -- but I have to say it anyway.  And it's going to take me far too many words to do it.  To those who are tired of people complaining about the other fans, just skip this and go down to the links.  I won't be offended.  Okay, you've been sufficiently warned.

To those who thrive on being miserable, who go out of their ways to both denigrate anything good that happens while blowing the bad significantly out of proportion, who insist on blaming the offensive coordinator for all of their life's ills (even when mispronouncing his name -- I heard somebody shout "Yoost" last night in the middle of a ridiculous rant), and who insist on ruining the gameday experience for everybody around them ... just stop.  It's embarrassing.

Last night was not the finest hour for the Mizzou program -- the team, the coaches, or the fans.  The offense was a hair off (it turned into more than a hair late in the game), and the defense had two horrendous breakdowns.  The play-calling, indeed, had some issues as well. But unless you're at the age of 12 or younger, there is no excuse for the kind of behavior we see at games.  A friend of ours came to our section in the fourth quarter and, after no more than five minutes, said "Wow, you weren't lying about your section. This is hilarious."  (I had already shared a story with him from last week. Leading 30-0 in the second quarter, Mizzou threw a sideline pass that got eaten up because of poor blocking.  After the P.A. announcer read an advertisement about some web address -- I have no recollection what it may have been -- a guy in our section shouted "How about '', huh?"  Again, Mizzou was up 30-0 and had scored on every drive.  Again, just embarrassing.)

Every time I see embarrassing crowd behavior, it makes me sad for two reasons.  First, it really is just embarrassing to people 10-20 years older than I am acting like 8-year olds when something goes wrong. It's not like Mizzou fans are alone in this regard -- I can't imagine what we may have heard in the stands at yesterday's Michigan or Oklahoma games -- but I can't do anything about other fanbases. I only care about my own.

Second, it makes me think of my late buddy Jeffrey.  He was the first to overreact to anything, positive or negative.  He sat with us at games for a number of years, and I think we both impacted each other's behavior.  I'm a contrarian by nature (go figure, huh?), but sitting with him reminded me that unabashed celebration of great moments was still not only fun but required.  Meanwhile, we were able to shout him down enough after bad moments that he was getting better and better at simply not taking things so seriously.  Life goes on after losses, even bad ones to teams like San Diego State.  You go home, you go to bed, and if you're lucky, you wake up in the morning, and you go to the Mizzou game the next Saturday.  It's a pretty good life, even when the team isn't as good as you hoped.  For all we know, Mizzou might go 14-0 this season, and they might go 3-9.  But simply being a Mizzou fan, soaking in the Mizzou experience, and enjoying all the traditions of games (when other fans aren't trying to ruin it for you) is a lot of fun, and despite everything, I left the stadium in a great mood last night.

So that's my say.  Disagree with it if you want.  Now, to the play-calling.

First things first: complaining about play-calling is, as we have said many times on this site, lazy and overdone.  Execution and development are such bigger deals than what actual plays are called, but because we can all go home and call plays on video games (and if one formation doesn't work, we just magically change to the Maryland-I or something and run the ball with ease ... as if it were that easy in real life), and because it's easy, black-and-white thinking to simply conclude "This play didn't work, therefore it was a bad call," we give it far too much heft.

That said ... the option needs to be eliminated from the playbook -- it doesn't work with Gabbert.  The zone read, sure, keep it.  But the wide option is just a disaster -- it never works for more than a couple of yards, it twice led to bad pitches and near-lost fumbles from Gabbert, and it is too ineffective to serve as any sort of "keep them honest" constraint play to set up other plays.  That Mizzou ran it twice while behind in the fourth quarter last night shows that the coaches were completely at a loss.  With Gabbert retreating far into his own head, they had no idea what play to call, and honestly I can't blame them.  But let's just go ahead and call anything other than the option from now on.

The prevalence of early long balls was also a curious coaching decision.  Either they spotted something on film that made them decide the deep corner was vulnerable (and let's face it -- it almost was ... it repeatedly almost worked), or they assumed San Diego State would be overplaying the sideline routes, or San Diego State really was overplaying the sideline routes.  But it definitely seemed like David Yost and staff were maybe over-thinking things early, and while most plays almost worked, they also left Mizzou in too many passing downs situations.  Then, as the struggles grew magnified in the fourth quarter, play-calling stopped mattering -- nothing works when your quarterback is struggling like Gabbert was struggling.

Bottom line: play-calling was quite iffy at times last night, but a) it happens, and b) execution still mattered more.  But with people shouting for Dave Yost's head on a daily basis (ignoring the fact that he called six straight almost-perfect quarters of plays against Illinois and McNeese State, and he did the same through most of November 2009) are being ridiculous.  Dave Yost is the offensive coordinator, and with the more experience he gets, he will end up seeing longer and longer stretches of great game-planning, timing, and play-calling.  For almost 59 minutes against a decent-but-not-spectacular opponent, Mizzou struggled and put themselves in a position to lose.  Then they won.  Deal with it.

Moe, Moe, Moe

Mizzou Escapes

Ronnie Hillman is fast, San Diego State is sad