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Oklahoma State At Missouri: Beyond The Box Score Preview

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NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

The Daily Oklahoman spent a portion of this week talking about how big this year's Bedlam matchup will be this year. And they're right -- if both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State get to December undefeated, then the game will basically be a de facto national semifinal game. It would be amazing. But we're not there yet. Among other things, Oklahoma State needs to escape Columbia with a win on Saturday, and as their last trip to Columbia reminded us, looking ahead to future big games is a sure way to get you smacked around. (And no, there is no indication that the Oklahoma State team is looking past Missouri. I'm just setting the table here.)

On October 11, 2008, an up-and-coming Oklahoma State team visited Faurot Field. They were undefeated and ranked 17th in the country, but they were taking on the No. 3 team, a Missouri squad that was receiving first-place votes and averaging 53.4 points per game and had won 17 consecutive games versus teams not named the Oklahoma Sooners. The Tigers had not gone three-and-out in their first five games, and they had just exorcized yet another demon, not only winning in Lincoln for the first time in 25 years, but absolutely blowing Nebraska out of the water. Chase Daniel was wearing the memorial No. 25 jersey, and despite the fact that OSU was clearly an interesting, effective team, it was difficult to get too worried. Mizzou had passed so many tests in the last two years, right? What was one more? The narrative Missouri was creating did not have room for a loss to Oklahoma State. A win, and the Tigers would head to Austin for a possible No. 1 vs No. 2 battle the next week. It would be a simply enormous game, not unlike what this year's Bedlam battle could be. But on the walk to the stadium, Mizzou evidently misplaced their mojo.

On Mizzou's opening drive, Chase Coffman (allegedly) came up inches short of a touchdown on second-and-goal, and Mizzou shocked everybody by kicking the field goal on fourth-and-goal instead of attempting to punch the ball into the end zone.

On Oklahoma State's second drive, it looked like Dez Bryant fumbled, but the play wasn't reviewed.

In the third quarter, with Mizzou driving, Chase Daniel threw a pass that Danario Alexander evidently lost in the lights; the ball bounced off of his helmet and into the arms of Ricky Price.

Later, Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson threw a bomb to a double-covered Damien Davis ... and neither Mizzou defender could find the ball to break it up; touchdown.

Despite all of this, and despite finding themselves down 28-17 with under five minutes remaining, Mizzou was poised for a comeback. With 1:40 remaining, they had the ball at OSU's 37, down just 28-23. Daniel rolled right and threw on the run to Maclin. Patrick Lavine stepped in and "intercepted" the pass, ending the game. Why the quotations? Because despite the fact that the replay upheld the call, photographic evidence suggested the ball had hit the turf before Lavine secured it.

This was simply a gut-wrenching, unexpected defeat. Missouri fans can only hope that, in what is quite possibly Oklahoma State's final trip to Columbia, there is a somewhat symmetrical result. Oklahoma State is trying to position themselves for a rare (to say the least) shot at the national title, while a talented, forgotten Missouri team is fighting for respect. Mizzou has won 10 home games in a row (not that this matters to an opponent that has won eight consecutive road games), but they will need to summon every bit of the mojo they lost three years ago.

Oklahoma State at Missouri

Record BCS
F/+ Rk
S&P+ Rk
2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
Oklahoma State 6-0 4 8 9 25 5 2
Missouri 3-3 NR 40 33 27 57 17

In many ways, Oklahoma State is a lot like last year's Oregon squad, and not just because of their growing and rotating cast of uniforms. They do not possess the most elite offense in the country -- Top 25, not Top 5 -- but they play at such a fast pace that they will maximize any advantage they find (and they are quite good at finding advantages). And like Oregon, the Cowboys' defense has been an incredibly underrated aspect of their current success. They have their share of weaknesses, and a Mizzou team on its game should be able to take advantage of some of those weaknesses, but the Cowboys are one of the more experienced, polished and well-rounded teams in the country.

When Oklahoma State Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
SD % Run 45.8% 60.6%
S&P+ Rk 19 83
Success Rt+ Rk 9 92
PPP+ Rk 30 72
Rushing S&P+ Rk 5 53
Passing S&P+ Rk 47 97

It is impossible not to notice the gaudy, video game-esque numbers that Oklahoma State posts. It is impossible not to notice the Brandon Weeden-to-Justin Blackmon combination, too. Weeden is the 28-year old, former minor leaguer who returned to school just in time to watch OSU's 2008 upset over Missouri from the bench; Blackmon was the finest receiver in the country last year. It is easy to focus on that pitch-and-catch combo and assume you know what makes OSU tick. But as always, the story behind the OSU offense is a bit more complicated.

For starters, the OSU passing game is predicted on three primary weapons, not just one. While Blackmon is still the go-to guy, Josh Cooper and 2009 Mizzou killer Hubert Anyiam are almost as instrumental. Further, OSU isn't necessarily about big plays and bombing away. They are one of the most efficiency-based offenses in the country.

Passing Downs
SD % Run 25.8% 33.1%
S&P+ Rk 23 16
Success Rt+ Rk 17 5
PPP+ Rk 30 24
Rushing S&P+ Rk 25 33
Passing S&P+ Rk 26 24

Nothing is more maddening than watching a quarterback stand back in shotgun, catching the snap, immediately winging the ball to a wideout, gaining seven or eight yards, then doing it again. It feels like it should be the easiest thing in the world to stop. It is not. By no means is Oklahoma State reliant just on this dink-and-dunk approach, but short, efficient passes are the primary basis of OSU's 2011 success. Blackmon, Cooper and Anyiam all have catch rates of at least 74 percent on standard downs -- Blackmon 74 percent on 53 targets, Cooper 82 percent on 33 targets and Anyiam 78 percent on 27 targets. None have amazing per-target averages (Cooper's is the best at a good-not-great 8.8 yards per targets).

In theory, a team can eventually be shut down if they are not producing big plays. But OSU overcomes this in two ways: 1) In Weeden, they have one of the smarter, more mature passers in the country; like Chase Daniel, he can be counted on to pretty consistently make the right read and the right pass, meaning the "eventually you'll be shut down" idea is more theory than fact when playing against OSU. 2) Their running game will catch you by surprise and occasionally break a long one. Joseph Randle (552 yards, 5.2 per carry) and Jeremy Smith (354 yards, 6.9 per carry) lead an efficient (there's that word again) ground attack that isn't quite as good as it was in previous years, but is certainly good enough to do damage.

The key for Mizzou is an easy one to spot: tackle. Tackle, tackle, tackle. If Mizzou can make OSU drive the length of the field and at least occasionally force passing downs, they could make just enough stops (i.e. force enough field goals) to gives themselves a chance. Mizzou has been torched by the pass, especially on standard downs, but Oklahoma and Arizona State attacked them downfield, which is not necessarily what Oklahoma State wants to do. In theory, making this a pitch-catch-tackle game helps Missouri a bit because a) the Tigers' lack of a standard downs pass rush doesn't matter (nobody gets to Weeden on standard downs anyway) and b) it takes one of Mizzou's biggest weaknesses -- lack of downfield ball skills -- off the table. Again, Oklahoma State isn't only going to throw sideline passes; they are certainly going to attack downfield from time to time. But the goal in a game like this isn't to make a stop every time -- not going to happen -- it is to make enough stops to give your offense a chance to win the game.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
SD % Run 65.0% 52.4%
S&P+ Rk 7 35
Success Rt+ Rk 15 44
PPP+ Rk 8 32
Rushing S&P+ Rk 15 69
Passing S&P+ Rk 9 12

This isn't supposed to be a good defense. For starters, they are Oklahoma State, and the meme with Oklahoma State is "all offense, no defense," right? Plus, their two leading tackles are both safeties! That means they're getting gashed, right? Not necessarily. Like Kansas State, Oklahoma State has perfected the bend-don't-break routine, creating an umbrella around opposing offenses, eventually forcing a passing down, then unleashing a strong pass rush and ending the drive.

The Cowboys' standard downs defense is only solid, but they are spectacular on passing downs. Their safeties -- Daytawion Lowe (36.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 3 PBU), Markelle Martin (34.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 5 PBU), Deion Imade (17.5 tackles) -- are potentially the best in the Big 12. They tackle well (almost all of the safeties' tackles are solo tackles; they don't miss you often), they force you to run as many plays as possible, and they hack at the ball very well. It is a tough recipe to replicate from year to year, but it's working for them this year.

Passing Downs
SD % Run 33.6% 33.1%
S&P+ Rk 21 4
Success Rt+ Rk 38 31
PPP+ Rk 15 1
Rushing S&P+ Rk 24 72
Passing S&P+ Rk 31 4

Staying in standard downs will mean so incredibly much to Mizzou in this game. Oklahoma State is quite vulnerable to a good running game, and they haven't even faced one that is as run-heavy and high-quality as Missouri's. In terms of Adj. Run-Pass rate, Missouri currently ranks 35th (as in, they run the ball the 35th-most frequently in the country.) Of the solid offenses, OSU has faced, Arizona ranks 119th, Texas A&M 55th, Tulsa 61st. Both UL-Lafayette and Kansas like to run the ball, but they do not have Henry Josey. Missouri does.

If forced to pass, Missouri may struggle. They could find success with efficiency weapons like Michael Egnew and T.J. Moe, but the over-the-top option won't be there (I would love for L'Damian Washington, Marcus Lucas or perhaps Wes Kemp to prove me wrong on this), and since Oklahoma State has a much better pass rush than Kansas State (end Jamie Blatnick leads the way with five sacks), James Franklin could pay if he is indecisive, or if he simply makes bad decisions; cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert have combined for five interceptions.

Staying on schedule is always important -- it is one of the Four Truths, after all -- but for a sophomore quarterback running an offense that will absolutely have to score in at least the 20s and probably the 30s to give his team a chance to win, it will be doubly important on Saturday.

Special Teams

If Mizzou can fight the special teams battle to a draw, it's really a win. Oklahoma State is sixth in punting, half of their kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, they've returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, and they've missed one field goal all year. Missouri's overall special teams unit isn't as bad as we probably perceive (only place-kicking has been an issue, and really, Grant Ressel has still gone 7-for-8 on field goals of under 40 yards), but they are going up against one of the country's best units.

Quinn Sharp is both a wonderful punter (his 21 punts have averaged a ridiculous 48.4 yards), kicker (9-for-9 in field goals under 40 yards, 1-for-2 outside of 40 yards) and kickoffs guy (28 of 54 kickoffs have been unreturnable). Their coverage units are not particularly strong -- they are 92nd in opponents' punt returns, 108th in opponents' kick returns -- but Sharp's kicks are so high and deep that you do not get many return opportunities. Meanwhile, kick returner Justin Gilbert is all-or-nothing. He has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns among his 13 attempts, but he is only averaging 29.7 yards per return. That means that his other 11 returns have averaged well under 20 yards each. Keep Gilbert more to the "nothing" side of "all-or-nothing," make your makeable kicks, maybe break a decent return or two, and call it a win.

The Verdict

In a nutshell, this game will come down to who performs better on first-and-10. If Oklahoma State is consistently gobbling up six to eight yards on first down, and if Mizzou is not taking advantage of OSU's iffy run defense and gobbling up the same type of yardage, then OSU will win. And with their pace, they will probably win by double-digits. Counting on James Franklin to convert passing downs at a more efficient rate than Brandon Weeden is not a winning strategy. Franklin is good, and he might one day be great, but he is not yet ready to put his team on his shoulders and beat a Top 5 team. Neither were Chase Daniel or Blaine Gabbert.

The official F/+ projection is Oklahoma State by 12.7, but the path to victory is pretty clear: tackle well, make sure that Oklahoma State faces as many third downs and passing as possible, dictate the tempo with a heavy, successful dose of Henry Josey, James Franklin, Kendial Lawrence and the Mizzou run (and, really, short pass), and, quite simply, continue to answer the bell. Oklahoma State is going to score and rack up heavy yardage, but you beat them by a) racking up plenty of yards and points yourself, and b) taking full advantage of the mistakes they make. They are sound and efficient, but they are not super-human. Or to put it another way, they are no better on offense than Missouri was when the underdog Cowboys took them down three years ago. This is a winnable game; Missouri just needs to go and win it. A little revenge for 2008 would just be a bonus.




A Quick Glossary

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.