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Arizona State: Beyond The Box Score Preview

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

For obvious reasons, Missouri fans are not quite as optimistic about this game as they were a couple of years ago. Arizona State is still Arizona State -- talented, athletic and more volatile than the stock market; but Mizzou is not quite the Mizzou we expected to see at this point. MU's four-headed running back is now a two-headed one (sans the injured Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy), their most proven field-stretching receiver (Jerrell Jackson) is out, their three-year starting left tackle (Elvis Fisher) is lost for the season, their center (Travis Ruth) is nursing an Achilles injury, their most experienced pass rusher (Jacquies Smith) is out after bending his wrist at an angle previously unknown to man and their play-making middle linebacker (Will Ebner) is out after suffering the 116th high-ankle sprain of his career. Now, Arizona State has been suffering through their own almost comical injuries luck, but when combined with a lackluster offensive performance last week, it probably goes without saying that confidence has been shaken. Do the Tigers have what it takes to win in the desert?

Missouri at Arizona State

Record AP
F/+ Rk
F/+ Rk
2010 Off.
F/+ Rk
2010 Def.
F/+ Rk
Missouri 0-0 21 22 16 26 16 54 22 20
Arizona State 0-0 30 38 55 33 30 108 76

If you can figure out what Arizona State is capable of in a given game, go to Vegas right now. The Sun Devils were one of the more schizophrenic, crazy, up-and-down teams in the country last year, playing well enough to barely lose to good teams (they lost to Wisconsin by one, to Stanford by four, to Oregon by 11 and to USC by one) and playing iffy enough to slip up multiple times to less-than-impressive teams (they lost to Oregon State by 3 and to crazy California by 33). You never really knew what you were going to get from them, but when they were on, they were frightening. Missouri, meanwhile, was stable and solid, with perhaps a bit lower upside and much higher downside. Last week, the Sun Devils whipped UC Davis up and down the field, but tomorrow night is the first opportunity of 2011 for them to prove that they are going to be treading on a bit more stable ground this year.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

It is hard to know what Missouri is capable of just 60 minutes into the season -- and 60 shaky minutes at that -- but on first blush Arizona State might match up pretty well with the Tigers. ASU defended the rush quite well on standard downs last year, but they struggled against the pass. They could be vulnerable to the type of quick passing game Mizzou executed so well last year, but last week the quick pass was shaky. Mizzou relied on the zone read for a lot of their early-down yardage, and it is unclear whether that will be an option this time around.

Standard Downs
Ariz. St.
Last Wk's SD % Run 65.8% 55.8%
S&P+ Rk 28 31
Success Rt+ Rk 12 24
PPP+ Rk 41 33
Rushing S&P+ Rk 20 8
Passing S&P+ Rk 44 62

Don't right off the run game, however. Mizzou's interior offensive line seemed to do quite well out of the three-point stance last week, and Arizona State is still in the process of replacing tackles Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola. By my count, ASU tackles combined for just four tackles last week, three coming from small (6-foot-0, 286 pounds) senior Bo Moos. Their job is going to primarily be occupying blockers so crazy middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict can do his thing. He had three sacks last week, but that's all he had -- he made no other tackles, which isn't necessarily a good thing for a middle linebacker. The James Franklin keeper was the single best thing this offense had going for it last week, and there is some hope it could be successful again.

Passing Downs
Ariz. St.
Last Wk's PD % Run 40.0% 32.2%
S&P+ Rk 15 43
Success Rt+ Rk 13 45
PPP+ Rk 20 44
Rushing S&P+ Rk 6 38
Passing S&P+ Rk 29 57

Between short passing and the zone read, Mizzou could experience a decent amount of success on standard downs. Let's hope so, because the chances of success on passing downs are rather slim. With Franklin still getting his sea legs, Mizzou struggled last week when they fell off schedule. Franklin forgot his footwork a bit when feeling pressure, and ... well, with Burfict and end Junior Onyeali (two tackles for loss last week), odds are decent he will feel pressure on passing downs.

If Franklin gets protection and avoids happy feet, ASU could -- could -- be vulnerable. Cornerback Omar Bolden is out for the season, and ASU's pass defense was iffy with him last year. As you'll see below, UC Davis got completely shut down on passing downs, but that alone isn't reason to fear. Mizzou may still be figuring things out on offense, but they aren't UC Davis.

In all, staying on schedule will be the name of the game for Missouri. If they can generate a bit of push in the middle, and if the screens and quick passes are working well enough to keep ASU honest, then they could move the ball and either flip the field or score some points. ASU's defense is exciting and aggressive, but they are still capable of glitches. Execute, and you'll move the ball.

When Arizona State Has The Ball…

The run game was a significant issue for Arizona State last year, and last week did not necessarily suggest that this has changed. Running back Cameron Marshall rushed for just 23 yards in seven carries last week, and primary backups Kyle Middlebrooks, James Morrison and Marcus Washington fared only a bit better (combined: 23 carries, 105 yards). Their backs averaged just 4.3 yards per carry, which is certainly a positive sign for Dominique Hamilton and company. The Tigers got a lovely push up front against Miami last week, and while ASU represents a step up in competition, the line was only average last year and, at first glance, may not be a lot better this year.

Standard Downs
Ariz. St.
Last Wk's SD % Run 62.5% 57.6%
S&P+ Rk 69 13
Success Rt+ Rk 93 19
PPP+ Rk 60 8
Rushing S&P+ Rk 92 23
Passing S&P+ Rk 51 7

The most interesting matchup when ASU has the ball comes when enormous quarterback Brock Osweiler drops to pass. (Fun fact: the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Osweiler is actually too large for a seven-step drop; no matter where he is on the field, seven steps would take him out of the back of his own end zone.) Mizzou was vulnerable to quick sideline passes last week (the same ones Kansas used to slowly destroy the Tigers in 2008), but that's not really ASU's modus operandi. They're going to send Mike Willie (one catch, five yards last week) underneath zones, they're going to send their wideouts long, and they're going to flare to the running backs quite often. Marshall and Middlebrooks combined for six catches last week (Marshall had a 47 yarder on his way to a team-leading 86 receiving yards), and Mizzou's linebackers must keep an eye on them. In a sense, Miami's constant dump-offs last week may help Mizzou this week.

Passing Downs
Ariz. St.
Last Wk's SD % Run 31.3% 28.0%
S&P+ Rk 50 49
Success Rt+ Rk 39 44
PPP+ Rk 48 59
Rushing S&P+ Rk 41 111
Passing S&P+ Rk 52 22

Mizzou holds a rather well-defined advantage on standard downs, but I'm curious what happens on passing downs. Osweiler found his groove late last year, rolling out, avoiding the pass rush with his gigantic strides and eventually making plays. Against UCLA and Arizona, ASU's success rate on passing downs was a rock solid 41% because of his improvisational abilities, and it was 44% last week. Mizzou mostly played with both aggression and discipline last year (though as you see on the table to the left, Mizzou ranked horribly in terms of defending the rush on passing downs), and this will be an absolute requirement on Friday night.

In all, ASU may have gained 517 yards last week, but I think the level of their opponent's athleticism had a lot to do with that. Mizzou has the horses to keep up with the Sun Devils on offense, and if the Tigers' defensive line creates as much of an advantage as I think is possible, then this game will boil down to field position, mistakes and efficiency. Neither offense has too many advantages over the opposition, so mistakes and individual big plays could tell the tale.

Last Week

Arizona State 48, UC Davis 14

UC Davis
Arizona State UC Davis
Arizona State
Close % 47.7% STANDARD DOWNS
Field Position % 14.3% 69.4% Success Rate 41.0% 60.7%
Leverage % 69.6% 77.8% PPP 0.33 0.48
S&P 0.742 1.090
EqPts 14.4 34.3 PASSING DOWNS
Close Success Rate 27.6% 59.4% Success Rate 17.7% 43.8%
Close PPP 0.09 0.59 PPP 0.08 0.45
Close S&P 0.364 1.186 S&P 0.260 0.891
EqPts 8.6 17.4 Number 1 2
Close Success Rate 10.0% 57.1% Turnover Pts 5.4 9.3
Close PPP 0.06 0.58 Turnover Pts Margin +3.9 -3.9
Close S&P 0.164 1.147
Line Yards/carry 3.24 1.80 Q1 S&P 0.355 1.222
Q2 S&P 0.373 1.154
PASSING Q3 S&P 0.012 0.993
EqPts 5.8 16.9 Q4 S&P 1.334 0.862
Close Success Rate 36.8% 61.1%
Close PPP 0.10 0.60 1st Down S&P 1.243 0.544
Close S&P 0.470 1.216 2nd Down S&P 0.889 0.434
SD/PD Sack Rate 0.0% / 0.0% 0.0% / 33.3% 3rd Down S&P 0.838 0.279
Projected Pt. Margin: Arizona State +16.0 | Actual Pt. Margin: Arizona State +34

It is hard to get too much of a read from this game, simply because UC Davis was so overmatched. Only one of ASU's six touchdowns came at the end of a drive that was more than 55 yards long -- their defense was so dominant that they were always getting good field position. UCD's first nine drives finished with a punt; throw in a muffed punt and an ASU kick return touchdown, and this game got out of hand rather quickly. One of every three passing downs pass attempts ended in a sack for UCD; needless to say, if Mizzou suffers the same fate tomorrow night, they're going to get drubbed. But they probably won't.


I just have no idea what to think about this game. The reasons for fearing ASU are quite obvious -- they are fast and aggressive, Vontaze Burfict is a monster (albeit one who disappears for series at a time), and Mizzou's offense just didn't make the grade last week. Still, the Tigers will have an opportunity to win if they avoid mistakes, win in the trenches and win the special teams battle. (That's going to be the case all year, really.) Burfict does disappear a lot, the defensive tackles are vulnerable, and Mizzou does hold an advantage on the defensive line, even without Jacquies Smith. This is going to be an "all the little things" type of game (and I know stat guys aren't supposed to believe in "the little things"), and the numbers back that up. My numbers favor ASU by just 0.8 points, meaning we are looking at a complete tossup. Whoever makes the big plays wins ... and if they come early in the game and the losing team has to start taking chances, then the scoring margin could get pretty large. I'm resigned to the fact that Mizzou might lose this game, but I'm still rather justifiably hopeful.




A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

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.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.