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Missouri 31, Tennessee 3: Beyond the Box Score

Tennessee missed a lot of open passes on Saturday, but they were probably open for a reason: Missouri knew the Vols would struggle to hit them. The Tigers seem to have mastered the art of giving you what they know you can't take.

Bill Carter

Confused? Visit the Advanced Stats glossary here. Or just skip to the words. I won't be offended. (Okay, I'll only be a little offended.)

Missouri 31, Tennessee 3

Vols Tigers Vols Tigers
Close % 69.7% STANDARD DOWNS
Field Position % 36.4% 34.2% Success Rate 50.0% 47.5%
Leverage % 60.5% 69.0% PPP 0.48 0.57
S&P 0.981 1.047
EqPts 28.5 45.9 PASSING DOWNS
Close Success Rate 39.5% 46.6% Success Rate 23.5% 44.4%
Close PPP 0.39 0.69 PPP 0.25 0.94
Close S&P 0.784 1.153 S&P 0.482 1.387
EqPts 9.2 29.1 Number 3 0
Close Success Rate 37.5% 50.0% Turnover Pts 11.3 0.0
Close PPP 0.46 0.66 Turnover Pts Margin -11.3 +11.3
Close S&P 0.834 1.165
Line Yards/carry 2.96 4.17 Q1 S&P 0.744 0.825
Q2 S&P 0.933 1.371
PASSING Q3 S&P 0.735 0.928
EqPts 19.3 16.8 Q4 S&P 0.901 0.621
Close Success Rate 40.7% 40.9%
Close PPP 0.35 0.72 1st Down S&P 0.969 0.872
Close S&P 0.754 1.133 2nd Down S&P 0.925 0.948
SD/PD Sack Rate 0.0% / 0.0% 0.0% / 7.7% 3rd Down S&P 0.423 1.241
Projected Pt. Margin: Missouri +28.7 | Actual Pt. Margin: Missouri +28

1. Letting them do what they can't do

Last week, my guy Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall wrote a really interesting piece about Michigan State's defense. Here's part of it:

Their philosophy was designed for this level of football. […]

The nature of this approach to pass coverage invites three particular throws from the offense: the quick out to take advantage of the linebackers' inside leverage, a go route up the seam matching a dangerous slot receiver with a safety, and the deep fade down the sideline against the press corner.

The latter play is one that Michigan State loves to see, as it's generally a low percentage throw for collegiate offenses. The vertical-minded Brian Kelly and his Notre Dame Fighting Irish threw endless fade routes against the Spartans and were rescued only by a cascade of pass interference flags flying from the officials' hands. Most opponents have not been so lucky. […]

All in all, the Spartans are designed to be strong against everything college offenses are good at and vulnerable only to plays which college offenses rarely execute with consistency. They invite deep sideline fade routes into minuscule windows. "By all means, waste a down!" They encourage drives based on hitting short out routes or back shoulder hitches with limited yards after catch, or deep throws on well leveraged safeties. They clamp down on the run and option games and swallow up the quick hitting inside routes that all collegiate quarterbacks can throw.

Now, Michigan State's defense is better than Missouri's. There's no question about that. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that Gary Pinkel's philosophy is similar. And really, while he says he got everything from Don James, I think he probably really did get this from James because you see similar things from Nick Saban's philosophy as well (only with five-star athletes). Missouri seems very much willing to leave the deep corner passes open. It will occasionally burn them (think of the breakdowns of 2008 and 2009), but for the most part it doesn't because opponents can't make that throw with regularity.

This is a terrible example for a Mizzou blog, obviously, but this reminds me a lot of Kansas' basketball defense. Every time teams lose to Kansas, they think "We missed so many open shots! We beat ourselves!" But those shots were open for a reason: KU knew you couldn't hit them. Occasionally someone will get hot, but ... there's a reason why KU's FG% defense is off the charts almost every single year.

I mention this, of course, because there were quite a few near misses in the Tennessee passing game on Saturday. Joshua Dobbs seemingly had guys open along the sidelines, 20-25 yards downfield, quite often, but he almost never connected on those passes. That's probably at least somewhat by design. Missouri will adjust if it has to, but for the most part it hasn't had to in 2013.

Really, this "leave open what they can't exploit" idea makes sense when combined with the concept of leverage that we've heard of so often in the Pinkel tenure. Missouri wants to force you to move to certain areas of the field where they have the most defenders. To take something, they have to give something. And Tennessee most certainly couldn't take what Missouri was willing to give.

(Now, some of this was indeed luck. On Tennessee's lone field goal drive, freshman Josh Smith straight-up dropped an easy post route that would have been either a touchdown or stopped inside the 5.)

Really, this secondary reminds me quite a bit of the 2010 Missouri secondary, which featured little in the way of star power but was steady as all hell. Guys like Randy Ponder, Braylon Webb, and Matt White are far from amazing but are steady and (mostly) disciplined. And while E.J. Gaines is obviously a star, he also missed most of three games recently. But when you combine steadiness in the secondary with a pass rush that wears QBs down even when not making sacks, you've got yourself a hell of a pass defense.

2. Explosiveness > Efficiency

In terms of prediction and evaluation, explosiveness (PPP) is worth a bit more than efficiency (success rates). Safe to say, that certainly played out in this game, in which Missouri and Tennessee were pretty close in terms of success rates but Mizzou made just about all of the big plays. Tennessee had three gains of 20 yards or more, Mizzou had six, and Tennessee committed three turnovers. And Mizzou won by 28.

3. Can't stop everybody

Here are Mizzou's intended touches (targets + carries)

Player Rushes Targets/Catches Intended Touches & Yards
Henry Josey 16 for 74 16 for 74 (4.6)
Maty Mauk 13 for 114 13 for 114 (8.8)
Marcus Murphy 8 for 44 8 for 44 (5.5)
Marcus Lucas 4-for-7, 75 7 for 75 (10.7)
Russell Hansbrough 7 for 61 7 for 61 (8.7)
L'Damian Washington 3-for-7, 45 7 for 45 (6.4)
Morgan Steward 6 for 32 6 for 32 (5.3)
Dorial Green-Beckham 1 for 3 2-for-4, 22 5 for 25 (5.0)
Greg White 3 for 11 3 for 11 (3.7)
Bud Sasser 0-for-3, 0 3 for 0 (0.0)
Jaleel Clark 1-for-1, 12 1 for 12
Darius White 1-for-1, 6 1 for 6
Levi Copelin 1-for-1, 3 1 for 3

L'Damian Washington wasn't amazing. DGB, Bud Sasser, and Jimmie Hunt combined for 28 total yards. But Marcus Lucas had a lovely night, the three-headed running back (31 carries, 179 yards) eventually broke through, and Maty Mauk showed off his wheels quite a bit. You can slow down a few of Missouri's options; it's really, really difficult to cut them all off. Only one team (South Carolina) has come close, but Missouri damn near beat the Gamecocks, too.

4. Cutting off the reliable options

The top three guys on Mizzou's Intended Touches list above averaged 6.3 yards per intended touch. The top three guys on Tennessee's list averaged 4.4. Ball game.

Player Rushes Targets/Catches Intended Touches & Yards
Pig Howard 11-for-18, 89 18 for 89 (4.9)
Marquez North 7-for-11, 68 11 for 68 (6.2)
Rajion Neal 8 for 12 2-for-2, 4 10 for 16 (1.6)
Marlin Lane 6 for 39 6 for 39 (6.5)
Joshua Dobbs 5 for 60 5 for 60 (12.0)
Johnathon Johnson 3-for-3, 38 3 for 38 (12.7)
Jason Croom 2-for-3, 32 3 for 32 (10.7)
Josh Smith 1-for-3, 9 3 for 9 (3.0)
Tom Smith 3 for 4 3 for 4 (1.3)

Joshua Dobbs had to feed Alton Howard and Marquez North frequently (and inefficiently) to get them going, and two running backs who had a pretty good day against Missouri last year (Neal and Lane) combined for 55 yards. On down the list, there were some successes -- Dobbs ran well (though he probably wasn't allowed to run much thanks to that whole "only QB on the roster" thing), Johnson and Croom had their moments, and Josh Smith was allotted a couple of big opportunities (and dropped passes), but Tennessee's four go-to guys did next to nothing.

5. Reviewing the keys from Friday's preview

The Tennessee Run. Again, Lane and Neal combined for 55 yards on 14 carries. Advantage: Mizzou.

What did Maty learn? A decent amount, I guess? Mauk threw far fewer dangerous passes, and while he is still prone to escaping the pocket the long way from time to time, he stepped up far more frequently on Saturday (and found some running lanes as a result). It's easier to do that when your opponent doesn't have Jadeveon Clowney. Regardless, Advantage: Mizzou.

Special teams. Michael Palardy bombed in a 51-yard field goal, Andrew Baggett hit another upright, Palardy pinned four punts inside the Mizzou 20, and Tennessee's Devrin Young had a couple of decent kick returns. This was certainly Advantage: Tennessee, but the Vols needed an even bigger advantage here.

Mizzou vs. the Hangover. The offense was far from sharp early on. No question about that. But the defense made enough plays that the score was still 0-0 when the offense began to get rolling. The Hangover landed some blows, but Mizzou won the round. Advantage: Mizzou.

Three of four. Winner, winner. On to Kentucky.