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Film Room: Examining Mizzou's first half defense vs South Carolina

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Mizzou played some of it's best defense and set the tempo for the game in the first half vs South Carolina, giving up only one touchdown. I took a closer look at the significant plays, what happened in them and why.

On many of the images, if you hover over them you'll see a yellow button with a play or star symbol in it that should bring up a GIF of the ensuing play.

First Quarter

South Carolina's first drive was sweep left for minimal gain, wildcat right for minimal gain, short pass for four yards, then a Kentrell Brothers tackle for no gain on fourth down to force a turnover on downs.

4th and 1

Great start to a game and great start for Kentrell Brothers, who has been lost in the shuffle with Michael Scherer leading the SEC in tackles and the defensive line of Shane Ray, Markus Golden, et al eating up all the headlines.

When I saw this play live I turned to my buddy and told him I felt like teams just don't respect Mizzou on 4th and short. Perhaps that's because I'm just an irrational fan or recency bias, but it felt damn good to have the first series of the game have a signature play like this. I think it also helped set the tone for the way South Carolina ran the ball and the way Mizzou played on defense.

3rd and 5

(Hover)

South Carolina's third drive, on 3rd and 5, South Carolina tries to run crossing routes, but two wide receivers run into each other and Kentrell Brothers steps up to tackle Pharoh Cooper for a gain of only 2 yards, forcing a field goal. Mizzou benefits from sloppy play by South Carolina but I'm convinced Brothers would have been there regardless to make the play.

South Carolina's fourth drive starts at their 23 yard line. On first down Brandon Wilds gains 5 yards before being tackled by Kentrell Brothers. They complete a pass to their tight end, but there's a false start, then an offensive pass interference and now South Carolina is facing 3rd and 18.

Obvious screen pass situation right? Even Brad Nessler says "might be a screen pass or something".

3rd and 18

(Hover)

It's our old friend Harold Brantley dropping off the defensive line, combined with Shane Ray completely ignoring the right guard and applying direct pressure to Dylan Thompson, preventing him from looking deep or even trying to dump off the to the running back.

Kentrell Brothers is lying in wait and makes the initial stop, after which defensive end Charles Harris and corner Kenya Dennis clean up.

Second Quarter

First drive of the second quarter begins with a massive sack by Matt Hoch that puts South Carolina way behind the sticks, but on second down Mike Davis picks up about 8 yards on a run off the right guard. It's at this point that I notice Markus Golden doesn't look incredibly explosive both in his jump at the snap or his chase down of Mike Davis. 3rd and 12 is a sack by Shane Ray lined up next to Markus Golden.

1st and 10

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Second drive for South Carolina begins with a Mike Davis run at the left guard for almost no gain, in part because they are running at Shane Ray and in part because Mizzou walks a linebacker blitz to the line.

This is the point where you probably noticed Eric "Zeus" Biesel is in the game (along with Marcus Loud). Is that part of the reason South Carolina's offense comes to life? Maybe. The first down run doesn't seem to work, but as we'll see below, Thompson can take advantage of a less effective pass rush and manipulate the linebackers more.

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South Carolina picks up a first down through the air when Dylan Thompson find wide receiver Damiere Byrd open in the middle. Mizzou rushes 4 but can't get pressure against 5 lineman and Mike Davis.

Zeus Biesel (I'm only calling him this from now on) is put in a tough position and makes a rookie mistake, exposing the space behind him to cover the running back coming out of the backfield - although Ian Simon probably could have been shading a little more to the inside. This is exactly Dylan Thompson's favorite route, that's something you have to pick in player meetings.

Ian Simon makes a play near the line of scrimmage on the next down, setting up one of the coolest plays and one that we'd felt need to happen. We got a hit on Dylan Thompson.

2nd and 5

Nessler incorrectly says Scherer and Biesel get pressure but it's actually Donavin Newsom and Zeus Biesel blitzing past both sides of the left tackle - who barely even gets a hand on Zeus.

Thompson is looking for a wide receiver out of their bunch formation on the right side - also of note is Markus Golden peeling off the line to cover the running back in the flat.

Let's look at that again, for science.

Unfortunately, HBC calls a QB keeper that gains exactly enough yards to convert the first down on 3rd down, Thomas Wilson tries tackle him before the conversion but to no avail. The ensuing deep bomb to Dameire Byrd is out of bounds by (thank goodness!).

Thompson completes a pass to the left side and Aarion Penton goes for the big hit instead of the sure tackle. Nessler calls for Spurrier to go for it (on 3rd down) and Thompson runs it up the middle to convert.

1st and 10

(Hover)

Thompson fakes the handoff to Brandon Wilds but by the time it's done the play is over.

Lined up next to Ray is Harold Brantley and they both crash down through the guard hole while Lucas Vincent loops around and meets the fullback to provide backup in case. Markus Golden fakes outside then rips back inside once he sees the play is going away from him, meanwhile Donavin Newsom bites on the fake but it works out since Thompson can't take advantage of the space he vacates.

Ray smokes the left tackle inside while Brantley fakes inside to draw the guard a step out of position before ripping back inside. This clears the way for Ray to turn on the jets and sack Thompson for a loss of 9 yards. One final note, John Gibson can be seen playing tight coverage on his man and he because he gives him a free release to the inside it's a blown coverage, very fortunate that Shane and Co. apply such immediate pressure.

Shane Ray is fast becoming unblockable. This was his second sack of the game and his 8th of the season.

Shane Ray is fast becoming unblockable. This was his second sack of the game and his 8th of the season.

South Carolina tries to run an option pitch to the right side, it takes advantage of Markus Golden's up field pursuit but Duron Singleton sets the edge while Braylon Webb and Zeus Biesel come crashing down on Mike Davis. Gain of only about 4 yards.

3rd and 14

(Hover)

Play calling down for the defense. Dave Steckel picks "Blitz"

The design of the blitz is pretty common but allow me to explain - Golden and Harris come hard up the field while Ray and Brantley penetrate the gaps between the guards and the center. Shane Ray damn near gets to Thompson on his own even through the guard/center combo block. Brothers and Zeus blitz into the gaps created by the tackles having to retreat so far back.

Thompson gets spooked a bit and has to reload his throw, which throws his mechanics all off, resulting in him putting it in the dirt instead of the hands of Nick Jones who's actually open because Ian Simon is too far off his man coverage.

Basically, Mizzou didn't think Dylan Thompson had enough poise to stand in the pocket and make that throw, particularly after taking a big hit earlier in the drive.

Last drive of the first half

South Carolina's final drive before the end of the first half resulted in their first touchdown. How did it happen?

First down was a halfback draw to Mike Davis for three yards, after which Brad Nessler literally describes him as "5'9" 225 lbs of gristle" ...so that's now a "thing".

Second down was a pass to the tight end Anderson on an underneath crossing route to pick up 3 yards. Both plays were tackled pretty promptly.

3rd and 3

On 3rd and 3, South Carolina ran an option to the right side, we saw them do this last series.

Markus Golden penetrates too far up field and Shane Ray stunts inside so both DE's are out of the play from the start. South Carolina's right tackle and tight end release to the second level, taking out Michael Scherer and Darvin Ruise.

To this point South Carolina had only converted 3 of 9 third down attempts. Having a third and short situation really opened up their playbook and we already knew Mike Davis is dangerous in space. Mizzou was fortunate to bottle him up for just a moderate gain.

It's now 1st and 10 at Mizzou's 41 yard line

In David Morrison's Game Rewind article, he ponders one of life's most mysterious questions:

South Carolina waited until 1:53 left in the first half to run its first halfback screen. Why? I do not know. But, on a 1st-and-10 at the Missouri 41, the line gave way and the Tigers crashed through. Davis slipped behind and nobody was home. Guard A.J. Cann covered Kenya Dennis to get Davis more room, and Scherer was a step slow getting off his blocking wideout. Davis went 24 yards before going out at the Missouri 17.

[...]

South Carolina ran three halfback screen for 44 yards in the span of four plays at the end of the half. Then largely abandoned it the rest of the game. Why? I do not know.

1st and 10

Missouri has just called a timeout and the announcers are openly speculating that the timeout actually benefits Spurrier more than Mizzou.

The ensuing screen goes for.ev.er.

(Hover)

Defending the screen begins with recognition. That's grade school stuff, but it's just as important. The problem is, running a screen on 1st and 10 is pretty tough to recognize until the ball is snapped, this isn't 3rd and long with the offense anticipating the pass rush - this is a play calling down with the offense anticipating defensive tendencies.

The other aspect of it is taking on and getting off blocks. The reason the screen works so well is it forces the defenders to think out in space, where time is even more critical. They have to be aware of their surroundings and the ball carrier, which means when they see the blocker come to them they need to take it on and funnel the ball back toward other defenders. At the same time they need to be able to disengage if the runner comes near them. Both of these things mean getting outside leverage on the blocker, just like with offensive/defensive line play.

Expecting the corners or safeties to be able to reliably do this versus lineman is about using speed and vision to set up the blocker to be in a poor position, but once you're engaged you need the full body strength to prevent being swallowed up in the block. The upper body strength is necessary in order to gain leverage to one side and shed the tackle, the lower body strength to drive the feet and prevent from being pushed backwards.

I'm inclined to think that the reason our secondary is poor(er) at playing screens, especially to the outside, its concurrent with the fact we don't teach press coverage to our corners. We teach our secondary to read and react, take angles and allegedly how to tackle. We aren't teaching them the finer points of leverage and hand fighting and shedding blocks. If only we had more time and more coaches to set aside for specifically that task.

Watch the GIF again, both Scherer and Duron Singleton blow up the man responsible for blocking them. That's awesome. Sure it mean Mike Davis ran past them but it also means they're embracing taking on those blocks. If Scherer or Singleton is a half step faster this play is a 5-6 yard gain instead of 24 yards. That's not an excuse but it's a sign of improvement and an indication of why the coaches like Scherer so much, he's smart, instinctual and willing.

At the same time, Mike Davis is a really good running back, and really good at moving in space.

Very next play

1st and 10 the finale

(Hover)

Any of the positive of the previous play probably go right out the window on the touchdown run from Mike Davis.

The defensive line all slants right. Clarence Green, the linebacker in the yellow box, is on the line of scrimmage. In front of him are two tight ends. If the run goes left, it's probably contained by either the defensive end Charles Harris, either of the linebackers (you see the left guard comes up to meet Brothers at the second level) or the cornerback Aarion Penton who doesn't really have anyone to guard.

But Mike Davis reads the blocks and sees that Clarence Green has crashed down the line, opening up the whole right side of the field. Michael Scherer goes head first into the line of scrimmage and Braylon Webb doesn't read the field well and gets blocked out of the play which means it's Mike Davis one on one with air for the first ten yards. Dylan Thompson is actively looking for someone to block. Ian Simon tries to come up to meet Davis but a stutter step puts him out of position and then the right side of the field is wide open for the touchdown.

I'd like to note that Kentrell Brothers, who'd already had a pretty good game, takes on the left guard, sheds the block and pursues Mike Davis all the way across the field to the goal line. Shane Ray is right behind him. That's Markus Golden hustle folks.

As to why Spurrier only called 1 screen in the first half, I have no idea. Perhaps he was saving them in his back pocket. It certainly worked the one time he used it

Alright, that was the first half. Check back tomorrow for a thorough scrutiny of Mizzou's second half defense vs South Carolina.