1. Missouri is not going to win the national title in 2014
Sorry, didn't mean to shock you with that downer news.
Listening to the grumbling in the stands and perusing the grumbling on the Internet, Isomething became clear yesterday. Actually, it's been clear for a while, I guess, but it crystallized pretty well again on Saturday. Every game Missouri (or any other team) plays is an internal referendum of where Missouri is, was, and will be heading.
Only beating a bad Vanderbilt team by 10 is a sign that Missouri isn't heading in the right direction, that Missouri might not win another game this year, that the offense is forever doomed, etc. We draw conclusions in this regard despite all recent evidence that it doesn't work this way. The 2011 season didn't warn us what was going to happen in 2012. 2012 didn't drop hints about 2013. Hell, September 2013 didn't portend too much about October 2013, nor did the first three weeks of this season lead us to understand what the next six weeks would bring.
We want every week to be a referendum, but really, every week is just a week. And all we know with absolute certainty this year is that Missouri isn't going to win the national title. The Tigers also aren't going to be staying home for the holidays.
In the present tense, Missouri's offense is still sketchy, and its defense is still good. We hoped to see a fantastic performance, and we only saw a decent one. The offense wasn't terrible like last week (5.6 yards per play is easily Missouri's best average since the Indiana game), and the defense was certainly just fine (4.0 yards per play is good against anybody) but didn't have the same level of disruptive, destructive output as the week before in Gainesville.
Draw whatever conclusions you want, but in the end, Missouri won again. With their worst offense since perhaps 2001 (and perhaps best defense since ... the 1960s? 1970s?), the Tigers are 6-2 overall and 3-1 in conference. They have a bowl bid sewn up before November. It might be their last win of the year, and there might be quite a few more on the horizon. I'm not incredibly optimistic, but who cares? Missouri won on a beautiful -- too beautiful, actually ... it got pretty stuffy in the stands -- Homecoming afternoon, scored when it had to, and made stops when it had to, the Tiger Stripe looked pretty in the stands, Missouri won, and then we all enjoyed a pretty evening for a while and went home. We'll start the dance again next week against a Kentucky team that is coming off of its best performance of the year. It won't be a referendum either.
2. Maty Mauk got no help from his supporting cast (until that final pass)
It is hilarious how much scorn we heap on the starting quarterback. People behind us yelled, "COME ON, Maty!" both after Sean Culkin dropped a perfectly thrown pass and after a linemen committed a false start.
Mauk got almost no help yesterday. Culkin dropped an easy ball, and Bud Sasser dropped another. He was sacked twice, and one came as he was trying to step into a pass to his first read -- he was brought down about 0.3 seconds after the snap. (Okay, slight exaggeration.) His line committed four false starts (three from Taylor Chappell), and his receivers were almost never getting separation. Darius White was hurt again. Mauk played his best game since Indiana and finished 11-for-23 for 141 yards and two sacks (5.3 yards per pass attempt). But hey, he was 10-for-22 for 116 yards until Sasser snared a beautiful 25-yard lob, and got both feet down inbounds, for the game-clinching score.
And hey, he did still have Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough on his side. The run game still has next to no big plays in the chamber, but it was efficient as hell; Hansbrough and Murphy rushed 35 times for 180 yards, which results in a per-carry average of 5.1 yards -- not great overall, but damn impressive considering there wasn't a single 20-yard rush to plump up the averages. They also caught three passes for 27 yards, including a 17-yarder on third-and-5 that helped to set up a field goal attempt and a 17-yarder that helped to set up Mizzou's first touchdown.
Drawing weekly conclusions might be a mostly useless exercise, but I think it's safe to say this receiving corps isn't suddenly going to become more athletic, at least not until White can find a magic pill for his hamstring issues. (Note to Darius: DON'T LOOK FOR MAGIC PILLS. YOU'LL GET SUSPENDED.) And even then, it's not going to suddenly become one of the better units in the SEC. The offense is grinding and trying to figure out answers, and the Tigers got verification that they can indeed run the ball efficiently yesterday. That's one plus, at least. And when the game suddenly got tight and they needed another score to put the game away, they got another score. So the news definitely isn't all bad. But I actually felt bad for Mauk for most of the game, and not only because he was getting blamed for his jumpy linemen.
3. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy
One thing Vanderbilt did very well yesterday: make Missouri pay for its aggressiveness. The Commodores don't have the play-makers to kill Mizzou with deep balls or anything, but they did draw three offsides penalties (two from Shane Ray and one from Markus Golden), all in pass rush situations. Ray jumped on third-and-5 and second-and-9, and Golden jumped on third-and-10.
Vandy kept the Tigers' most explosive defensive weapons on their heels with varied snap counts, and it not only handed them 15 free yards, it also helped to keep them (and the rest of the Missouri defense) away from Johnny McCrary. McCrary showed some nice elusiveness as well. In the end, Mizzou still got two sacks and seven tackles for loss -- Matt Hoch was magnificent with 2.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks, and Harold Brantley added one TFL and a half-sack -- but Vandy gave itself a fighting chance by figuring out how to neutralize Ray (no TFLs, one hurry) and Golden (one TFL).
Their jumps were symptomatic of a problem Missouri had all game. The Tigers were averaging only 6.3 penalties per game and had committed more than eight just twice in seven games but committed 14 for 100 yards. That the yardage total isn't too high shows you that these weren't huge personal foul or pass interference penalties, but those penalties are actually signs of aggressiveness that can otherwise pay off. A lot of Missouri's penalties were the procedural kind that hint at general sloppiness and disorganization. Vandy committed just five penalties and clearly derived a bit of an advantage from simply being more in control and organized. Considering their youth, that's a good thing to see from the Commodores.
This hasn't been a season-long issue for Mizzou by any means, but it certainly was yesterday. (It was against Indiana, too.)
4. Next up: Kentucky
Kentucky is not as good as it played yesterday -- actually, let me rephrase: the Wildcats' baseline is lower than the level they established yesterday -- and is now coming off of a humbling blowout loss to LSU and a near-upset of No. 1 Mississippi State. They're young and hungry and flawed, and Missouri will try to beat them with a controlled game of sorts: field position (good again yesterday), finishing drives (less good), ball control (run efficiency!), etc.
Kentucky's passing game has been pretty volatile, and it showed yesterday; quarterback Patrick Towles threw for 390 yards against MSU (completing passes to 10 different players), but with a 56 percent completion rate and six sacks. They're infinitely more aggressive than Vanderbilt, and that could pay off for either Kentucky or Missouri. We'll see. Missouri will be favored and deserves to be, but the Tigers will need to handle their business better than they did yesterday.