1. Fix one leak, spring another
From game No. 4 to game No. 9, Missouri had an absolutely dreadful passing downs offense. Last night, the Tigers didn't. In the second half, Maty Mauk completed passes on third-and-10 (for 11 yards), third-and-8 (for 15), third-and-6 (for 7), third-and-5 (for 21), third-and-7 (for 6, granted), and second-and-11 (for 10). We'll see what the full-game passing downs success rate ends up being, but it was pretty immaculate in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Tigers completely forgot how to finish drives. Mizzou outgained A&M by 246 yards and generated nine scoring opportunities (first downs inside the 40) in 12 possessions while A&M created only six. But A&M averaged 4.5 points per opportunity while Mizzou averaged a paltry 3.8. (The national average is 4.7.)
Two Connor McGovern false starts forced Mizzou to settle for a field goal on its opening drive. An atrocious offensive pass interference call took a touchdown off the board and forced a field goal attempt early in the second quarter. (I was grousing about this call well into the fourth quarter, when Mizzou had a one- or two-possession lead instead of two or three). A terrible decision by Mauk to go deep down the sideline from the A&M 37 was picked off by Armani Watts. And of course, Andrew Baggett got rejected by the goal post on what would have been a game-clinching 49-yard field goal with 5:30 left. Plus, A&M's second scoring opportunity was set up by Eric Beisel losing his balance on a punt block attempt and barreling into Drew Kaser.
Flip the per-opportunity averages -- Mizzou averages 4.5, and A&M averages 3.8 -- and Mizzou wins, 41-23. But Mizzou blew chances; the Tigers also got no luck from bouncing balls. A&M committed three fumbles to Mizzou's zero but managed to stumble into recovering all three. Mizzou had players nearby on all three, and even one recovery would have likely put the game away, especially if it came on one of the two in the second half.
But despite at least one terrible call, despite bad fumbles luck, and despite a wave of annoying procedural penalties (four false starts, two illegal shifts), Mizzou's offense got untracked again for the first time since September, and the defense made the one red zone stop it absolutely had to make with under three minutes left. It's great to prove you are mature enough to handle adversity, even when you create some of it yourself.
Best records in SEC play since the start of last season: Alabama 13-2 Missouri 12-3 Auburn 12-4 Georgia 11-5— Paul Myerberg (@PaulMyerberg) November 16, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, the Lexington Herald-Leader's John Clay wrote probably the most perfect description of Missouri anybody has all season:
Mizzou was the more mature football team. Gary Pinkel's club lacks some important skill sets from last year's SEC East champions, but the Tigers know what's what. They're solid in every area. They don't turn the ball over and they boast a great pass rush. They refuse to flinch.
Granted, procedural penalties don't scream "This is a mature team!", and Maty Mauk indeed threw a pretty dumb interception late in the second quarter. But the Tigers came into the game with infinitely more pressure than A&M -- Mizzou has to win out to win the East, while A&M both was coming off of its biggest win of the season and had no division aspirations -- and played like the looser, more relaxed team. The Tiger defensive front set the tone with both attitude and big plays, and the Missouri offense exploited its advantages far better than A&M's offense did. (It obviously helped that A&M's D was banged up and got even more banged up during the game.)
Mizzou is both a mature team and a mature program at this point. With its worst offense since either 2004 or 2001, the Tigers are 8-2 overall and 5-1 in the SEC East. Yes, it's the East. Yes, the loss to Indiana, ever more baffling, still counts. But following the blowout loss to Georgia, this team reassessed, figured out what it was good at and how it would win games, and broke off a winning streak that currently stands at four games.
Mizzou handled the circumstances, weather, etc., better than a far less experienced A&M team. And while Tennessee is almost certainly a better team than you think it is (we'll get to that), the Tigers are far more experienced than the Vols, too. That, and an extreme advantage on the defensive line, will give them a chance to move to 9-2.
That's a simply amazing thing to say, isn't it? I have hinted at this in recent weeks, and I know PowerMizzou's Gabe Dearmond has said the same, but in terms of in-season coaching jobs, this almost has to be Gary Pinkel's best performance, yes? Midway through the season, Missouri had to come to grips with the fact that it had a quarterback with bad habits who wasn't getting enough help from his receiving corps or his offensive line.
Pinkel had to kick his best player off the team in the spring, and it resulted in every receiver having to punch in a higher weight class than intended. But he and his staff regrouped, crafted a plan for winning, and followed it. And the team leadership, from Markus Golden to Maty Mauk, have executed this new plan to the best of their abilities. Mizzou has to win out to win the East, and the odds don't say that's a very likely thing. But the odds sure as hell didn't say "8-2!" after the Indiana and Georgia losses, either. Never tell Gary Pinkel the odds. He's busy defying them.
3. Hello again, big plays
We know Marcus Murphy can outrun a bunch of defenders given even half a step. We've seen Russell Hansbrough do the same, albeit less frequently. We've seen Bud Sasser race down the sidelines, we've seen Jimmie Hunt carve past defenders in the middle of the field, we've seen Darius White torch defensive backs up the seam.
We just hadn't seen much of these things in quite a while. After living off of big plays in the opening weeks, the spigot got turned off around the trip to Columbia, S.C. Mizzou had some awful big-play rushing numbers, and the passing game basically consisted of 11-yard passes, incompletions, and one or two intermediate catches by Sasser.
Granted, A&M's defense is a shadow of itself at this point (and its original self wasn't amazing), but it was still a monkey-off-your-back experience watching Mizzou's skill position players running free again. Sasser caught a 28-yarder, Hunt caught balls of 26 and 27 yards, and White made an acrobatic 21-yard catch. Those aren't 40-yard explosions or anything, but ... Russell Hansbrough provided those on the ground. No. 32 had runs of 33, 45, and 49, and the only thing that stopped his two long touchdown runs from being longer was the goal line. He broke tackles, split linebackers, burst through arm tackles, and took the ball to the house. It was wonderful to see.
Throw in a career performance from Ish Witter, and you've got the best performance from Mizzou's skill position corps since non-conference play. Again, A&M's defense stinks. Yes. I'm in no way trying to tell you Mizzou's offense is BACK!!! and will dominate from this point forward. Tennessee's defense is incredibly underrated, so these good feelings might only last a week. But damn, does it feel good to get reminders that play-makers can make plays.