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2015 Citrus Bowl: Minnesota's defensive front is decent and battle tested

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Consider this your Sunday live thread.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Trench battles have quite obviously been important to Missouri this year (and every year). If we look only at the four line matchups -- Minnesota's run blocking vs. Mizzou's defensive front, Minnesota's pass blocking vs. Mizzou's pass rush, Mizzou's run blocking vs. Minnesota's defensive front, Mizzou's pass blocking vs. Minnesota's pass rush -- we know that the first one is a potential tossup and the second one skews in Mizzou's favor.

The Gophers rank a strong 16th in Adjusted Line Yards. Among Mizzou's 2014 opponents, that ranks behind only Alabama (first) and Arkansas (fifth). Mizzou held up pretty well against those opponents (at least until the Alabama game fell into garbage-time status)s, but the Gophers are even more committed to the run than Arkansas. If you're capable of wearing down over 60 minutes, Minnesota will try to wear you down. [...]

First, Minnesota will keep right on running the ball on passing downs until it has no other option. Mizzou will have to guard against the draw play, but when Leidner does drop back to pass, he's looking downfield. Dump-offs are few and far between -- Cobb has only seven passing downs receptions, and the top five passing downs targets (including Williams) are averaging almost 17 yards per catch. But they also don't catch a high percentage of balls ... and Leidner gets sacked. A lot. There are pluses and minuses to having a fullback play quarterback.

So what about the matchups when Mizzou has the ball?

Adj. Line Yds SD LY/carry PD LY/carry Opp. Rate Power Succ. Rt. Stuff Rate
Missouri offense 111.7 (32nd) 2.96 (63rd) 3.48 (48th) 42.0% (37th) 77.4% (13th) 21.5% (93rd)
Minnesota defense 112.6 (24th) 2.74 (40th) 2.69 (25th) 38.2% (59th) 65.8% (53rd) 21.6% (36th)

Last season, with a tremendous duo of Ra'Shede Hageman (a second-round draft pick of the Falcons) and Roland Johnson at defensive tackle, Minnesota ranked 58th in Adj. Line Yards and 11th in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line). This year that has flipped. The Gophers don't make as many plays in the backfield without Hageman (who had 13 TFLs last year), but Cameron Botticelli has had a lovely season (9 TFL, 3 sacks), and a solid set of linebackers and ends have flowed to the ball well. Minnesota ranked 55th in overall Rushing S&P+ last year and improved to 41st this year. The overall depth and athleticism is better this year, and that has helped them more than cope for the loss of Hageman.

We saw late this year that, while Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Henson has no problem putting the game on Maty Mauk's shoulders at times, if the Tigers can run well, Henson will call plenty of runs. Mizzou's run rates skewed run-heavy during the Tigers' six-game win streak, and while Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy weren't able to break off tons of big plays (Indiana and A&M games aside), they were efficient. And they are among the nation's best in short-yardage situations. (Minnesota is not.) If Missouri's offensive line can do its job well in Orlando, and if Mizzou wins this even-on-paper matchup, it's going to be very difficult for the Gophers to win this game.

The good news for Minnesota: Missouri isn't going to be able to do anything on the ground that the Gophers haven't seen in the last three games. Minnesota finished the season facing Ohio State (first in Rushing S&P+), Nebraska (21st), and Wisconsin (10th). The results weren't that great for the Gophers: OSU's J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott rushed 34 times for 284 yards, and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement rushed 36 times for 240 yards, though Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah managed just 98 yards in 20 carries. Still, they're battle tested, and while Missouri's run game has its moments, it isn't as good as that of those three teams.

Perhaps the last category above is the most important: stuffs. Minnesota isn't quite as good at them this year, but the Gophers are still top 40 in the category; Missouri is 93rd. The breakdowns slowed up for Mizzou in the second half of the season, but overall, one in every five run plays finished in the Mizzou backfield. That put Mauk into too many second- or third-and-long situations. He started to convert those more again at the end of the year, but it's never going to be easy to beat a good team when asking your QB to convert tons of third-and-7s.

If there's good news here, it's that Mauk should at least be able to get the pass off, no matter the down and distance.

Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Missouri offense 120.8 (42nd) 4.4% (61st) 5.2% (29th)
Minnesota defense 79.2 (100th) 4.6% (64th) 5.2% (106th)

Minnesota has seven players with at least 2.0 sacks and none with more than 4.0. Briean Boddy-Calhoun and the Gopher secondary are good enough to force you into some coverage sacks at times, but this is not a fearsome pass rush, particularly on passing downs. There's always a chance the Gophers find a weakness on film and exploit it, a la Indiana, but on paper the advantage goes to Mizzou in the battle to keep Mauk upright.

So basically, in the four line matchups, two appear to be in Mizzou's favor, and the two more important ones appear to be tossups. If Mizzou is able to win at least one of those two -- Minnesota's run blocking or Missouri's run blocking -- then the Tigers will likely hold the advantage overall. But that's far from a given.