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UCF at Missouri Preview: Tigers have the edge, but watch the big pass plays

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Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE

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UCF at Missouri

Record AP
Rank
F/+ Rk S&P+ Rk
Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
UCF
0-1
28 34 24 60
Missouri 2-0 20 15 21 39 27

Projected Score: Missouri 32, UCF 24 (72% chance of winning)

For the second straight week, Missouri faces a team better than its last opponent. Last week, the Tigers showed significant improvement, beating Toledo on the road worse than it had beaten South Dakota State at home. Now, the reigning Fiesta Bowl champions come to Columbia.

UCF is certainly without a few of its most memorable offensive pieces from last year's BCS bowl run -- quarterback Blake Bortles, running back Storm Johnson, three all-conference offensive linemen. But as we've discussed this week, the skill positions are still loaded with talent and experience, and a lot is expected from a defense that returns nine starters. Mizzou is projected to win this game basically seven times out of 10, but the Tigers will certainly have some questions to answer on both sides of the ball.

Speaking of win probabilities, by the way ... I gave a weekly look at those probabilities in last year's BTBS previews, so let's do the same here. Here are Missouri's chances of winning each of the remaining games on the schedule, according to the F/+ ratings:

Vanderbilt (92%)
Kentucky (86%)
Indiana (82%)
Arkansas (81%)
UCF (72%)
at Tennessee (71%)
at Florida (60%)
Georgia (57%)
at South Carolina (39%)
at Texas A&M (31%)

Mizzou rose to 15th in the F/+ rankings after last week's performance, which is the primary reason why some of these odds rose from last week.

When UCF Has The Ball…

NOTE: The stats below are not the "+" stats that are adjusted for opponent because two weeks into the season (or, in UCF's case, one game), opponent adjustments are pretty much worthless. But keep that in mind, especially as you look at the rankings below. They don't mean a whole lot.

ACTUALLY, ONE MORE NOTE: Below, I'm also using IsoPPP instead of PPP, as I have used in the past. For more on IsoPPP, click here. The idea was to create an explosiveness measure that is separated from Success Rate, an efficiency measure. It basically asks, "When a team is successful, how successful are they?" It measures the magnitude of the big plays, and I love it ... but early in the season, a very small number of big plays can skew things pretty dramatically.

OKAY, FINE, ONE MORE: Keep in mind when you look at these numbers that Success Rate carries more weight than IsoPPP. Before the size of the successful play matters, you have to have successful plays. When I come up with an effective way to incorporate IsoPPP into my overall S&P+ formulas, Success Rate will likely carry 70-85% of the overall weight of the formula. If you can be good at either Success Rate or IsoPPP, you're going to choose Success Rate.

Standard Downs
UCF Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 71.0% (19th)

Success Rate 22.6% (126th) 38.7% (60th) MU big
IsoPPP 1.76 (2nd) 1.07 (109th) UCF big
Rushing Success Rate 13.6% (127th) 29.7% (30th) MU big
Rushing IsoPPP 1.96 (1st) 1.62 (126th) UCF big
Passing Success Rate 44.4% (70th) 52.0% (102nd) UCF
Passing IsoPPP 1.61 (9th) 0.60 (24th) push

Obviously we don't have a very big sample size with these stats yet, but at the very least we get an idea for what UCF wanted to do with the ball against Penn State. Even without injured starting running back Will Stanback, the Knights wanted to run the ball on standard downs to keep the pressure off of their young quarterback(s). They opened things up a bit more, perhaps out of necessity, when Justin Holman took over at QB in the second half, but their rushing numbers were pretty awful. Dontravious Wilson had a 16-yard carry against PSU (which results in the artificially high IsoPPP numbers above), but his other 20 carries netted him 18 yards. Stanback is probably an improvement over Wilson, but not that much of one.

Meanwhile, Missouri's numbers look about as you would think: perfectly efficient with a big-play problem on the ground. That's what happens when your one big run play allowed against SDSU goes for 75 yards, and when Toledo rips off a couple of 30+ yarders as well. There is some justifiable concern regarding Mizzou's big-play defense -- and with the number of sophomores in the back seven, it makes some sense that this would be an issue -- but part of this is a small-sample issue that should work itself out.

Targets & Catches
Breshad Perriman: 3 targets, 2 catches, 72 yards (24.0 per target)
J.J. Worton: 3 targets, 2 catches, 52 yards (17.3)
Josh Reese: 1 target, 0 catches
Justin Tukes (TE): 1 target, 0 catches

UCF was committed enough to the run that when the Knights did pass on standard downs, Penn State was caught a bit off-guard. Standard downs targets went 4-for-8 for 124 yards, 31 yards per completion. Mizzou hasn't really had much of an issue with big pass plays to date -- SDSU had some solid gainers, but Toledo really did not -- but UCF will test the Tigers, perhaps significantly, in this regard.

Passing Downs
UCF Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 25.0% (83rd)

Success Rate 44.4% (70th) 20.0% (32nd) MU
IsoPPP 1.61 (9th) 0.94 (38th) UCF
Rushing Success Rate 0.0% (111th) 11.1% (31st) MU big
Rushing IsoPPP N/A 0.87 (37th) N/A
Passing Success Rate 26.7% (89th) 22.2% (40th) MU
Passing IsoPPP 1.88 (13th) 0.95 (37th) UCF

Targets & Catches
Perriman: 5 targets, 1 catch, 9 yards (1.8 per target)
Reese: 4 targets, 2 catches, 47 yards (11.8), 1 TD
Worton: 3 targets, 3 catches, 31 yards (10.3)
Dontravious Wilson (RB): 2 targets, 2 catches, 11 yards (5.5)

UCF's next successful run play on passing downs will be its first. But that's okay because the Knights are probably going to wing the ball around on passing downs, at least until Markus Golden, Shane Ray, and the Mizzou pass rush give them a reason not to. They weren't very successful at it against Penn State, but the successful plays they had were pretty significant.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense UCF Defense Advantage
SD % Run 69.3% (20th)

Success Rate 51.1% (28th) 50.0% (111th) MU big
IsoPPP 0.87 (71st) 0.67 (35th) UCF
Rushing Success Rate 47.5% (36th) 41.7% (81st) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.60 (101st) 0.40 (12th) UCF big
Passing Success Rate 59.3% (16th) 55.9% (114th) MU big
Passing IsoPPP 1.35 (20th) 0.80 (54th) MU

I wouldn't have guessed that Missouri was running quite that much on standard downs, but here we are. Mizzou has been as efficient as we would hope on the ground, but the big plays haven't really existed yet. We know that Marcus Murphy is explosive, and we've seen enough big plays from Russell Hansbrough to assume that their time will come. But it hasn't yet. And that's alright, as the big pass plays have picked up the slack.

Targets & Catches
Darius White: 7 targets, 6 catches, 108 yards (15.4), 2 TD
Marcus Murphy: 6 targets, 5 catches, 48 yards (8.0)
Bud Sasser: 5 targets, 5 catches, 82 yards (16.4), 1 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 5 targets, 3 catches, 22 yards (4.4), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 5 targets, 2 catches, 23 yards (4.6)
Wesley Leftwich: 1 target, 1 catch, 5 yards

On standard downs, Maty Mauk is 22-for-29 for 288 yards and four touchdowns. It is in these situations, when the opponent is keeping an eye on the run, that Mizzou has aimed for explosiveness, and Mauk has targeted Darius White more on standard downs than anybody else.

Meanwhile, UCF had a bit of a standard downs efficiency problem against Penn State. The Knights prevented big plays for the most part (so while Hansbrough is likely to come up with some long runs at some point, it probably won't happen on Saturday), but they got pushed around up front. That was a problem last year, it was a problem against Penn State, and it will probably be a problem on Saturday.

Passing Downs
MU Offense UCF Defense Advantage
SD % Run 17.2% (114th)

Success Rate 34.5% (38th) 23.5% (57th) push
IsoPPP 1.75 (11th) 2.34 (124th) MU big
Rushing Success Rate 20.0% (70th) 0.0% (1st) UCF big
Rushing IsoPPP 0.64 (95th) N/A N/A
Passing Success Rate 37.5% (38th) 26.7% (64th) MU
Passing IsoPPP 1.88 (13th) 2.27 (118th) MU big

Look at that run-pass ratio! Thus far on passing downs, Josh Henson has basically said "Go make a play, Maty." When James Franklin was the quarterback, there was more of an emphasis on staying on schedule and keeping things in third-and-manageable. So far, Henson has trusted Mauk significantly, allowing him to wing the ball around when the pass rush is coming at him. We'll see if that changes when the defenses get better.

Targets & Catches
Hunt: 10 targets, 6 catches, 80 yards (8.0 per target), 1 TD
Sasser: 3 targets, 2 catches, 76 yards (25.3), 1 TD
Leftwich: 2 targets, 1 catch, 5 yards (2.5)
White: 1 target, 1 catch, 44 yards, 1 TD
Murphy: 1 target, 1 catch, 13 yards, 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 1 target, 1 catch, -3 yards
Culkin: 1 target, 0 catches
J'Mon Moore: 1 target, 0 catches
Lawrence Lee: 1 target, 0 catches
Ish Witter (RB): 1 target, 0 catches

UCF didn't give up many big plays against Penn State, but the ones the Knights allowed were huge -- a 79-yarder and a 41-yarder to Eugene Lewis, passes of 27, 38, and 44 yards to DaeSean Hamilton. Maty Mauk usually looks to simply move the chains on passing downs, which is good for keeping the sack rates low, but the first two games of the year suggest he'll be looking downfield for Bud Sasser or Darius White at least a couple of times, and early results suggest those guys might be open. UCF had a very good secondary in 2013, so maybe the Penn State game ends up being an outlier. We'll see.

Summary

So here are the key factors:

1. Count the big plays

UCF made some big plays through the air against Penn State, and Mizzou has allowed some big plays, especially on the ground, so far this year. If this becomes an efficiency battle, Mizzou wins it. The Knights need to make more big plays (and make bigger big plays) than they allow, and they're capable of doing that.

2. "Third-and-7, Mauk back to pass..."

So far, Mizzou has passed relentlessly on passing downs, daring opponents to get to Maty Mauk before he finds an open receiver. I'm very curious what happens in that regard against a UCF team that can be pushed around up front but has speed to burn. Does Josh Henson go all-in on the pass again, or does he throw some more runs into the equation, at least on second-and-long? If the pass rates continue, can UCF make Mizzou pay for the bravado?

3. Run efficiency

This goes for both sides of the ball. Both teams want to establish the run on standard downs, and both have been airing the ball out on passing downs. With the quality of these teams' respective pass rushes, I assume that both teams won't be successfully passing on passing downs, which means the first-down run becomes awfully important. Who's staying on schedule, pounding out five to six yards on first down? Who's facing more second-and-9s?

4. Finish

Mizzou was certainly better than Toledo last Saturday, but the final score was dramatically in Mizzou's favor because the Tigers finished drives in the end zone, and Toledo often did not. I think Missouri's the better team on Saturday, too, but whether drives are finishing in field goal attempts or touchdowns (or turnovers of some sort) could either inflate or deflate the Tigers' advantages. Always be closing, et cetera.

*****

The projections say Mizzou 32-24, and I assume that if Mizzou finds enough advantages to win by eight, the Tigers probably end up winning even more comfortably than that (if that makes sense). My gut says something in the 38-21 neighborhood, but we'll see. UCF only needs a couple of big pass plays and a couple of third-down stops to make this game an even affair.

Here's to being 3-0 on Saturday afternoon...