Missouri managed the field yesterday better than you'll almost ever see. It bought the Tigers some time even as UCF was defining the game exactly as it wanted to.
Not including the one-play "drive" before halftime, in which Maty Mauk was sacked and Missouri simply decided to head into the locker room, the Tigers had just three possessions in the first half. Two were touchdowns, and they had the lead because of it, but UCF's gameplan was both obvious and executed for quite a while. The Knights wanted to swallow the ball, shrink this game to an absurd degree, and, in theory, wear Mizzou's defense down with dinks and dunks.
It didn't work, however, in part because of how Mizzou was dominating field position. For the game, Missouri's average drive started at its 39, and UCF's started at its 26.
I mentioned in my book, Study Hall, last year that teams with a plus-12 or greater advantage in starting field position won 94 percent of their games in the 2012 football season. It's just hard to make up the difference when you're dinking and dunking, especially when the dinking and dunking isn't working incredibly well. UCF was moving the chains just enough to rile up the fans around us -- "COME ON, Steckel, you BUM" was something we actually heard yesterday in the stands, because it's evidently 1954 again -- but the Knights weren't actually getting anywhere.
The Knights had more success than you would like on third-and-long early on -- a 27-yard, how-was-that-not-intercepted completion to Josh Reese on third-and-19, an 18-yarder to Breshad Perriman on third-and-12, a 16-yarder to J.J. Worton on third-and-16 -- but in the second half, they were just 1-for-5 on third dows with more than two yards to go. And even on the drives with those three big conversions, they managed only 10 points.
UCF scored a touchdown after an interception set them up at Missouri's 31; otherwise, the Knights' average starting field position was their 24.2, and in averaging just 4.0 yards per play, they weren't able to actually un-tilt the field.
Missouri didn't panic when it couldn't keep the offense on the field; the Tigers didn't start taking unnecessary defensive risks after a few third down conversions. They simply tackled well, took their time, and waited for their opportunity. And when Josh Augusta tipped and picked off a pass near midfield and Bud Sasser caught a 21-yard touchdown pass four plays later, the floodgates opened.
All of UCF's hard work went for naught when Mizzou went up by more than one possession in the third quarter. The Knights' smart, reserved gameplan went out the window; they had to start taking a few chances, and Missouri began to light up poor Justin Holman. UCF went three-and-out after Augusta's pick, and Mizzou scored again. Then their final three possessions went fumble, interception, fumble. They tried to steal a late score off of Missouri's backups, so the Tigers brought the starters back in, obliterated Holman a few more times, then scooped up a fumble and scored to make it a 28-point win.
For the first 2.5 quarters, Missouri was in no way four touchdowns better than UCF. But despite the low number of returning starters, this is clearly a very mature team. It seems to already have a pretty good idea of what it does and doesn't do well, and it stays patient. Maty Mauk's one mistake (the first-quarter interception in which he saw Jimmie Hunt breaking open deep about a half-second too late) allowed UCF to keep plodding away and trying to make it a one-score game heading into the fourth quarter. But the Tigers' depth and perfect field position management kept UCF at bay. And when the Tigers got a bounce their way, they used it to hit the accelerator. It was a brilliant example of game and field management.
(And it didn't hurt that Mizzou had the two best players on the field in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. But we'll get to that in a bit.)
"Of course we were frustrated," Sasser said. "As this offensive group, we want to put up a lot of points, get out there and showcase what we got."
"It was a little unusual first half," Gary Pinkel said. "We had trouble getting off the field on defense and then offensively, got a couple scores but really, throw an interception which put them in great field position and then we killed the clock at the end. Just really unusual, I don't ever remember having two drives in a half.
"It really played into what they wanted to do. I think that was their plan."
On a third-and-12 from the Missouri 23 in the second quarter, Holman hit Breshad Perriman for an 18-yard gain. On a third-and-16 from the Tigers’ 45 later in the period, J.J. Worton hauled in a 16-yard pass to keep the offense on the field.
That drive ended in a missed field goal, but it’s still the sort of thing that sticks in a coach’s craw.
"Those should be slam dunks in terms of getting off," Pinkel said. "There’s no slam dunks, but those should be well in your favor.
"When you do that, what it does to your team psychologically, you’ve got to battle through that."
Faced with a 2nd and seven from his own 44, UCF quarterback Justin Holman dropped back a few steps and rocketed a pass towards the far sideline.
Just as the ball left his hand, Missouri defensive lineman Josh Augusta reached up and swatted the pass high into the air. While the surrounding offensive linemen searched frantically for the ball, Augusta was tracking it, watching as it slowly made its descent back to earth. Hellbent on finishing the play, the 6-foot-4, 300-pound behemoth leaned slightly to his right and leaped into the air to haul in his first career interception.
Just like that, the Tigers had their spark.
"What a great play he made," Pinkel said. "We had the tallest guy on the field had to jump up on the field and get that—and he did. I don't even know how he caught that, but it just changed the whole momentum of the game… That was one of those plays that was kind of a game-changing type play."
"I was going for one of my stunts and I saw the quarterback get ready to throw, so I jumped and put my hands up," Augusta said. "It hit off the O-lineman’s helmet and I saw it go up. I just went up there to go get it."
Augusta tracked the carom as it cartwheeled downfield and lept to snag it with his bear-like paws for one of the most athletic interceptions you’ll see a defensive lineman make.
"That type of play right there gets everybody going," said senior wide receiver Jimmie Hunt, who caught two first-half touchdowns. "That’s what we need to fuel the fire."