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Missouri's offense isn't good with Drew Lock at QB, but it will be

Derrick Forsythe / Rock M Nation

Missouri 24, South Carolina 10

Confused? Visit the Advanced Stats glossary here.

Basics Missouri South Carolina Nat'l Avg
Total Plays 70 64
Close Rate (non-garbage time) 100.0%
Avg Starting FP 26.0 34.1 29.6
Possessions 11 10
Scoring Opportunities*
4 5
Points Per Opportunity 6.00 2.00 4.72
Leverage Rate** 68.6% 59.4% 68.2%
Close S&P*** 0.526 0.519 0.583
* A scoring opportunity occurs when an offense gets a first down inside the opponent's 40 (or scores from outside the 40).
** Leverage Rate = Standard Downs / (Standard Downs + Passing Downs)
*** When using IsoPPP, the S&P formula is (0.8*Success Rate) + (0.2*IsoPPP)
EqPts (what's this?) Missouri South Carolina
Total 28.3 26.9
Rushing 16.3 12.2
Passing 12.0 14.7
Success Rate (what's this?) Missouri South Carolina Nat'l Avg
All (close) 41.4% 34.4% 41.4%
Rushing (close) 45.0% 30.0% 42.3%
Passing (close) 36.7% 38.2% 40.5%
Standard Downs 41.7% 44.7% 46.9%
Passing Downs 40.9% 19.2% 29.7%
IsoPPP (what's this?) Missouri South Carolina Nat'l Avg
All (close) 0.97 1.22 1.26
Rushing (close) 0.91 1.35 1.07
Passing (close) 1.09 1.13 1.47
Standard Downs 0.90 1.19 1.10
Passing Downs 1.15 1.34 1.78
Line Stats Missouri South Carolina Nat'l Avg
Line Yards/Carry (what's this?) 2.90 2.72 2.82
Std. Downs Sack Rt. 5.9% 0.0% 4.9%
Pass. Downs Sack Rt. 7.7% 21.1% 7.1%
Turnovers Missouri South Carolina
Turnovers 0 3
Turnover Points (what's this?) 0.0 10.7
Turnover Margin Missouri +3
Exp. TO Margin Missouri +0.15
TO Luck (Margin vs. Exp. Margin) Missouri +2.85
TO Points Margin Missouri +10.7 points
Situational Missouri South Carolina
Q1 S&P 0.508 0.413
Q2 S&P 0.687 0.582
Q3 S&P 0.487 0.538
Q4 S&P 0.423 0.550
1st Down S&P 0.431 0.574
2nd Down S&P 0.485 0.606
3rd Down S&P 0.538 0.321
Projected Scoring Margin: Missouri by 12.1
Actual Scoring Margin: Missouri by 14

One step

Success Rate: Missouri 41%, South Carolina 34%
Leverage Rate: Missouri 69%, South Carolina 59%

It's an annual tradition. For the third time in four years, Missouri has found itself reassessing its offense in October and trying to figure out what it actually does well.

There have been clear, extenuating circumstances each time, of course. In 2012, the offensive line was ravaged by injury and the starting quarterback was alternating between hobbled/ineffective and out. In 2014, the offensive line was struggling to gel, and the receiving corps was suddenly without two-thirds of its starters and relying on an inefficient quarterback. And now, in 2015, the offensive line has again struggled to gel, the only proven skill position player got hurt on his first touch of the season, the receiving corps is hilariously young, and the inefficient quarterback has been replaced by a true freshman.

This year's lows have been the lowest yet. Yes, from a raw data perspective, Missouri's woeful three-game stretch against ASU, UConn, and Kentucky (299 yards per game, 4.4 yards per play) couldn't match that of last year's South Carolina-Georgia-Florida stretch (182 yards per game, 3.4 yards per play), but Georgia and Florida actually had good defenses. ASU and Kentucky don't, and UConn's is only average.

So when you see that Missouri's offense ranks a tragicomic 124th in Off. S&P+, that's pretty much why. That, and the Tigers' performance against South Carolina was far from magnificent itself.

But efficiency is the foundation for any offense's success, and on Saturday Missouri showed some semblance of efficiency for the first time all year. With the aforementioned true freshman at quarterback.

Good offenses are both efficient and explosive. And in insisting on the former, Mizzou got absolutely none of the latter on Saturday. But inefficiency affixes a pretty hard ceiling to your offense. You can't beat defenses consistently until you've figured out how you're going to gain four or five or six yards with regularity. Missouri had the run game to get away with some pass inefficiency in both 2012 and 2014; before Saturday, the Tigers simply didn't have that this year. But against South Carolina, Missouri was actually able to run a little bit, and while the pass efficiency still wasn't up to par, it was at least typically gaining three to four yards instead of zero. And that meant that the Tigers were fare more capable of keeping their freshman quarterback out of passing downs (69% of snaps on standard downs) than the Gamecocks were (59%). That makes a world of difference.

And yes, the current S&P+ rankings suggest that Missouri might not win another game this season. I consider that a warning; if Missouri's offense doesn't improve, the Tigers are doomed. But while Missouri did not have a good offense on Saturday (South Carolina's defense isn't awful, but it's not great, and Missouri managed just national-average efficiency with no explosiveness whatsoever), we indeed saw clear, definable improvement.

This is the annual October rebuild. You have to take the first step before you can take any more. But Missouri will have to take quite a few more if the Tigers want to continue playing into December. We saw last year that this is far from impossible, but this is the biggest hole we've seen the offense dig for itself under Gary Pinkel.

It wasn't all about staying on schedule, though

Passing Downs Success Rate: Missouri 40%, South Carolina 19%

Strangely, what happened Missouri fell off schedule might have been most encouraging. Avoiding passing downs is the surest route to success, but if you've got play-makers who can dig you out of holes, you can build significant margin for error. And after Mizzou's first six snaps on passing downs generated just 14 yards and a 17% success rate, the next 10 generated 84 yards and a 70% success rate.

One of Josh Henson's more underrated strengths as offensive coordinator has been the ability to steal back yards on second-and-long. And once he started to work runs back into the play-calling, Mizzou started stealing once again. Each of the first six passing downs plays were passes (including two to Russell Hansbrough), but during 7-for-10 stretch in the second and third quarters included five rushes by running backs (for 33 yards) and a six-yard keeper by Lock on third-and-5. In part because of the play-calling, a second-and-14 turned into a third-and-5, and a second-and-16 turned into a third-and-7, both of which were converted.

That Mizzou faced, by my count, nine second downs of 10 or more yards reminds us that this still wasn't a wonderfully efficient offense. But the combination of Lock and Henson was able to figure out ways to catch back up to the chains. In terms of Mizzou's future prospects, that's outstanding to see.

If you're efficient, you can bail yourself out on passing downs, and you can carve out chunks of yards via big play, you have one hell of an offense on your hands. Mizzou was completely devoid of that third one, but we began to see good things in steps 1 and 2 there.

Ball distribution

Since it does seem like Lock goes through more reads than Maty Mauk (which is part of why he occasionally doesn't escape the pocket fast enough), I figured the ball would be pretty well-distributed on Saturday. We saw that to a degree, at least.

Player (Pos.) Targets Catches Yards Yards/Tgt Target Rt.
Jason Reese (TE) 8 6 47 5.9 29%
Nate Brown (WR) 7 6 33 4.7 25%
Wesley Leftwich (WR) 4 2 13 3.3 14%
J'Mon Moore (WR) 3 2 19 6.3 11%
Russell Hansbrough (RB) 3 3 9 3.0 11%
Cam Hilton (WR) 1 1 9 9.0 4%
Clayton Echard (TE) 1 1 6 6.0 4%
Ray Wingo (WR) 1 0 0 0.0 4%
WRs 16 11 74 4.6 57%
TEs 9 7 53 5.9 32%
RBs 3 3 9 3.0 11%

I was actually a little surprised that the number of targets was at eight instead of 10 or so, but that's not that far off. And ... man. I'd have loved for somebody ... anybody ... to take one of those short passes and take off, just as visual verification that it can actually happen..

Five Keys Revisited

Let's look back at the five keys from last week's preview.

1. The trenches ... my goodness, the trenches

It appears both defenses hold the advantage in the trench battles, but whichever offensive line is able to better prevent damage will be giving its team a potential advantage. Both in run blocking and pass protection, the story will be told up front.

This is the most important aspect of this game ... but I can't think of anything else to say here. It's just obvious.

Line Yards per carry: Missouri 2.90, SC 2.72
Passing downs sack rate: Missouri 7.7%, SC 21.1%

There were still quite a few negative runs, but Mizzou's offensive line stats were better than South Carolina's.

2. Turnovers

Turnovers always matter, yes, so it's a bit of a cop-out to put it here. But here's why I'm doing it: both teams have excellent punters, and both punters will probably get used quite a bit. In theory, this has the potential to become what last week's game against Kentucky became -- a pin 'em deep contest where neither team is able to consistently derive a field position advantage. UK's average start was inside the 20, but Mizzou couldn't take advantage because the Tigers were starting in almost the same spot.

That makes turnovers, and the field position advantage they derive, enormous. In a game with two freshman quarterbacks, there will be turnovers. Granted, they could be of the arm-punt variety, but they could also flip the field and create easy scoring chances. In a game that features just a 42-point over-under (which seems dramatically high to anyone who's watched Mizzou this season), easy points and good field position could be enormous.

Turnover points margin: Missouri +10.7

Mizzou picked off one pass at its 2 and returned another one to the SC 31. I don't know, do you figure that might have made a difference in a 14-point win?

3. The first two possessions

Mizzou is expecting upwards of 68,000 in attendance for this one, and despite the early kick time and a couple weeks of demoralizing offense, the switch to Lock will, fairly or unfairly, give a bit of life to the crowd. When his face pops up on the jumbotron during starting lineup intros, there will be a noticeable, somewhat awkward (since Mauk could be starting again next week for all we know) pop. And if the Tigers can drive down and score some early points, that could result in sustained buzz from the crowd.

But if Lock comes out and throws a pick or Mizzou goes three-and-out a couple of times ... buzz gone. Mizzou can win without a hot start, but you don't want to have to attempt that with a young guy in his first start. A hot start could both build a cushion for a couple of funks later in the game and keep the crowd into it.

Mizzou's first 2 drives: 14 plays, 51 yards, 7 points
SC's first 2 drives: 7 plays, minus-6 yards, 0 points

Mizzou didn't win the game in the first two drives, but that second possession, which finished in Lock's sexy touchdown pass to Nate Brown, certainly kept the crowd very much engaged, even as the Gamecocks came back to tie the game at 10-10 in the second quarter.

4. Finishing

Mizzou has been awful at it. That cannot continue if the Tigers want to reach a bowl this year. The end.

Points Per Scoring Opportunity: Mizzou 6.0, SC 2.0

As I wrote on Sunday, this was probably the single biggest key of the game.

In all, Mizzou's offensive play when out of the shadow of its end zone -- Gary Pinkel acknowledged that Mizzou was all sorts of conservative deep in its territory, especially after the Tigers built the second-half lead -- was exciting.

Mizzou began just four drives beyond its 25-yard line, but in those four drives the Tigers produced 21 points, 5.1 yards per play, and a whopping 50% success rate. There is a very good reason for keeping the Drew Lock Offense shackled up to a certain degree (both of which happened, er, almost happened despite the conservative play-calling) -- his near-safety sack in the first half and near-pick six in the second were certainly clear reminders of that -- but for the rest of this season I'm guessing we start to see more and more glimpses of what a really good Missouri offense might look like in 2017 or, if we're lucky, 2016.

5. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Lorenzo Nunez has made only one start (and it was against a semi-awful UCF team that was able to make stops for most of the first half) and Drew Lock has made none. Missouri's is the best defense Nunez will have faced for 60 minutes, and South Carolina's is the only one Lock will have faced for that long.

To put that another way, some random, unexpected stuff is going to happen. Maybe one of the QBs catches fire and throws/rushes for five touchdowns. Maybe one throws five picks. Maybe one (or both) gets sacked eight times. We can talk about the things we know -- iffy line play, decent secondaries, etc. -- but what we don't know will account for a lot in this game, with such unknown circumstances.

Drew Lock: 75% completion rate
Lorenzo Nunez: 3 interceptions

Lock did nearly throw a pick six on a telegraphed pass, and there were plenty of instances where it didn't seem like everyone was on the same page. But Lock made fewer freshman mistakes than Nunez did, and Mizzou won because of it.