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With Drew Lock at QB against South Carolina, line play and drive finishing will mean the world

Because I'm running a day late with this piece, and because of recent quarterback news, the focus of it has changed dramatically.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

So now we look at last week's game with a completely different story line involved for this week's game. What can the loss to Kentucky (mostly with Maty Mauk at QB) tell us about this week's game against South Carolina (with Drew Lock)?

Kentucky 21, Missouri 13

Confused? Visit the Advanced Stats glossary here.

Basics Kentucky Missouri Nat'l Avg
Total Plays 65 68
Close Rate (non-garbage time) 100.0%
Avg Starting FP 19.6 20.4 29.5
Possessions 10 9
Scoring Opportunities*
3 4
Points Per Opportunity 7.00 3.25 4.82
Leverage Rate** 67.7% 58.8% 68.5%
Close S&P*** 0.574 0.529 0.588
* 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?) Kentucky Missouri
Total 32.1 29.0
Rushing 11.3 11.2
Passing 20.9 17.9
Success Rate (what's this?) Kentucky Missouri Nat'l Avg
All (close) 43.1% 38.2% 41.9%
Rushing (close) 36.1% 32.3% 42.8%
Passing (close) 51.7% 43.2% 40.9%
Standard Downs 47.7% 40.0% 47.3%
Passing Downs 33.3% 35.7% 30.2%
IsoPPP (what's this?) Kentucky Missouri Nat'l Avg
All (close) 1.15 1.12 1.27
Rushing (close) 0.87 1.12 1.06
Passing (close) 1.39 1.12 1.49
Standard Downs 0.90 0.90 1.11
Passing Downs 1.90 1.47 1.80
Line Stats Kentucky Missouri Nat'l Avg
Line Yards/Carry (what's this?) 2.64 3.21 2.84
Std. Downs Sack Rt. 5.9% 5.9% 4.7%
Pass. Downs Sack Rt. 8.3% 5.0% 6.8%
Turnovers Kentucky Missouri
Turnovers 0 0
Turnover Points (what's this?) 0.0 0.0
Turnover Margin +0
Exp. TO Margin Kentucky +0.59
TO Luck (Margin vs. Exp. Margin) Missouri +0.59
TO Points Margin +0
Situational Kentucky Missouri
Q1 S&P 0.641 0.538
Q2 S&P 0.525 0.483
Q3 S&P 0.562 0.509
Q4 S&P 0.593 0.619
1st Down S&P 0.504 0.541
2nd Down S&P 0.507 0.515
3rd Down S&P 0.548 0.524
Projected Scoring Margin: Kentucky by 3.1
Actual Scoring Margin: Kentucky by 8

Hope up front

Granted, the bar was set awfully low, but Mizzou's line moved forward on Saturday by ... well, by actually moving forward occasionally. Mizzou averaged 3.21 line yards per carry; part of that improvement may have been because, even with only one healthy ankle, Russell Hansbrough is still Missouri's best back when it comes to falling forward. His presence, while still limited, might have helped out.

But it wasn't just Hansbrough. We saw that the play-calling included more north-south rushes and fewer of the stretch plays that apparently only a healthy Hansbrough (and maybe last year's line) can operate successfully. Mizzou's overall run efficiency was still terribly lacking -- a 32.3% rushing success rate still meant constant second-and-longs -- but improvement is improvement.

The line already knew it was in need of improvement before Maty Mauk's suspension. Here are some media clips from Monday:

And from the Post-Dispatch:

On Monday, the offensive linemen gathered for what Boehm described as a "heart to heart talk." Through the first month of the season, Boehm has played on a sprained right ankle and Chappell and left tackle Connor McGovern have adjusted to new positions while Crawford and Abeln joined the line as first-time starters. But the group clearly expects better. The Tigers rank last in the SEC in rushing yards per game (108.5) as their top three running backs have averaged less than 4 yards a carry.

"We’re one of the most experienced groups in this building," Boehm said, "and we definitely need to start playing like it."

Now, in protecting a true freshman quarterback, the onus becomes even stronger. South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier is what I like to call a scab-picker -- if he finds a weakness of yours, he's going to pick and pick and pick at it until you give him a reason to stop. It's why South Carolina ran so many screens to Mike Davis two years ago at Missouri; it's why the Gamecocks had a spy on Mauk for most/all of last year's game. They're not going to overthink -- they're going to find what you're not good at and try to exploit it.

South Carolina is going to know that Mizzou passes almost exclusively with Lock at quarterback, and while the Gamecocks aren't amazing at rushing the passer (71st in Adj. Sack Rate), they're not terrible at it. And as Mizzou proved in Lock's only series against Kentucky, they don't always stand up well to the blitz.

You've got to throw that ball away, Drew. You didn't have much time, but you probably had enough to wing it out of bounds.

(It does bear mentioning, by the way, that the first-quarter touchdown pass from Mauk to J'Mon Moore included an absolutely note-perfect blitz pickup by the line and Russell Hansbrough. So it can be done.)

I figure the odds are good that SC will be sending quite a few pass rushers at Lock from the opening snap. It's up to Missouri to make the 'Cocks pay, either in pass protection or in efficient rushing. SC ranks just 102nd in rushing success rate allowed at 47.2%, so ... this is one of those "resistible force vs. movable object" matchups we're getting awfully well acquainted with this season.

As we saw in David Morrison's Snap Decisions feature, Missouri's most effective line, play for play, was the one that will be starting on Saturday: Connor McGovern at LT, Brad McNulty at LG, Evan Boehm at C, Mitch Hall at RG, and Taylor Chappell at RT. Mizzou averaged 5.5 yards per play behind this combination, and while 5.5 qualifies as nothing more than decent ... decent is better than bad. Behind this quintet, Mizzou rushed 14 times for 76 yards (5.4 per carry) and gained 89 yards in 16 passes. At the least, that is competent. And it is the bare minimum of what's required on Saturday.

5 Keys Revisited

Let's look back at last week's five keys and see what they can tell us about not only the UK loss but also the South Carolina game.

1. Nate Brown

I think Nate Brown is Missouri's most important weapon in this game. Assuming Hansbrough is healthy enough to at least get 10-15 carries, the Tigers might not only have a little bit of potential in terms of standard downs efficiency, but Mizzou's run game might actually be effective enough to open up passing opportunities. And Brown has been far more likely to make noise on standard downs than passing downs. Passing downs will be deadly for Mizzou, but if Brown can make just a few plays, which either lead to points or field flippage, then the Tigers could be in good shape.

Brown: 3 targets, 2 catches, 34 yards

Brown made a lovely tiptoe catch on the first play of the game, but like J'Mon Moore, he disappeared after a promising start. Maybe they were both constantly wide open and getting missed by Mauk, but ... I doubt it. Once Kentucky realized it still had little to fear from the Missouri run game -- even the 'good' Missouri runs were gaining, what, seven yards? -- we saw a young, athletic corps of defensive backs blanketing Missouri receivers, especially Brown.

One of the reasons I began to prefer Lock to Mauk was in what happens when the two are surveying the field. It feels like Lock is much more natural in simply going through his progression and finding a throw he can make. And the result of that, I think, is greater ball distribution.

Against Kentucky, his five passes went to five different targets (including one to Brown for a 20-yard gain). And overall, his 25 passes have targeted 11 guys:

  • J'Mon Moore: 4-for-5, 46 yards (9.2)
  • Emanuel Hall: 1-for-5, 9 yards (1.8) -- four of these passes were in Q4 against SEMO
  • Nate Brown: 2-for-3, 41 yards (13.7)
  • Wesley Leftwich: 2-for-3, 34 yards (11.3)
  • Sean Culkin: 1-for-2, 4 yards
  • Thomas Richard: 1-for-2, 4 yards, 1 INT
  • Tyler Hunt: 1-for-1, 78 yards, 1 TD
  • Ish Witter: 1-for-1, 6 yards
  • Eric Laurent: 1-for-1, 4 yards
  • Keyon Dilosa: 1-for-1, -1 yards
  • Russell Hansbrough: 0-for-1

So he's spreading the ball around well (and not only because he's put in time with both the first and second string), AND Mizzou's top two receivers have caught six of eight balls from him for 87 yards. That's exciting.

2. Big plays and glitches

When you've got two dreadfully inefficient offenses, the big plays that do take place are almost doubly important. Both offenses have shown the ability to get far downfield when given open space, and neither offense is finding open space that frequently. If one team breaks off 4-5 gains of 20-plus to the other team's 1-2, that team probably wins.

This makes individual mistakes, turnovers, and random defensive breakdowns deadly. Who's making them, and who's avoiding them?

20-yard gains: Kentucky 7, Missouri 4

Fullback U discussed this on Tuesday. South Carolina has had its own quarterback issues so far this year; three different guys have started and thrown at least 27 passes.

Lorenzo Nunez will start on Saturday; he's averaging 12.6 yards per completion, and we don't really have a good read on his arm yet. We don't know that he can do the things Patrick Towles was able to do on Saturday, flinging nice, tough, intermediate passes over the middle of the field. (Hell, TOWLES isn't always able to do that.) If Spurrier feels semi-comfortable with his passing game, one assumes he'll try to take advantage of the issues Missouri was facing. But that's a significant 'if.'

Meanwhile, two of Missouri's four 20-plus gains came when Lock was on the field. Again, encouraging.

3. Field position

When you've got two dreadfully inefficient offenses, you're going to see a lot of three-and-outs and punts. Missouri appears to have an advantage in the punting game, and that could come in handy here. So could simply moving the chains occasionally. Missouri's averaging a poor 18 first downs per game (105th in the country), and UK's averaging an even worse 17 (114th). If one offense figures out how to crack even 21-22, the field position battle probably flips in their favor.

Average Starting Field Position: Missouri 20.4, Kentucky 19.6

Is "half-dominant" a thing? Because Mizzou was half-dominant in field position. That the Tigers were able to constantly pin Kentucky inside its own 20 -- both because the offense was actually moving the ball a little bit and because Corey Fatony is a phenomenal punter -- was what kept the Wildcats at 21 points. But because Kentucky was able to do the same, and without turnovers, Mizzou's potential advantage wasn't one.

There aren't many games in which both teams have constantly bad field position, but we saw one on Saturday.

And here's where I mention that South Carolina has been an awesome field position team so far, with a 6.9-yard advantage per drive. Barring turnovers -- and with two freshman quarterbacks in action, there will be turnovers -- this might be another game in which neither team is starting from advantageous position very often.

4. Start well ... or at least don't start poorly

The longer this game stays close, the more the odds shift in Missouri's favor, I think. Kentucky could tighten up or take unnecessary risks while Missouri relaxes and makes plays. We saw this pretty clearly in Mizzou's first road game of the year, and we could see it again.

At the same time, an early deficit could be a terrifying thing. If UK breaks a big play, picks off a pass, and goes up 14-0 in the first quarter, for instance, Missouri's offense might not respond particularly well, knowing it cannot score even 14 points very efficiently. The game could get out of hand, just as it could the other way if Missouri goes up early and Kentucky panics.

First 20 minutes: Missouri 7, Kentucky 7
Last 20 minutes: Kentucky 14, Missouri 3

Perhaps Missouri was due a poor finish, just as the Tigers were due a road loss. Regardless, starting with the pass interference call that turned around UK's third drive of the third quarter -- before that call, the Wildcats had 10 snaps and eight yards in the second half -- the Wildcats found a rhythm that Missouri couldn't match.

5. Finish

Football is two different games: the one played when you are on your side of the field, and the one played when you've got the ball in scoring opportunities. An offense good at creating chances can be bad at finishing them, and, more importantly, vice versa. If the return of Russell Hansbrough helps in no other area, giving Mizzou a steadier option near the goal line could be huge. The Tigers have been simply horrific at finishing drives in the end zone, a year after being pretty damn good at it. Barring the blowout scenario above, each offense should have about the same number of scoring chances. The one that actually scores touchdowns wins.

Scoring Opportunities: Missouri 4, Kentucky 3
Points Per Opportunity: Kentucky 7.00, Missouri 3.25

When you create more scoring chances than your opponent, you are supposed to win. Teams that produce one more scoring opportunity than their opponents have won 63% of games this season with an average winning margin of about 4.3 points. Missouri lost by eight because Kentucky turned its three chances into touchdowns while Missouri went TD, punt, FG, FG.

For the season, Missouri now ranks an incredible 125th in points per scoring opportunities (3.0). Only FAU (2.9), Vanderbilt (2.9), and Utah State (2.5) have been worse. Blowing chances means, quite simply, that you need to create more opportunities to win. Missouri isn't creating enough, and the Tigers are damn sure blowing the chances they get. That cannot continue.