The season is a third over, and Missouri is on pace for a 3-9 record.
Not exactly what everyone had in mind entering the season.
As the bye week memories fade and Kentucky approacheth, I’ve gotten all reflective on what the major issues have been with the Tigers thus far and what I, simple scribe that I am, can do to help out.
Totally unsolicited by anyone who matters or doesn’t, I’ve come up with five issues to probe, what the effects of those issues are and my best shot at a solution to them.
These “fixes” might seem pretty obvious, and I have every confidence that the Missouri coaching staff — being trained, paid coaches as they are -- have probably already gone through at least some of the thought process on some version of these (Try new dudes?!?! We never thought of that!!!!!!). But, then again, sometimes there’s resistance to solutions that seem like common sense.
Anyway, here it goes. There’s no guarantee any of this would work. It might even make things worse.
But...you know...honestly not that much further down to go at this point.
Problem: The Pass Game is Too Predictable
- Missouri is completing only 49.5 percent of its passes for 198 yards a game and a 3:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio against FBS teams this year.
- Opposing defenses are clamping down on the outside and slot receivers, forcing Drew Lock to go to second and third reads.
- As a function of the offense, Lock has not been asked to do too much field-reading. So this is an issue.
Possible Solution: #TightEndPassGame
Bet you never thought you’d see that coming from me, huh? Missouri is targeting its tight ends 15.8 percent of the time this season, down from 18.3 percent last year. In games against FBS competition, that number drops down to 14.1 percent.
Overall this year, Lock has a higher rating when throwing to the tight end group (173.28) than outside receivers (147.67), inside receivers (137.97) and running backs (141.49). In Josh Heupel’s 16 games as offensive coordinator, Missouri has targeted the tight ends more than 20 percent of the time on seven occasions: against Missouri State, Auburn, Eastern Michigan, Georgia, Middle Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina (last year).
The Tigers have averaged 343.1 pass yards a game in those seven, 250.9 pass yards per game in the nine others. Yes, Jason Reese and Albert Okwuegbunam showed some concerning drops against Auburn, but it’s time to unleash the beasts, man!
Problem: The Defense is Tired
- Missouri’s offense holds the ball for an average of 21:31 a game this year, which is last in the FBS by a good 2:28. That means the Tigers’ beleaguered defense has been left on the field for 64.2 percent of games.
- Further, that means, over the course of only four games, Missouri’s opponents have held the ball for 67:50 longer than the Tigers this year. That is MORE THAN AN ENTIRE GAME LONGER.
- And it could be worse. Missouri opponents are running 75 plays per game against the Tigers this year, or 1.95 per minute of possession. The remaining eight teams on the Tigers’ schedule average 2.17 plays per minute, or about 8.5 more plays per game. Or, given Missouri’s average propensity the give up yards, the potential to give up about 51 more yards per game. You think 452.5 yards allowed per game looks bad? Try 503.5.
Possible Solution: Slowwwwwwwwwwww Dowwwwwwwwwwwwwn
Just until you can figure out a little better what’s going on with the offense and get it halfway functional again. As people have pointed out (ad nauseam...) pace in and of itself isn’t a bad thing.
Baylor/Clemson/Texas Tech/Washington State/Oregon/Oklahoma/people like that have used and continue to use pace to put up obscene numbers on defenses. When the yards and points aren’t coming, pace just means the offense leaves the field quicker. And the defense is left footing the bill.
You can be a high-play volume team and still hold the ball. Of the 35 teams who run more than 75 plays a game so far this year, only 11 of them hold the ball for less than 30 minutes a game. Shoot, even Washington State and Mike Leach are beating their opponents in average time of possession, 33:37-26:23. The Cougars are running 2.42 plays a minute. Missouri is running 3.08. Why? Even Baylor’s only running 2.69 plays a minute, y’all. Slow. Down.
Not all the time. Just some of the time. Maybe turn some of those 45-second three-and-outs into 1-minute, 45-second three-and-outs. Then it gives your defense a better chance at a stop, then you can get back on the field, then try to maybe gas them again.
Problem: The Defensive Line is Ineffective
- This year, Missouri’s defensive ends and tackles are averaging a solo tackle every 32.1 snaps, a total tackle every 17.7, a tackle for loss every 84.7 and a sack every 169.4.
- That pales in comparison to the production the Tigers’ linemen put up in their recent glory years. From 2013-15, linemen averaged a solo tackle every 23.3 snaps, a total tackle every 12.7, a tackle for loss every 53.9 and a sack every 114.9.
- That’s a drop in production of 38-39 percent in the tackle categories and in the 47-59 percent range in tackles for loss and sacks.
Possible Solution: Linebackers...Engage!
Missouri needs to start making more plays in the backfield that the line simply is not generating. So, if the front four guys aren’t making those disruptive plays, start sending players from the second level that can. Yes, that will open you up to more explosive plays when opposing defenses beat those blitzes. Yes, you’re already ranked 115th in the nation with 14 opposing plays for 30 or more yards this year already. So what do you have to lose?
Terez Hall leads the team with 4.0 tackles for loss this year. Blitz him more. Cale Garrett has proven to be an effective run stuffer and far less effective in coverage. Get him moving forward and leave Kaleb Prewett and the safeties to make up for him. Yes, it creates different problems for the defense, but at least try generating more carnage on the front end and see if that doesn’t lessen the burden on the back end a little.
As far as actual line personnel: play Nate Anderson and Rashad Brandon (if he’s healthy) some more. Anderson has played only 14 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and logged a tackle for loss every 21.5 snaps. Brandon has played about 35 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and is tied with Marcell Frazier for the lead among all linemen with 2.5 tackles for loss...in only 47 percent of the snaps Frazier has logged this year.
Problem: Missouri’s Defense is Big-Play Central
- The Tigers rank 90th in the FBS in 20-plus-yard plays allowed, 115th in 30-plus plays, 105th in 40-plus plays and 120th in 50-plus plays.
- One in every 13 plays Missouri has faced this season has traveled 20 yards or more. One in every 18.2 runs has gone 20 yards or more, one in every 14.8 pass ATTEMPTS (not completions) has netted 30 yards or more.
- Missouri has given up more than half as many 10-plus-yard plays (53) as it has forced plays for 0 or fewer yards (90).
Possible Solution: Play Your Secondary in a Prevent
I’m kidding. Kind of.
But seriously, if playing teams straight up with smatterings of aggression is yielding this many boom plays due to missed tackles, poor positioning and the such, get super vanilla. Not even vanilla. Sheet of paper.
Unless you’re guarding the down marker on a third down or something, plant the cornerbacks 10 yards from the line and have them running up on plays. Have the safeties 20 yards from the line and make them act like they’re guarding that one dude in youth basketball who always leaked into the backcourt while your team was shooting free throws. Do not let him behind you. For the love of everything holy.
I would suggest personnel changes in the secondary but, if the first four weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the Tigers are only really comfortable with two corners (DeMarkus Acy, Logan Cheadle), four safeties (Thomas Wilson, Anthony Sherrils, Ronnell Perkins, Cam Hilton) and a nickel (Prewett) playing any sort of meaningful snaps right now. So stick with those guys. Stick them far from the line of scrimmage. Tell them to break on routes in front of them quickly but conservatively.
And tell them to wrap up. Try turning some of these 15-yard gains into 8-yard gains and 35-yard gains into 18-yard gains.
Problem: Punt Return...all of it
- Inability to accurately gauge and catch punts.
- Missouri has returned only three of the 19 punts opponents have sent their way this year, for a total of 2 yards. Two more of those punts went for turnovers on muffs, four went for fair catches and seven landed inside the 20.
- Opponents’ 42.7 net punting average against Missouri would rank ninth in the nation, were they a team unto themselves.
Possible Solution: Try New Guys...Guys You Haven’t Tried Before
Missouri tried Johnathon Johnson. That didn’t work.
It tried Richaud Floyd. Didn’t really work either.
In 2015, the Tigers tried Hilton. Didn’t really work either.
Marcus Murphy is not walking back through that door. Why not think outside of the box and try someone completely fresh? Maybe a former rotation receiver who, because he missed all of fall camp, no longer factors into the depth there but is super speedy? Ray Wingo’s still on the roster.
How about another speedster who is perpetually hovering on the periphery of the cornerback depth but managed to be the Tigers’ most consistent kickoff returner of 2015 (a truly disastrous year for kickoff returns, but still)? Finis Stribling’s still around.
The point is, maybe if you put a guy back there whose only real job is returning punts, who is hungry to prove his worth to the team, maybe it will reap dividends. Plus we return to the doctrine on the defensive front here. It can’t really get much worse. Why not try something somewhat new to try and make it better?