First, the good news: we don’t know what we think we know about this Missouri team yet. Last Saturday’s loss to South Carolina looked familiar enough — hell, it was basically a repeat of last year’s loss to South Carolina, only with a slightly different variety of red zone failures and special teams breakdowns — that it’s been hard for Mizzou fans to avoid jumping to conclusions.
Those conclusions may end up proven correct. But we don’t know what we think we know.
Two games just isn't enough to tell us. Hell, three isn't, either.
- In 2007, we thought Missouri had an excellent offense and an absolutely miserable defense. Despite scoring 78 points, the Tigers needed turnovers to avoid catastrophe against both Illinois and a bad Ole Miss. But when the non-conference switch got flipped, the Tiger defense went from allowing 24 points to Western Michigan in the third game to allowing 23 points per game in the prolific Big 12.
- In 2008, we thought Missouri had it all. It didn't.
- In 2009, we thought Missouri had all the pieces necessary for another Big 12 North run. Blaine Gabbert had torched Illinois, and the Tigers allowed just 29 total points in their first two games. But Gabbert's injury and Mizzou's collapse against Nebraska completely redefined the season. The Tigers started 4-0 and finished 8-5.
- In 2010, we thought we had a 2009 repeat on our hands. Gabbert struggled in a tighter-than-expected win over Illinois, and in the third game against SDSU, an awful Gabbert was bailed out by a Moe Miracle.
- In 2011 ... we were right, more or less. Mizzou was volatile and young and had a volatile, young season.
- In 2012, following an easy win over SE Louisiana and a competitive, exciting loss to Georgia, we thought Mizzou might be just fine in the SEC. But James Franklin got hurt, the offense struggled, the defense altered between great and terrible (depending, in part, on Sheldon Richardson’s level of engagement), and Mizzou finished bowlless for the first time in eight years.
- In 2013, following a win over Murray State and a comeback win over Toledo, we thought Mizzou was fine but flawed. We were underselling things just a bit.
- In 2014, after wins over South Dakota State (38-18), Toledo (49-24), and even UCF (38-10) in the third game, this looked like another excellent, prolific Mizzou team. In the fourth game, Mizzou lost to Indiana. In the sixth game, Mizzou got destroyed by Georgia at home. Aaaaaaaand in the 12th game, Mizzou won the SEC East. This season had three defined acts. Two games in, the first act wasn't even done yet.
- In 2015, we were a little bit concerned about the offense after a 34-3 win over SEMO and a 27-20 win over Arkansas State. Russell Hansbrough and Evan Boehm were hurt, and things didn't quite look right. We had no idea.
- In 2016, we thought things might be looking up. Mizzou lost to WVU but gained a million yards against EMU and needed a few late-game failures to fall to Georgia (who we thought was quite good) by a single point in the third game. I think there was a sense of cautious optimism. Beginning on October 1, Mizzou would lose five games in a row.
Hey, in this sense, getting a truly disappointing loss out of the way early might be a good thing, right?
We still won’t know everything about this team that we need to following Saturday’s game against Purdue — the first of two or three acts won’t even be over yet — but with the fragile state of the fan base (and, hell, the coaching staff), it’s safe to say that this is as close as you can get to a must-win in the third game of a season with only marginal aspirations.
So what will it take for the Tigers to re-rouse the fan base a bit? What has to happen for not only a Mizzou win, but a pretty good looking one?
1. Little Things
Big things give you an idea for how capable a team is. Little things tell you how capable it is of winning close games. Until you reach a certain level on the big things — yardage, success rate, and whatnot — the little things only matter so much.
Missouri has proven reasonably good at the big things.
- Over the last eight games*, the Tigers have outgained opponents six times.
- That’s not all because of tempo: they’ve outgained opponents on a per-play basis five times.
- They’ve had a better success rate in four of those games as well, and two of the times they didn’t (Kentucky last year and South Carolina this year), it was virtually even.
* Since we’re treating South Carolina as a continuation of last year, I have no problem looking back to last year for examples.
Mizzou has won only three of these games, however. And in one of the three (Arkansas), the Tigers lost the big things pretty considerably.
The thing about the Little Things™ — turnovers, field position, red zone execution, special teams, etc. (really, you could include big plays in here too because of their inherent randomness) — is that you never know when they’re going to haunt you. Frequently, they do not.
A variety of Little Things has cost Mizzou at a variety of times. MTSU eked by the Tigers because of turnovers and field position. Kentucky and Tennessee won because of big plays. South Carolina won because of turnovers and drive finishing. Twice.
Meanwhile, Little Things won Mizzou the Arkansas game; Mizzou was outgained by 104 yards, had a far worse success rate (51% to 39%), and got destroyed in the field position battle, but the Tigers were far better at finishing. And against Vandy, the Commodores had a far better success rate (45% to 36%), and Mizzou suffered special teams breakdowns, but the Tigers still dominated field position, created more big plays, and dominated the fourth quarter.
You get the idea. Even when you’re bad a particular Little Thing — and we know MIzzou’s drive-finishing ability has certainly not matched its yardage total of late — you’re not bad at it every game. It’s pretty random.
This really, really needs to be a time when Little Things work out in Mizzou’s favor.
2. The Little Thing du jour: finish your damn drives
- Points per scoring opportunity (Barry Odom’s 5 wins): Mizzou 5.6, Opponents 4.0
- Points per scoring opportunity (Barry Odom’s 9 losses): Opponents 4.7, Mizzou 3.9
This is mainly an offense thing. Opponents do average 0.7 more points per trip in Mizzou losses, but Mizzou averages 1.7 fewer points per trip.
Three times under Odom, Missouri and its opponent have created the same number of scoring opportunities. Mizzou is 0-3 in those games.
Granted, creating more chances is a Big Thing and the overriding key here — Mizzou is 4-1 when creating more scoring opps and 1-5 when creating fewer — but ties have gone to the opponent because of the Tigers’ flaky red zone nature.
3. Run defense
Purdue passes the ball a lot. A lot.
They throw slightly more than 50 percent of the time on run downs and throw almost 100 percent of the time on passing downs. More than Mike Leach. But the first step toward slowing Purdue’s exciting, will-wrongfoot-you-as-much-as-possible passing game is to render the Boilermakers one-dimensional. They have proven adept at stealing yardage up the middle if you’re distracted, and sophomores Tario Fuller and Brian Lankford-Johnson have combined to gain 232 yards in just 34 carries thus far.
You have to mind the pass at all times, but if Missouri’s defensive front can control Purdue’s offensive line, offering minimal run gaps and responding quickly to the play at hand, that will force Purdue to throw even more than it wants to. And as we saw in the Purdue-Louisville game, once you can afford to pin your ears back in your pass rush, you can start to force bad decisions.
4. Pass efficiency
At WKU, current Purdue defensive coordinator Nick Holt was ultra aggressive. His Hilltoppers were willing to risk big plays in the name of efficiency, and it put pressure on opponents to avoid panicky mistakes. When it failed, it failed miserably — WKU allowed 55 points in a loss to Louisiana Tech last year — but with a sturdy, exciting defensive front, the Hilltoppers were able to render opponents one-dimensional and tee off. They forced 13 turnovers over the last six games of the year.
Purdue’s run front isn’t as sturdy, and I think Missouri will be able to run the ball pretty well. But as I’ve talked before, there are three prongs to Mizzou’s offense — rushing, efficiency passing, and vertical passing. Aside from one gorgeous pass to Jason Reese, only one of the three worked last week.
Drops devastated Missouri’s chances against South Carolina. We know that Drew Lock made some mistakes, too, but if receivers caught catchable, open balls — as they did the week before against lesser competition — Lock’s numbers would have been somewhere between fine and great. He’ll find more open receivers against Purdue’s shaky secondary, but assuming he gets the pass there, receivers still have to catch it. And then other receivers have to block, too.
If Mizzou gets two of three prongs rolling, the Tigers will win, even if it’s in a shootout. But that requires the receivers to do their job.
5. Tight ends
Mizzou tight ends have caught seven of 12 passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns in two games, a clip of 15.9 yards per target.
Purdue tight ends have caught 13 of 20 for 265 and three touchdowns, 13.3 yards per target.
Purdue targets its big men slightly more, but it’s really hard to stop an offense that is playing efficiently and hitting its tight end down the seam. Which set of tight ends has a bigger game?
It might not seem right to a shaken fan base, but Mizzou is still the favorite here. The Tigers are giving seven points per Vegas, and S&P+, which has certainly been dialed in thus far, says Mizzou by 12. But the Tigers’ ability to lose winnable games is one of the reasons the fan base is shaken.
This is a gut check game. I am confident in saying that Missouri’s upside is higher than Purdue’s, and again, when you’re doing this many Big Things right, you’re not far from being a darn good football team. But the Tigers bear the burden of proof. I think they get it done, but it’s understandable if you have seen last week’s episode a few too many times to be confident.