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Idaho’s offense is struggling ... but Mizzou’s defense could be a pretty good remedy

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NCAA Football: Idaho at UNLV Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, Missouri escapes power-conference purgatory to right the ship against a struggling mid-major. The Tigers can dominate, give the Homecoming crowd a nice show, rebuild their confidence, and head toward November back on track!

That sounds great. It also isn’t necessarily going to play out that way.

On one hand, you can squint and see a happy Mizzou trend. The Tigers covered the spread against both Kentucky (by 2.5 points) and Georgia (by five), which could suggest potential improvement; the Tigers are favored by 15, so they win by 17 or 18 then!

On the other hand, two games isn’t actually a trend. Mizzou is connecting on deep balls again, which is great, but you really, really have to squint to find any reason to feel good about a defense that has allowed 93 points in these two “improvement” weeks.

My S&P+ ratings loathe Mizzou at the moment. The offense ranks a healthy 37th — good, but not as much improvement as I thought we’d see this year — and the defense is plummeting, It currently stands at 120th in Def. S&P+, basically the defensive version of the 2015 offense. Guh. Its projection of Saturday’s game: Mizzou 31, Idaho 28. Mizzou win probability: 57%, basically the flip of an ever-so-slightly weighted coin.

Since Deebo Samuel’s second-quarter kick return score in the South Carolina game, Missouri opponents have had 56 possessions, not including end-of-half situations. In those 56 drives, they have scored 24 touchdowns and attempted 14 field goals. They have punted only 14 times and committed three turnovers. They are creating scoring chances on two of every three drives. In the last two games, that ratio has increased to three of every four.

Idaho isn’t Kentucky or Georgia, though. The Vandals have actually been better than I expected on defense but have disappointed on offense. While quarterback Matt Linehan and running backs Aaron Duckworth and Isaiah Saunders returned from last year’s surprising bowl squad, the Vandals had to replace four of their top six receiving targets and three of their four most experienced linemen.

The transition has been dicey. They have yet to score 30 points in a game — quite the contrast to a Mizzou defense that hasn’t allowed under 30 — and scored only a combined 36 against UL-Lafayette and Appalachian State the last two weeks. Movable force, meet resistible object.

Backfield

NCAA Football: Idaho Potato Bowl-Idaho vs Colorado State
Aaron Duckworth
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

QB

  • Matt Linehan (6’3, 239, Sr.) — 103-for-173 (60%), 1,275 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT, 21 sacks (5.7 yards/attempt); 31 carries, 149 yards (4.8), 2 TD
  • Mason Petrino (5’11, 187, So.)

RB

  • Aaron Duckworth (5’8, 203, Sr.) — 94 carries, 552 yards (5.9), 2 TD; 8 targets, 7 catches, 153 yards (19.1)
  • Isaiah Saunders (5’10, 225, Jr.) — 69 carries, 314 yards (4.6), 1 TD; 5 targets, 3 catches, 29 yards (5.8)
  • Dylan Thigpen (5’11, 192, RSFr.) — 5 carries, 17 yards (3.4); 1 target, 1 catch, -1 yards

FB

  • Josh Herman (6’1, 254, Sr.)

The personality of Idaho’s offense hasn’t changed since last year. The Vandals rank 95th in standard downs run rate (meaning they pass a ton on standard downs), just as they did in 2016. But they’re running a lot more on passing downs, partially because they can’t even slightly protect Linehan and partially because the run game is pretty good.

Duckworth gained at least five yards on only 31 percent of his carries last year, but that’s up to 42 percent in 2017. That extra boost of efficiency is easily the most positive development for the Vandal offense.

But yeah, Linehan’s getting hit a lot. Idaho ranks 126th in Adjusted Sack Rate. This would be a great game for Missouri to discover a second pass rusher to complement Marcell Frazier. Tre Williams? Nate Anderson? Chris Turner? Now’s your chance for a breakout game.

Of course, it’s also a chance for a Linehan breakout game if the pass rush doesn’t get to him. Passing against Missouri has been like passing against air lately.

(By the way, defensive tackle DJ Henderson has four carries for seven yards and two touchdowns this year. Idaho’s goal line package is pretty meaty.)

Receiving Corps

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Idaho v Colorado State
Jacob Sannon
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

WR-W

  • Jacob Sannon (6’0, 202, Sr.) — 58 targets, 36 catches, 370 yards (6.4), 1 TD
  • David Ungerer (5’9, 185, Jr.) — 14 targets, 8 catches, 87 yards (6.2), 1 TD

WR-Z

  • Alfonso Onunwor (6’1, 203, Sr.) — 44 targets, 23 catches, 356 yards (8.1), 3 TD
  • Reuben Mwehla (5’10, 182, Sr.) — 16 targets, 14 catches, 160 yards (10.0), 2 TD

WR-X

  • Mason Petrino (5’11, 187, Sr.) — 1 target, 0 catches

TE

  • Joe Wysocki (6’2, 230, So.) — 8 targets, 4 catches, 69 yards (8.6), 2 TD
  • Alex James (6’6, 231, So.)

In 2016, Idaho ranked a robust 12th in passing success rate. This year: 111th. Sacks have been a massive issue, but so has the loss of a pair of dynamite tight ends. Deon Watson and Trent Coway combined for 89 catches, 1,242 yards, and nine touchdowns last year; this year's tight ends have combined for four, 69, and two, respectively. That'll catch up to you.

The first goal of the Paul Petrino passing game is efficiency, and while sacks have been a culprit, the Vandals also haven’t gotten enough from their short passing game. Slot man Jacob Sannon’s success rate is just 46 percent, which would be fine for a big-play guy. But Watson and Cowan were at about 56 percent, so that’s a pretty stark drop off.

Idaho does still get some big plays from its Z receivers. Alfonso Onunwor is averaging over 15 yards per catch, and after catching just five balls in the first three games, he has 18 in the last three. If Idaho is going to generate big pass plays downfield like most recent Mizzou opponents, he’s the most likely beneficiary. If he isn’t, I’m not sure who is.

Offensive Line

QT

  • Sean Tulette (6’3, 271, So.) — 5 starts in 2017, 5 career starts
  • Irving Schuster (6’6, 300, Jr.)

QG

  • Zion Dixon (6’4, 303, So.) — 6 starts in 2017, 8 career starts
  • Maxim Moore (6’3, 285, Fr.)

C

  • Conner Vrba (6’1, 300, RSFr.) — 6 starts in 2017, 6 career starts

SG

  • Noah Johnson (6’4, 308, So.) — 6 starts in 2017, 16 career starts

ST

  • Jordan Rose (6’6, 325, Sr.) — 6 starts in 2017, 36 career starts
  • Cameron Weller (6’4, 280, So.) — 1 start in 2017, 1 career starts

Jordan Rose was honorable mention all-conference last year, and the right side of the line is pretty experienced, but ... well, I’ve mentioned the pass protection issues a few times. Linehan is a play-maker, and he maybe holds onto the ball too much sometimes, but it’s safe to say this is the worst line Missouri has faced in a while. It would be lovely to take advantage of that.