I think I will always prefer the “play your non-conference games, then move into conference play” structure to a Missouri schedule. I realize that’s an impossible relic in the SEC, but I will miss it.
It’s interesting to think about the narrative of this season if Missouri had started 3-1 before the losses piled up a bit. Maybe the difference is minimal. But even with the ghastly loss to Purdue, and even with an 0-4 start to SEC play, there’s a little bit more hope baked into the cake early on. A morsel, at least.
Or not. That Purdue game would have been a low point regardless. I digress. Let’s talk about last night.
1. Check and check
Regardless of when the games came up on the schedule, Missouri did exactly what it needed to do. I guess one thing you can say in favor of the structure of the schedule is that Missouri was cleansing its palate just as everybody left on the schedule was basically falling apart.
Now the Tigers enter November with some semblance of confidence and calm, and Florida and Tennessee (and hell, maybe Arkansas too) might be entering the game with interim coaches.
Missouri really did look the part, too. This wasn’t a Missouri State-style “one unit looks good while the other needs a half to figure it out” game against a lesser team, and it most certainly wasn’t an MTSU-style “one unit never actually figures it out” game.
Granted, neither Idaho nor UConn are as good as MTSU was last year, but the point stands: Missouri actually looked mostly good. Averaging 8.8 yards per play is good. Allowing 3.8 yards per play is good.
2. What do you do if you’re Jim Sterk?
The sudden ease of the remaining schedule is a bit of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Two weeks ago, my view for the final six games was that if Barry Odom could beat Idaho and UConn and win one of his final four against a reasonably challenging slate, that might be just enough for him to claim “Momentum!” and earn a third year.
- Two weeks ago, Florida was losing close games, not getting its doors blown off, physically, mentally, and spiritually, by Georgia.
- Two weeks ago, Tennessee was 3-3 and struggling to break in a new quarterback. Now the Vols are 3-5, having gone a month between offensive touchdowns and lost to Kentucky.
The final two opponents on the schedule haven’t changed all that much in two weeks — Vandy looked a little better on Saturday after a bye but still lost at South Carolina, and Arkansas hit rock bottom (getting destroyed by Auburn and falling way behind at Ole Miss) then rebounded (a last-second comeback to beat the Rebs). But with the turmoil at hand, and the distinct lack of quality at hand, you would think that Missouri should go at least 2-2 here, right?
If you’re Sterk, though, where are you setting the bar? Finish at least 5-7, or you’re gone? 4-8 with competitive losses?
More importantly, what do you make of a coaching carousel that potentially features conference mates Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M all looking for new coaches? In terms of the perceived quality of the job, Missouri currently ranks either fifth or sixth on that list. Does that make you more likely to wait a year, when you could conceivably be atop (or at least far nearer to the top of) the SEC carousel totem pole?
One other factor to think about: does the south end zone construction make this job a bit more attractive 13 months from now?
If Missouri loses out, I’m guessing we have our answer. But the range of alternatives at 4-8 is pretty interesting. Hopefully Mizzou just wins out, and we don’t have to think about any of this anymore. That’ll happen, right?
3. Will the all-passing thing work against Florida?
As David Morrison pointed out during the game, Mizzou basically went Full Mike Leach on Saturday evening. The Tigers’ run-pass ratio was basically about 30 percent run until they took their foot off of the gas in the third quarter. Ish Witter and Larry Rountree III carried the ball just 16 times, while Drew Lock attempted 38 passes.
Part of that was almost certainly matchup-specific. UConn’s front seven isn’t amazing, but it’s decent, and throwing was definitely the path of least resistance. But against Idaho, which had a better pass defense than run defense, Lock still threw 33 passes to Witter/Rountree’s 21 carries.
Against Idaho and UConn, that works great, especially when you’ve got, in David’s words, an offense that is “unparalleled in college football at making bad defenses look abysmal.”
What now? I haven’t updated the numbers for yesterday yet, but Florida came into this weekend ranked 17th in rushing success rate allowed and 40th in passing success rate allowed. Adjusting for opponent, the Gators were 28th in Rushing S&P+ and 49th in Passing S&P+. That still suggests passing might be an appealing option, but ... even in the midst of a coaching disaster, they still have four-star athletes, and they can still probably punish you for being one-dimensional.
So will Mizzou be able to run the ball? At least a little? Earlier this year, we got a taste for how this offense functions without Damarea Crockett against a functional P5 defense — it didn’t. Mizzou fell apart in the second half against South Carolina after his tailbone injury and didn’t show up against Purdue.
Is anything different now? Witter (last two weeks: 19 carries, 114 yards) and Rountree (18 carries, 157 yards) have looked great against lesser competition. Will that translate when the running lanes get a lot smaller?
Havoc rate is one of the more popular things I track. It is a team’s total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays, and as recently as two years ago, Mizzou was great at havoc. The Tigers were 10th in the nation in havoc in 2015 with a rate of 20.0 percent.
Heading into Saturday, Mizzou was 110th at 13.4 percent. The plays up front were infrequent (90th in DL havoc rate), and the plays in the back of the defense were nonexistent (120th in DB havoc rate).
Mizzou’s havoc rate against UConn: 19.4 percent — nine TFLs and nine passes defensed (one interception, eight breakups) in 93 snaps. Great? Nah. Good? Absolutely!
More encouraging: they came from all over. Six different guys had at least half a sack, and seven had at least half a TFL, including DBs Logan Cheadle (1) and Anthony Sherrils (0.5). Plus, DBs got hands on passes. Adam Sparks, now basically a starting CB, had two breakups, T.J. Warren (remember him?) picked off a pass, and Cam Hilton and Cheadle each had a breakup.
This is minor stuff, obviously. And as I wrote in last night’s post-game recap, UConn still helped Missouri out considerably when it came to dropping catchable passes. But this was at least a hint of a sign of confidence from a unit that had shown none so far. You don’t need to be a world-beater to slow down Florida, Tennessee, Vandy, and Arkansas. Maybe this is a sign of the tiniest bit of defensive renewal.
Or not. I’ve been wrong before.
But if you wanted to throw Warren out there a bit more, Coach Odom, I wouldn’t complain. I still want to see what he can do. He had my favorite defensive play of the game in, I believe, the second quarter last night: He was sent on the field late and had no idea where to line up — at one point you could see him turn to the safety behind him (Sherrils?) and ask which guy he was responsible for. That guy then caught a super-quick, short pass, and Warren pile-drove him into the ground. I laughed.
5. Is there a role for Dawson Downing?
Look, I don’t want to revive all the “Why isn’t Tyler Hunt seeing the field more?????” arguments from two years ago. If you’re not on the field, there’s probably a reason. But with Downing, the redshirt freshman walk-on from the Kansas City area, once again proving himself not only capable, but physically dominant against scrubs, and with Crockett out for the foreseeable future, might there be the smallest of roles for him?
Maybe a short-yardage role, lining up behind defensive tackle Markell Utsey (who is evidently this year’s Josh Augusta-style fullback)? Something? He’s really fun to watch, and he’s a little bigger than Rountree and a lot bigger than Witter.
But now I’ll step off of this soapbox because I’m guessing plenty of the Internet is already on it. And because, if you’re not on the field, there’s probably a reason.
Still. That was a fun damn run.