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Missouri was sloppy but had way too many play-makers for Vanderbilt

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Missouri beat Vanderbilt, 45-17, in Nashville on Saturday night to clinch bowl eligibility. Here are some Sunday morning reflections.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t the prettiest of wins, but it was comfortable all the same.

1. Game state matters

Missouri outgained Vanderbilt by 1.8 yards per play, converted a higher percentage of third downs (50 percent to 31 percent), and made more havoc plays (20 percent havoc rate to 11 percent). The Tigers were the faster, more aggressive team in Nashville and therefore deserved to win. Duh.

They also benefited significantly from game state, and game state was altered significantly by two return scores.

Return scores are amazing. They are panacea. They define games. More importantly, they define how games play out. If Mizzou had led, say, 21-0, at halftime — as defined by its offensive scores vs. Vandy’s — then the second half plays out in completely different fashion. Those red zone stops the Tigers made to stop Vandy drives become vital, not simply favorable. Even during or after their limp third-quarter performance, they were still at least a couple of scores away from being truly uncomfortable.

Turnovers and return scores are impossible to rely on because they are so random; even if you’re good at them, you still can’t count on knowing when they’re going to happen. Mizzou used to be very good at them, but for the first year and a half of Barry Odom’s tenure, they were nowhere to be seen.

Mizzou scored just one special teams return TD last year, and after forcing 10 turnovers in the first four games (mostly via interception), the Tigers forced just 17 over the next 16 games. They weren’t creating turnover opportunities, and when they did, they weren’t capitalizing.

The last three games, they’ve forced nine turnovers. Richaud Floyd has two punt return scores in the last five. I noted recently that the offense has been making Drew Lock’s job much easier of late; well, defense and special teams have been making the offense’s job easier, too.

Because of Brandon Lee’s pick six and Floyd’s punt return, we get to critique Mizzou’s spectacular Saturday night sloppiness as a series of teaching moments, not one of extreme regret.

Mizzou committed 11 penalties, second-most of the season. And unlike the UConn game (which featured 12), these penalties were of the procedural variety. Penalties of aggressiveness can almost be good things—it shows that you’re trying to toe the line between aggressiveness and too much aggressiveness, and there’s no correlation between overall penalties and wins/losses.

Procedural penalties (false starts, offsides, substitutions infractions), however, are just sloppy. Mizzou committed seven false start or offsides penalties. False starts killed Mizzou’s third offensive possession, while offsides helped to extend two Vandy scoring drives and two near-scoring drives.

Meanwhile, there was the matter of offensive inefficiency. Mizzou had easily its most inconsistent and inefficient offensive performance since September. Big plays — a 71-yard pass to J’Mon Moore, a 37-yarder to Albert Okwuegbunam, a 30-yarder to Floyd — bailed the Tigers out. But the run game failed to get going (and against what was, statistically, the worst run defense the Tigers had faced since Missouri State, no less), and Emanuel Hall had the yips for the second straight game. He dropped at least three more very catchable passes, and Drew Lock’s completion rate dipped below 50 percent for the second straight game as a result.

These are issues, and for as poorly as Arkansas’ season has gone, the Razorbacks could easily play well enough to punish Missouri for this sloppiness. Vandy could have, too, if not for Lee and Floyd.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt
Terry Beckner Jr. (5)
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

2. Hall vs. Sherfield didn't materialize

  • Drew Lock targeted Emanuel Hall five times. He was 0-for-5 in those passes and 10-for-20 for 235 yards (11.8 per pass) in all others.
  • Vandy’s Kyle Shurmer targeted Trent Sherfield eight times. He was 4-for-8 for 27 yards (3.4) in those passes and 24-for-44 for 321 (7.3) in all others.

Midweek, I called Sherfield one of Vandy’s most important players—when he’s striking big, the Commodores are dangerous. But he suffered a couple of drops that were as bad or worse than Hall’s.

Mizzou has more offensive stars than Vanderbilt, so if you cancel two stars out, that probably benefits the Tigers. But it didn’t have to. It very much appears that the drops of the last two weeks have gotten into Hall’s head, and that has to also be a concern with a short week of prep before Arkansas.

3. #DLineZou

  • Terry Beckner Jr. had 2.5 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 interception, and 1 PBU
  • A.J. Logan had 1.5 tackles and 0.5 TFLs (0.5 sacks)
  • Marcell Frazier had 1.5 tackles, 1.5 TFLs (0.5 sacks), and 2 QB hurries
  • Rashad Brandon had 1 tackle, and it was a TFL
  • Tre Williams had 1 tackle and a QB hurry (and, yes, some offsides penalties)

#DLineZou was a havoc machine against Vanderbilt for the second straight year. Vandy halfbacks had 22 carries for 61 yards, and Shurmur was sacked twice and hurried four times. When he had time to throw, he generally made good choices. But he makes a lot of mistakes under duress, and Mizzou was able to put him in those situations. (Just look at the clip above—before Beckner picks him off, someone else gets into his face.)

There just isn’t a defensive tool more useful than having a disruptive defensive line. Having a killer cornerback or two is the only thing that comes close. Mizzou’s defensive front has both improved and taken full advantage of recent struggling foes, and it’s been lovely to see.

(If Beckner doesn’t get ever so slightly tripped in that last cutback, Mizzou probably earns a place on the Piesman finalist list as well.)

4. The utes are good

Vandy linebacker Oren Burks didn't get much sleep last night. He got burned at least a couple of times by Okwuegbunam. But in fairness, he wasn’t the only one. And Albert O wasn’t the only freshman making waves.

Once again, Missouri’s youth rewarded the coaches for more play-making opportunities by making plays.

  • Okwuegbunam (redshirt freshman) caught five balls for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Floyd (sophomore) caught a 30-yard touchdown pass and had the aforementioned punt return score.
  • Cale Garrett (sophomore) led Mizzou with 10.0 tackles and two TFLs (one sack) and has been such a key player for the defense that I almost forgot he was only a sophomore.
  • Larry Rountree III (true freshman) struggled at times but hit the corner for a 12-yard option touchdown.
  • Adam Sparks (true freshman) reeled in his first career interception.
  • DeMarkus Acy (sophomore) had 8.5 tackles, a TFL, and a breakup.
  • Josh Bledsoe (true freshman) had two solo tackles and contributed to a big third-down stop in the first half.
  • Williams (redshirt freshman) did struggle with offsides penalties but got his hands on Shurmur multiple times.
  • Jamal Brooks (true freshman) had a huge special teams tackle.

These guys ... Trystan Castillo (redshirt freshman) and Tre’Vour Simms (sophomore) on the offensive line ... corner Jerod Alton (redshirt freshman) ... defensive tackle Markell Utsey (sophomore) ... safety Tyree Gillespie (true freshman) ... receiver Johnathon Johnson (sophomore), of course ... injured running back Damarea Crockett (sophomore), of course ... goodness, Mizzou is playing a lot of crazy-young guys. And it’s working.

The idea behind strong talent identification and diamond-in-the-rough recruiting is that, once guys have been in your system for a few years, they’ll be able to keep with the more highly-touted former recruits they have to go up against. That’s not quite how this has played out. Missouri’s young players outplayed more touted recruits, especially in the Tennessee and Florida games. And granted, those teams’ coaching situations had a role to play in that. But still. You’re not supposed to get young and better at the same time.

More exciting: it does appear that player development is coming along, at least in-season. Back in September, it was hard to see who had actually improved. But Acy and Sparks have stabilized in the secondary, Williams has broken out, Rountree has improved, Castillo and Simms have been huge parts of an excellent offensive line, etc. And combined with older players also taking steps forward — Lock, Anthony Sherrils, etc. — this team is so, so much better than it was two months ago.

It’s almost jarring to think back to then. Yes, the schedule has helped. Of course. But this isn’t all on the schedule:

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports