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Penalties and inefficiency could have cost Missouri against Vanderbilt

They didn’t. But they could have!

Missouri v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

I laugh at myself for being predictable from time to time. When things are going poorly, I tend to tap the brakes and look for reasons for optimism. Meanwhile, when things are going well, I tap the brakes at times, too.

For the first four games of Missouri’s five-game winning streak, there was no brake tapping. Sure, the Tiger secondary was a little lucky that UConn dropped some passes up in East Hartford. And sure, Mizzou allowed Tennessee to tie the game near halftime before hitting the afterburners. But it was so refreshing to see Mizzou playing well again that I wasn’t interested in looking too hard for glitches.

There’s no question, though, that Mizzou just had its worst offensive performance since September. It’s lovely to be able to say that after a 45-point outing, but it’s true.

1. Bailed out by big plays

Mizzou amassed a gaudy 71 percent rushing success rate against Tennessee. It was one of the best rushing performances in college football this year, and evidently it was unsustainable. Against a run defense that ranked worse in Rushing S&P+, the Tigers regressed to (and right past) the mean.

Mizzou’s 38 percent rushing success rate against Vandy was its worst since the Georgia game, and its overall 31 percent success rate was worse than the Georgia game (38 percent). In fact, it was the worst since Purdue. Egads.

Again, return scores are wonderful. Brandon Lee’s pick six and Richaud Floyd’s punt return gave Mizzou the cushion to withstand what would have otherwise been some extreme second-half awkwardness.

Mizzou had the other big plays, too. A third-and-5 bomb to J’Mon Moore. A third-and-9 touchdown to Floyd. A third-and-11 20-yarder to Albert Okwuegbunam, followed almost immediately by a third-and-8 touchdown bomb to O.

The formulas for the first four wins of Mizzou’s win streak were organic and sustainable. This one? Not so much.

2. When the Tigers failed, they failed

As with last week, I figured it would be useful to look at Mizzou’s lesser moments — the offense’s failed drives, the opponent’s successful drives — to see what happened and what could be learned. I liked the experiment, so let’s do it again.

Mizzou had the ball for 12 possessions, not including return scores and an end-of-first-half kneeldown. Five of the drives finished in a touchdown, and one produced a field goal.

In the other six,

  • Mizzou gained just 30 yards on 10 first-down attempts. For a little while in the first half, it felt like the Tigers were passing too much, but in these drives Mizzou almost rushed too much. Nine of 10 first-down attempts were rushes, and they gained a total of just 26 yards.
  • Overall, Ish Witter and Larry Rountree III rushed 17 times for 61 yards (3.6 per carry) on these bad drives.
  • Penalties — in this case, two false starts — killed a promising drive for a second straight week.
  • Drew Lock was just 2-for-8 for 12 yards.

On the good drives, Lock was still only 8-for-17, but for a cool 218 yards. Witter and Rountree, meanwhile, rushed 14 times for 94 yards (6.7 per carry).

Nothing really worked, and even Mizzou’s best moments came on passing downs. But when the run game actually worked a little bit, that gave the Tigers a bit more cushion.

Before this game entered garbage time protocol (margin outside of 28 points in the first quarter, 24 in the second, 21 in the third, or 16 in the fourth), Lock and Kyle Shurmur completed a combined 12 of 30 passes. The free-play bomb to Moore was about all the production.

Shurmur, of course, heated up when the game was effectively out of hand.

3. Variety was a winner for Vandy

Now let’s look at Vandy’s five good drives — the three scoring drives, and the two drives that stalled out inside the Mizzou 10.

Two major things happened when Vandy began moving the ball:

  1. Mizzou committed penalties. There were six Tiger penalties on these drives, which means that eight of Mizzou’s 11 penalties happened on either good Vandy drives or bad Mizzou drives.
  2. Shurmur spread the ball around. He targeted 10 different players on these five drives. Tight end Jared Pinkney led the way, catching six of seven balls for 119 yards on these drives. He was usually tackled by either corner DeMarkus Acy or safety Anthony Sherrils, meaning the Commodores did a good job of identifying size matchups and taking advantage. (Arkansas plays a lot of tight ends, by the way.) But Pinkney aside, VU went for variety, and it worked pretty well when Shurmur wasn’t pressured.

Even when Vandy was doing well, Webb was a non-factor. He had eight carries for just 23 yards on these five drives, and 20 came on one carry. He was also the target of two incompletions.

4. Havoc was again Missouri’s friend

  • Vanderbilt’s defense produced just seven havoc plays (three tackles for loss, four breakups) in 64 Mizzou snaps, a paltry havoc rate of 11 percent.
  • Mizzou, meanwhile, produced 16 such plays (eight TFLs, eight passes defensed) in 82 snaps, for a havoc rate of 19.5 percent.

Havoc was key to Missouri’s great 2013-15 defenses, and it has finally made a sustained appearance in 2017. Funny what a thriving defensive line and positive scoring differential can do for your ability to attack, huh?

Vanderbilt has probably been a better team (or at least, not a worse one) than Arkansas this season, and Mizzou just beat the Commodores by 28 points, so I want to temper any criticism. Still, this game did not give me wonderful feelings about Friday’s game in Fayetteville.

Sure, the weather may have played a role in Mizzou’s sloppiness, but a lot of the unforced errors (penalties, drops by Emanuel Hall and only Emanuel Hall, etc.) didn’t seem particularly weather-related. And on a slick field, that could potentially benefit a nice, powerful running game.

Witter had his moments, but the Mizzou run game was terribly inconsistent, and with Hall a non-factor (I like Oscar’s theory that he’s sabotaging Lock’s stats to make sure Lock returns to Mizzou next year), the Tiger passing game fell completely back into all-or-nothing mode.

Arkansas’ defense is no good, but a lot of Missouri’s issues against Vandy had to do with Mizzou’s own focus and execution. I’m betting Arkansas shows quite a bit of fight — despite the fact that their coach is going to get fired, the Hogs fought well enough to make major comebacks on Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina and put LSU and Mississippi State in early holes. If an equally sloppy Missouri offense (or a defense that is as vulnerable to tight end matchups) shows up in Fayetteville, Arkansas will have a very good chance.

I mean, screw it, Mizzou’s bowling regardless, but a win on Friday would give the Tigers a 3-1 series lead over Arkansas since joining the SEC. That sounds pretty cool. Mizzou should try it.