It’s strange leaving a game without having many unique thoughts. When I’m walking back to my car, I generally have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to write about the next morning. This time, though, I was kind of blank because one simple thought basically overruled everything else:
On Thursday, I wrote that “If Will Muschamp teams are allowed to define how a game plays out, they are really good.” On Saturday, Muschamp’s team was allowed to define how the game played out.
This was in so many ways a repeat of last year’s Mizzou-South Carolina game. Missouri outgained the Gamecocks (423-359) and generated more big plays. The Tigers held Deebo Samuel to five catches and 45 yards, and I think every Mizzou fan on planet Earth would have been overjoyed if presented with that statistic. Rico Dowdle averaged just 3.4 yards per carry to Damarea Crockett’s 5.4. On the periphery, Missouri did exactly what it needed to do.
But you have to put the Gamecocks away. They beat you by avoiding mistakes and hoping you make a few. SC’s Jake Bentley averaged only 10.4 yards per completion to Drew Lock’s 17.5, but Lock made the two worst passes of the night, and South Carolina defenders snatched them both up. And for the second week in a row, the Cocks feasted on special teams mistakes.
Mizzou gave Deebo Samuel only one kick to return all night, and he took it to the house. And a muffed punt allowed South Carolina — again, outgained by 64 damn yards — to take an 18-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.
These teams are what they were. Compared to last year, they are most likely each better versions of what they were — South Carolina more capable of both creating and pouncing on mistakes, Mizzou faster and more explosive (and maybe no less volatile) — but this game indeed came down to who could define it. The Gamecocks held the Tigers to 69 snaps and 12 possessions. It was the game they wanted. They still needed Missouri mistakes to finish off the recipe, and they got those too.
1. Pass explosiveness
Obviously. Mizzou had a lot of it last week. So did Mizzou’s opponent. What we saw was an incomplete picture — Missouri wasn’t exactly facing an SEC defense, and Mizzou’s defensive disasters dissipated after the brutal early going — and we still won’t have a complete impression after two games. But we’ll still have a much better idea of what we’re dealing with.
If Missouri is able to keep turning short passes into big gains, that will probably be a weapon the Tigers can count on for much of the season. And if South Carolina is able to pretty easily create the same easy breakdowns and missed assignments that doomed Mizzou for a while last week, well, we’ll know that this wasn’t just a “bad start” kind of deal.
Oh yeah, and these big plays won’t just be telling: they’ll also probably decide the football game.
Advantage: Mizzou. The Tigers had five passes of 15+ yards (three of them gained 27+), while South Carolina had four such passes (and only one over 22). Either the Gamecocks had no interest in going deep and engaging in a shootout, or the Tigers didn’t present them with the same breakdowns and opportunities. Probably both, I guess.
2. Rush efficiency
South Carolina basically forfeited the run game last week, and Missouri’s run defense was pretty active and exciting (mostly, but not completely, in a good way). Does that means things have changed from last year, when Rico Dowdle ran all over the Tigers? We’ll see! Missouri’s pass rush was pretty effective against SC last year and was solid a week ago.
Meanwhile, despite throwing mostly safe, short passes, Bentley took a couple of passing downs sacks. If the Gamecocks can’t avoid passing downs, Mizzou could be in very good shape, even if there’s a big gain or two.
On the other side of the field, an efficient Mizzou run game is a huge weapon. I’ve been talking about Mizzou’s attack as one with three prongs — the run, the horizontal pass, and the vertical pass. Even if South Carolina is tackling well and preventing big plays with the horizontal pass, the simple fact that they have to mind that prong means there could be run lanes for Damarea Crockett. And if he takes advantage of them, that might open up the vertical pass all the same.
Advantage: push. Mizzou rushed 17 times on first-and-10, lost yardage once, and gained at least four yards seven times. South Carolina, meanwhile, rushed 18 times on first down, lost yards twice, and gained at least four yards eight times. That’s a wash.
Mizzou backs outrushed the Cocks’ overall — Damarea Crockett, Ish Witter, and Larry Rountree gained 181 yards (5.3 per cary), while Ty’Son Williams, Dowdle, and A.J. Turner gained 142 (4.3) — but from an efficiency standpoint it was about even.
3. Total possessions
This is a pure control issue. South Carolina and Missouri both want to define games on their own terms, and those terms are very, very different. Maybe the quickest way to figure out who dictated the terms of this game is by looking at the total number of possessions. If it’s 14 or fewer, South Carolina defined the game. If it’s 17 or more, Mizzou sucked the Gamecocks into the type of track meet it prefers.
Advantage: South Carolina. Both teams had 12 possessions and under 70 plays. That’s exactly what the Gamecocks wanted.
4. Special teams wackiness
South Carolina defined the NC State game on its terms but still only won because of a Deebo Samuel kick return score and a couple of fourth down stops. That’s a formula with minimal margin for error. And if one team or the other develops a strong special teams advantage, that might tip the balance.
Yeah. Advantage: South Carolina. I’d say those last two pretty much tell you everything you need to know.