A year ago in Columbia, S.C., Missouri outgained South Carolina in terms of both raw yards (465-428) and yards per play (6.1-5.6), converted more first downs (24-22), generated a better success rate (46 percent to 42%), broke even in the big plays department (both had 15 gains of 12-plus yards), and even out-punted the Gamecocks (46.5 net yards per punt to 39.8).
Drew Lock threw for 300 yards. Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter rushed for a combined 162. And Mizzou made more tackles for loss (nine) than the Cocks (six).
South Carolina won by 10. There were no return touchdowns, and there was no dramatic turnovers luck.
How did it happen? What was at the heart of SC’s 31-21 win? The young Gamecocks simply did a better job of maintaining control than the young Tigers. Missouri made more good plays than South Carolina, but the Tigers made more bad ones, too. In the end, the latter was all that mattered.
If Will Muschamp teams are allowed to define how a game plays out — as the Gamecocks did a year ago — they are really good. In the middle of his best season as a head coach (2012 at Florida), his Gators beat South Carolina by 33 points while getting outgained, 191-183. They wait for you to make a mistake, and they pounce on it.
This is a great approach as long as your opponent makes a series of mistakes. If those breaks don’t come, Plan B isn’t all that exciting. The same team that beat Missouri and Tennessee last year, also barely got by UMass (34-28) and got drubbed by Florida (20-7) and Clemson (56-7). If the Cocks fall behind early, or if their defensive game plan is proven to be faulty for a bit, they find themselves in a hole they struggle to escape. But the longer they keep things close, the better they are at controlling the outcome.
Last week was a “bad plays > good plays” masterpiece. South Carolina beat NC State, 35-28, despite
- getting outgained, 504-246
- allowing 29 first downs to 12
- snapping the ball 50 times all game
The Cocks basically handed the ball to the Wolfpack and spent 60 minutes avoiding big plays and waiting for mistakes to pounce on. It worked. Thanks to a game-opening Deebo Samuel kick return touchdown, SC was either tied or ahead for the entire game, and NC State lost two fumbles, missed a field goal, and, in the fourth quarter, turned the ball over on downs at the SC 31 and 10. Cover, tackle, catch errant passes, fall on loose balls. It’s boring, and it can backfire on you, but it’s a pretty good strategy for winning more games than you lose.
Let’s take a look at the South Carolina defense’s depth chart.
Dante Sawyer (6’3, 275, Sr.) — 5.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL (1 sack), 2 FF, 2 QBH
Keir Thomas (6’2, 262, So.) — 3.5 tackles, 2 TFL (1 sack)
Taylor Stallworth (6’2, 305, Sr.) — 4.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 QBH
Kobe Smith (6’2, 286, So.) — 1.0 tackle
Ulric Jones (6’5, 312, Sr.) — 2.0 tackles, 1 PBU
Javon Kinlaw (6’6, 326, So.)
D.J. Wonnum (6’4, 251, So.) — 5.5 tackles, 3 TFLs (1 sack)
Daniel Fennell (6’3, 244, So.) — 1.5 tackles
Daniel Sterling (6’1, 240, Fr.) — 1.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL
There are basically three prongs to the Mizzou offense: the run game, the sideline passing game, and the downfield passing game. Last year against SC, the run game worked very well, with Crockett and Witter combining to average 6.8 yards per carry. Thomas and Wonnum did combine for 1.5 sacks, but SC had only six TFLs on the day, and Mizzou’s offensive line had one of its better 2016 performances.
As for the latter of the three prongs, in the absence of leading ends Darius English and Marquavius Lewis, the Gamecocks’ corps of defensive ends did a lovely job of getting after NC State quarterback Ryan Finley. Despite a lot of quick passing, the Cocks sacked Finley four times (Wonnum, Sawyer, and Thomas each had one) and hurried him five times.
The pocket stayed mostly clean for Lock last week against Missouri State, and if the first two prongs are clicking, then pressure shouldn’t be that much of a worry. But if either or both of those efficiency prongs falters, Mizzou tackles could struggle to keep these rushers off of Lock’s back.
Bryson Allen-Williams (6’0, 230, Sr.) — 3.5 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 1 FR
Antoine Wilder (5’10, 190, So.)
T.J. Brunson (6’1, 230, So.) — 11.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL
Sherrod Greene (6’1, 223, Fr.) — 1.5 tackles
Skai Moore (6’2, 218, Sr.) — 5.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 QBH
Eldridge Thompson (6’1, 215, Jr.) — 1.0 tackle
In his first game back after missing 2016 with injury, Moore earned SEC Team of the Week honors from PFF. He and Allen-Williams are strong attackers, and Brunson was superb in the category of cleaning up messes last Saturday. He recorded just 10.0 tackles in 2016 and has topped that one game into 2017.
This is a lovely linebacking corps, but the Missouri offense is perfectly suited for bypassing it. The linebackers will obviously play a role, but Mizzou will put a ton of pressure on the South Carolina secondary and line. That will determine just how many messes Brunson and company need to clean up.
JaMarcus King (6’2, 186, Sr.) — 6.5 tackles
D.J. Smith (5’11, 198, Sr.) — 6.5 tackles, 3 PBU
Javon Charleston (6’0, 189, So.)
Chris Lammons (5’10, 190, Sr.) — 6.0 tackles
Keisean Nixon (5’10, 192, Jr.)
Rashad Fenton (5’10, 184, Jr.) — 5.5 tackles, 1 FR
Jamyest Williams (5’9, 175, Fr.) — 2.0 tackles
Now comes the most important unit of the South Carolina defense. Last year, corners King and Fenton had brilliant games against Missouri, combining for seven solo tackles, a TFL, an interception, and two PBUs. With Mizzou driving to take the lead in the third quarter, Fenton picked off a pass at the SC 2. King, meanwhile, repeatedly got the best of J’Mon Moore, tackling him twice well behind the sticks and breakup two passes intended for No. 6.
This was before Moore’s renaissance, obviously. Over his last four games, J’Mon has 27 catches for 594 yards and four touchdowns. The South Carolina game was five games ago. This game will do more than any yet to answer whether Moore’s breakout has been because of a definitive breakthrough or because competition has been lacking. It won’t be lacking on Saturday.
Of course, going deep to Moore is great, but the middle prong I listed above — the sideline passing game — is the heart of the Missouri offense. When it works, when defenses have to keep an eye toward the sideline, that’s when the run game hits mach speed, and that’s when seam passes to tight ends open up. Last year, South Carolina was up to the task of shutting down short passes for short gains, but last Saturday Mizzou hinted at a breakthrough in the blocking department. If the Cocks can’t shed blocks and make tackles, the floodgates will open up.