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Big plays are random and unsustainable. What does that mean for Mizzou-South Carolina?

From an efficiency standpoint, Missouri was actually decent on both sides of the ball last Saturday.

For some final thoughts on Saturday’s huge Mizzou-South Carolina game, I’m going to lean on the numbers I typically unveil on Mondays or Tuesdays. It always takes me a little while to get the data train rolling in the first week, but here are some stats from both Mizzou’s and SC’s first-week games. I wish I’d seen them sooner because they’re strangely reassuring.

We’ll start with Mizzou-MSU.

Now, “reassuring” is relative. There is nothing reassuring about MSU’s big-play numbers or the fact that the Bears averaged over six and a half yards per play. But the way those successes came about was not particularly maintainable.

One of my favorite stat pieces I’ve written this year went up at Football Study Hall. It equated the randomness of big plays with the randomness of 3-point shooting.

If big plays can happen on any down, at a reasonably similar rate, then tell me where I’m wrong in saying this: The key to explosiveness is efficiency. The key to making big plays is being able to stay on the field long enough to make one. [...]

I had watched plenty of baseball, and played with plenty of baseball stats, in my lifetime before I first read Voros McCracken’s musings about pitching and defense and how one’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is really only so much in your, or a pitcher’s, control. But once you read it, you realize how many things you were looking at incorrectly.

I had nearly the same “How could I have not seen this?” moment back in 2012, when Ken Pomeroy began breaking down 3PT% defense. In basically a series of posts, he went about showing that the only thing the defense has control of is an opponent’s 3-point attempts, and that once the ball’s in the air, randomness takes over.

Pomeroy’s “good 3-point defense means preventing 3-pointers from being taken” theorem from a few years ago blew my mind a little bit, and I had the same epiphany when discovering just how random big plays are. Sure, certain offenses are going to be more explosive than others, just as certain defenses are going to allow offenses to be more explosive than others. But the best way to prevent big plays over the long haul is to prevent successful plays. And despite allowing 43 points to Missouri State ... Mizzou didn’t actually give up that many successful plays.

After a 67 percent success rate on their first drive, the Bears basically sank into the 25-35 percent range for the rest of the game. On average, that will produce lots of punts, and it did ... but only after a series of epic defensive breakdowns on passing downs.

From a pure stat standpoint, the defensive efficiency that Mizzou showed is far more maintainable than the breakdowns that followed. Hooray?

(Meanwhile, Missouri’s offense was a damn wrecking ball, and nothing in these stats suggests otherwise.)

A second point of backhanded encouragement: MSU’s Peyton Huslig averaged 2.4 yards per pass attempt on standard downs and 15.2 per attempt on passing downs. Once again, that’s mortifying. And once again, that’s probably not sustainable.

Bad: Missouri State averaged 13.1 highlight yards per opportunity. That means the Bears’ successful plays were really, really successful. But once again, it’s not sustainable. LSU’s Derrius Guice was one of the most explosive backs in the country last year, and he averaged only 10.2 highlight yards per opp. And again, that was mostly because of what happened in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, Damarea Crockett was efficient as hell. Granted, Larry Rountree III and Ish Witter were far less so, and that’s disappointing, but we’ve long known that “keep Damarea healthy” is one of the keys to Mizzou’s 2017 campaign. (I will say, though, that Rountree looked better in his first game than Crockett did a year ago.)

Take out one hilarious breakdown, and Malik Earl averages only 7.4 yards per target. Take out one more hilarious breakdown, and Erik Furmanek averages 5.4 yards per target. Last week really was the ultimate in “stats vs. eyeballs.” The stats see a defense that was awful for a quarter and then totally fine. The eyeballs just saw blood. Lots and lots of blood.

Havoc rate for the game: Mizzou 21.6%, MSU 9.3%. That’s exactly what you want to see.

I completely missed that DeMarkus Acy had a couple of TFLs. Seriously, I wish that I had looked at these damn stats days ago.

Now let’s flip over to the South Carolina-NC State game.

South Carolina win expectancy: 25%. The Gamecocks got doubled up in yardage, had a far worse success rate, and generated two fewer scoring opportunities. And won. That’s really tough to do.

As we’ve discussed, SC’s winning formula basically consisted of erasing big plays and creating more takeaway opportunities than the opponent. Thanks to the addition of a special teams touchdown (also unsustainable), it worked — NCST had nothing to offer from an explosiveness standpoint, and while the Wolfpack fumbled twice, the Cocks fumbled zero times.

It’s not hard to see SC pulling off the same recipe against Mizzou. Hell, the Gamecocks basically did the last time these teams played. If the quick sideline passes result in short gains instead of great blocks and huge plays, it’s not hard to see the Tigers eventually fumbling or throwing more dangerous passes. Mizzou’s efficiency numbers last week were encouraging last week, but this is a far greater test.

Styles make fights. SC-NCST resulted in 13 possessions for each team, while Mizzou-MSU had 17 each. We’ll see if the Gamecocks can shrink the game. We’ll also see if they get enticed into taking bigger shots on passing downs. They played it super safe in such situations last week.

It was the ultimate sign of respect that South Carolina barely even tried to run against NC State’s defensive front; Jake Bentley threw 18 passes on standard downs, while Rico Dowdle rushed just 12 times total. I assume that ratio will flip a decent amount, but how much is still an interesting question. Because again, I’m guessing South Carolina watched Mizzou-MSU film and saw what all of us saw.