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Bye Week Breakdown: Defense by the Numbers

The whipping boys of Week 1 have turned into a dominant force that have propelled the team to three straight wins. Here’s how they’re doing it.

NCAA Football: SE Missouri State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

I haven’t been doing this all that long, so I can’t help but take credit when it’s out there to be claimed. I wrote those words that you see in that big quote there one day after the Wyoming loss while the Missouri corners of the internet were clamoring for Odom, Walters, Sterk, and Truman the Tiger to be fired over such an embarrassing loss. And, I’ll admit, the loss still feels terrible, but that’s why it’s better to view results from a deeper view rather than just “average yards per carry” or “the final score” (ok, I’m clearly kidding on that second one).

While the wipe-out at Wyoming was devastating to our morale, it did show us a few things: 1) turnovers are important, 2) the offense has a high ceiling and a low floor, and 3) the defense can be gashed, but that’s the only way it can be hurt. Let’s walk through the defensive version of the categories I broke out yesterday to see the DNA of an elite* defense:

*through Week 4, lol

4th in success rate, 97th in effective explosiveness: they can be gashed by big plays but if you’re not doing that you’re getting stuffed. Still true! Tucker McCann’s howitzer of a leg has given the defense excellent starting field position, and if the opponent gets a scoring opportunity, the defense is holding them to a little more than a field goal worth of points each time. Keep in mind, these stats eliminate garbage time, so anything West Virginia did once the starters went out and... pretty much the entire second half of the SEMO game, are removed. Basically, this level of play isn’t inflated by over-matched opponents— this is the real deal. You’d like to see them improve on limiting the effectiveness of explosive plays (or limit explosive plays in general), but this has been an excellent few weeks for Ryan Walters’ guys.

Five categories of run defense, three in the top ten, one in the top 12, and the one overall weakness we’ve already established is still an obvious weakness in the run game. The thing that makes me happiest is that opponents have been slightly more successful on the ground than the air against Missouri, and it’s still only 30%. Also, explosive running plays rely on good scheme and poor tackling, something that Missouri has not shown since the Wyoming game where they were out of position and missed two tackles.

Just like on offense, where experience is so important to passing game success, so, too, is that the truth on defense where an experienced secondary means so much to secondary, and overall defensive, success. AND WOULD YOU LOOK AT THOSE PASS DEFENSE RANKINGS!?!?!?!?!? Top 50 in every category, Top 10 in three of them. Acy, Holmes, Ware, Sparks, Gillespie, Bledsoe, Oliver... these guys have been dynamite in coverage and run support and haven’t even needed to rely on turnovers to do so. The SEC East isn’t stocked with prodigious passing talent from a quarterback standpoint, so there’s a good chance these guys can flex on opposing receiving corps (outside of Athens, GA) for the rest of the season. I hate to be so confident because, again, I’m a damaged Missouri fan who can’t have nice things, but the performance against the pass has been excellent, and now I expect that type of performance every game going forward. It won’t happen, mind you, but even a lesser performance than this is very good.

Second in the country in limiting both successful plays on standard downs and efficiency on standard downs. That’s absolutely thanks to Jordan Elliott, the surprising Kobie Whiteside, and the tackling machines of Cale Garrett and Nick Bolton. Even with the element of surprise on the offense’s side when it comes to Standard Downs, opponents know that the most successful way of moving the ball is running, and they’re still not getting it done. Once again our friend the explosive play is the lone weakness in this category, as is generating sacks, but the secondary has done a good enough job covering the lack of sacks, and opponents have only had a handful of explosive plays on this defense. The Missouri defense starts drives with an advantage and just leans on opponents.

On passing downs, the defense ranks lower than in other categories, but luckily, most college offenses are bad on passing downs anyway. The Tigers are merely “talented mortals” in stopping Passing Downs success rate - but still holding opponents to under 30% - while the effectiveness of explosive plays are mitigated (compared to standard downs) and the sack rate doubles. I’m also very pleased to see that — if the opponents tries to pull a quick run on a passing down — the defense does a great job of limiting the space the O line can open up. Compared to their peers, the Missouri defense is much better at standard downs than passing downs, but overall, this unit is great no matter the down and distance.

Another category, another Top 30 performance across the board. For as much as I’ve cited (and we’ve all seen) the danger of big plays against this defense, you can see that only 4% of the plays the Tiger defense have seen are plays of 20+ yards (roughly 10 plays total in 4 games). The fact that Missouri opponents are leveraged into 3rd downs of nearly 9 yards each time and can then keep all 3rd down attempts successful only 25% of the time is excellent defensive efficiency. It probably won’t last throughout the season but, WOW, has it been impressive so far.

Like I said yesterday, I don’t put much stock in red zone performance, but if you all are curious, here it is. The stat I’ll point out first is that, over 4 games, Missouri opponents have had 15 scoring opportunities, 13 of which have come while the Tigers are on defense. A defense that gives an opponent roughly three scoring opportunities per game should absolutely put their team in a position to win. The red zone stats are, again, merely fine instead of elite, but there haven’t been a ton of plays run in the red zone, which again, is a better indicator of defensive quality.

Conclusion

This defense is good. There are some opportunities to improve, and regression is absolutely certain in some areas, but this is unit that is worthy of the “S-E-C” reputation.

Here’s the percentile performance from game to game with the current opponent offensive ranking in parenthesis:

  • Wyoming (62nd) - 29%
  • West Virginia (84th) - 94%
  • SEMO (FCS) - 94%
  • South Carolina (76th) - 87%

And, for good measure, here are the current offensive ranks of the remaining Missouri opponents:

  • Troy - 25th
  • Ole Miss - 94th
  • Vanderbilt - 75th
  • Kentucky - 35th
  • Georgia - 9th
  • Florida - 23rd
  • Tennessee - 91st
  • Arkansas - 93rd

In case you’re curious... the best defense Missouri ever fielded (according to SP+) was the 2015 unit that ranked 3rd in the nation with a rating of 12.4. Through four games, the 2019 edition ranks 11th with a rating of 14.5, just ahead of the second best Missouri defense ever, the 2014 unit with a rating of 15.2. Just for reference...

The Tigers will get gashed several more times, they’ll inevitably struggle against some surprise team on this list (probably Vanderbilt or... ugh... Kentucky) but this defense has dominated inferior opponents in a way that elite defenses should and has the personnel and depth in place to really wreck some good offenses out there. If the Missouri offense can assist at least a little bit more than they have so far, this is a team that can really climb in the SEC East.