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Beyond the Box Score: Recruiting and line play are important!

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There aren’t many certainties in the 2020 season but recruiting and staff consistency have been winning the day so far

Yes, it was very disappointing to see Missouri lose to Tennessee and the manner in which it happened. None of the Rock M masthead believed that Missouri would win, simply that they could win if some breaks went their way.

Instead, Tennessee completely scrapped their passing game after the first half once they realized that the offensive line was wiping out all Tiger resistance and the Volunteer running backs could wrong-gap the linebackers to oblivion. Missouri did well against the Tennessee scripted plays but had no answer once OC Jim Cheney realized his line was lightyears better than Missouri’s d-line and went ground-and-pound for the second half.

On the flip side, a defense chocked full of blue chip recruits gave up some big plays but mostly kept the Tigers in check. They had no fear of Shawn Robinson attempting a deep ball, and even when Bazelak showed it could happen, were able to snuff out most running plays and limit the damage through the air.

All pretty simple stuff, but this is Beyond the Box Score, so let’s get intricate!

Advanced Box Score

The Vols ran 11 more plays even with the same 9 possessions that Missouri got, and that’s not even counting the nothing-plays where they simply ran out the clock at the end of the game. They chained together scoring drives of 14, 9, 9, 8, 16, and 8 plays while averaging a little over 8 plays per possession compared to Missouri’s 7. They averaged more yards per play and per possession, generated more scoring opportunities, got more points per those opportunities, started their drives with better field position, and never turned the ball over. That’s not an impossible set of circumstances to overcome for a win...but it’s pretty damn close.

I would also like to point out that, on average, a defense will pick off one out of every four passes defensed. Tennessee defensed one ball and got an interception out of it; Missouri defended four balls with zero interceptions. Thanks, Coach Gibbs.

Missouri’s Offense vs. Tennessee’s Defense

Missouri Offense vs. Tennessee Defense

Missouri had two possessions featuring 9 plays in the first quarter. 100% of those plays came with Shawn Robinson under center and the Tigers had a successful play on two of them (both Rountree runs). They were essentially empty possessions which is why Drinkwitz stuck with Bazelak once the 2nd quarter started.

Tennessee wasn’t super havoc-inducing (10%), but just like his old boss Nick Saban, Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee defense swarms really well and limits damage rather than stop it outright.

Let’s revisit my key points for the offense:

Feed Larry

Larry Rountree III’s Stat Line

I thought 16-20 rushes and a success rate north of 50% would show a competence-level in the ground game that meant the Tigers were seeing success against the Tennessee defense. Larry Rountree III got his carries (18) and his yards (84) but a success rate of 38% isn’t going to cut it. In fact, less than 30% of his carries generated four yards! He was high explosive/low efficiency against the Vols, averaging a staggering 8.1 highlight yards if the line could get him some space...but only getting the space 27% of the time. In those situations, the big runs need to go super long - or, ya know, score - and it just wasn’t enough.

Winner: Tennessee

Passing Downs Success Rate

Passing downs - 2nd-and-8 or more, 3rd-and-5 or more, 4th-and-5 or more - are “playmaker” downs where your best player, typically the quarterback, needs to make a play to convert. It’s one way that an overmatched offense can hang with a superior opponent, keeping said superior defense on the field for long stretches of time and wearing them out. I postured that a passing downs success rate is over 45% would do the trick. Missouri faced 19 passing downs on Saturday and had a successful play on 5 of them, good for 26%. Falling behind the chains isn’t great, but not being able to convert on those bigger downs is a recipe for disaster.

Winner: Tennessee

Finish Drives

Yuck

5.8 points per possession is quite a bit more than 2.4. That’s how having one fewer scoring opportunity still equates to a 23-point beat down.

2.4! If Missouri had a scoring opportunity, they averaged fewer points than a field goal!

Winner: Tennessee

Missouri’s Defense vs. Tennessee’s Offense

Missouri Defense vs. Tennessee Offense

Missouri had a 20.3% havoc rate against Alabama - the percentage of plays where the ball is stopped behind the line or a pass is defensed. Against Tennessee the Tigers had a 10.9% havoc rate, featuring two tackles for loss and four passes defensed.

The Volunteers’ ground game was just incredible: yes, their average highlight yards and stuff rate were basically the same as Missouri’s, but they had a rushing success rate of 53.2% and got at least 4-yards on 48.9% of their carries. That’s absurd. In 2019, neither Wyoming, Kentucky, nor Georgia - Missouri’s worst games against the run - came close to that level of success and opportunity rates. Once the Tiger linebackers showed a propensity of plugging the wrong gap the Vols tucked away the passing game and simply mowed down the defense with efficient regularity. In fact, of Jarrett Guarantano’s 25 pass attempts (counting sacks), a mere 7 came in the second half.

Which, of course, makes me look like a big dumb idiot because I didn’t account for their lackluster run game to amount for much in my key stats. But let’s look at it anyway to see how they did:

Knock Them Off schedule

My thought here was that if Tennessee has to face 8-9 passing downs and has a success rate of less than 30% then the Tiger defense would be giving the Tiger offense plenty of possessions to move the ball. The Missouri defense actually did a pretty good job of forcing passing downs - 16 in all - but Tennessee converted on 8 of them, good for a 50% success rate. Obviously a defense needs to take advantage of those longer down-and-distance opportunities; Ty Chandler and Eric Gray had no issue finding holes to move the ball in those situations.

Winner: Tennessee

Stop Josh Palmer

Josh Palmer’s Stat Line

Palmer was fine, but certainly not the reason Missouri lost. He had 26% of the targets and 37% of their yards through the air but turned into a blocker for most of the game. So this is more of a “Missouri stopped Josh Palmer” but only because “Missouri couldn’t stop the ground game”.

Winner: Missouri (but not really)

Extra Points

We’re ignoring Shawn Robinson’s box score for obvious reasons, so here’s Connor Bazelak’s passing chart instead:

Connor Bazelak’s Passing Chart

You wonder what he could have done if his receivers didn’t drop the ball five times. Hell, if they only drop the ball twice that’s a huge improvement. Against Tennessee, Bazelak had a 47% success rate throwing the ball, better than Guarantano.

For the season, Shawn Robinson has a success rate of 41% passing the ball (12/29) while Connor Bazelak is sitting at a 45.7% success rate when throwing (16/35). I’m not going to combine that with running the ball because Robinson has yet to run for positive yardage on the year and Bazelak has a touchdown under his belt.

Let’s look at “learning opportunities”, shall we?

:(

It doesn’t take an expert to tell you that seven drops is seven too many. And after a mostly-clean game against Alabama with three penalties the Tigers were whistled seven times for 46 yards worth of penalties.

Here’s an inquiry submitted by a curious mind (and regular Rock M commenter) via Twitter

Ask and ye shall receive:

  • Larry with Shawn: 16 rushes, 84 yards, 5.3 YPC, 50% success rate
  • Larry with Connor: 16 rushes, 67 yards, 4.2 YPC, 31.3% success rate

Part of this is dealing with a small sample size and the fact that Larry and Connor were not on the field at the same time against Alabama. But, as this sample shows, Larry tends to perform better with Shawn as QB. For whatever that’s worth (currently, not much).

Like last week, here’s the defensive secondary target data:

Defensive Secondary Targeting Data

Bledsoe found himself lined up in man against a receiver much more often this week than last, and therefore, was targeted more frequently. Burdine was, thankfully, more invisible and had a great pass broken up. But, again, the Volunteer ground game was the star so the damage here was less noticeable.

Conclusion

Here’s Tennessee’s starting offensive line, left to right, via Rivals recruiting services:

  • Wanya Morris - ****/6.0 - 41st Best Player in the Country (2019)
  • Trey Smith - ****/6.0 - 49th Best Player in the Country (2017)
  • Brandon Kennedy - ****/5.8
  • Jerome Carvin - ****/5.8
  • Cade Mays - *****/6.1 - 19th Best Player in the Country (2018)

And here’s Missouri’s defensive line:

  • Tre Williams - ****/5.8
  • Kobie Whiteside - **/5.3
  • Markell Utsey - **/5.3
  • Chris Turner - **/5.4

Also, here are the last five recruiting classes for each team:

  • Tennessee: 15th (2016), 15th (2017), 20th (2018), 13th (2019), 8th (2020)
  • Missouri: 46th (2016), 49th (2017), 39th (2018), 34th (2019), 54th (2020)

Being great scouts and talent developers is cool and good and necessary for any coaching staff, but it’s a lot easier to be those things when you’re hauling in Top 20 talent every class. The best tacticians and developers can win a ton of games but the best recruiters will always have a better chance at winning titles; it’s why Gene Chizik has a National Championship and Chip Kelly does not.

Frankly, what Tennessee is right now is what Missouri should aspire to be. Hire a young coordinator with tons of recruiting energy, install winning schemes that were honed at other schools, raise the program’s profile and improve wins over a few uncomfortable years...it’s exactly what reasonable fans should expect of Drinkwitz. It can be done, even in the SEC, but it’s a bumpy road, full of mocking by other fan bases and calls to be fired by your own fan base.

It sucks that the Tigers got detonated after we scrounged up some optimistic views of the Alabama beat down, but that’s what happens with a young, bad team. Again, you hope that lessons are learned, development is made, and the team gets better from these games because losses like this suck, regardless of context.

If there’s any consolation, we still really don’t know what Missouri is at this point. No one who covers the sport knows, anyway, because it’s impossible to judge a young team with a brand new staff when they’ve only played Alabama and Tennessee. And, as we’ve seen, teams can fluctuate wildly this year: look at Mississippi State or any team in the Big XII! No, we’ll learn more about Missouri when they stop taking on Top 15 programs in the country and...oh right, LSU is this week. Oh well!