If your quarterback consistently wins within structure, in particular in the short passing game, you’re going to have a chance to win a lot of football games. The short passing game is the foundation of any successful offense at this level.
As you’re building up a young quarterback, you do so the same way you would warm up in basketball. Start close with layups, and work your way out from there. A quarterback’s “layup” is a rhythm and timing throw.
It’s a great starting point for an offense, and then you build from there.
But what do you do when you try building from there, and you hit a plateau? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself as I’ve watched the Missouri offense this season.
Connor Bazelak is a perfectly capable starting college quarterback. If the Tigers had a good defense right now, he might be the perfect quarterback to lead this team into the future. He tends to keep the offense on track, doesn’t make a ton of costly mistakes and seems to be a solid extension of the coaching staff on the field.
But I keep waiting for the next level. I keep waiting for the intermediate and deep passing game to emerge. It just... hasn’t happened.
I don’t have an answer for it. I went back and charged Bazelak’s throws against North Texas. Your eye test probably matches the numbers. I counted 37 pass attempts by Bazelak on the day (including throwaways and attempts nullified by penalties). Of those 37 attempts, 13 were at or behind the line of scrimmage. Another 10 pass attempts were within 1-5 yards. Three were throwaways with no real attempt to throw to any receiver in particular.
That means 26 of Bazelak’s 37 attempts either traveled fewer than five yards down field or were thrown out of bounds. Of the remaining 11 attempts, four traveled 6-10 yards, two traveled 11-15 yards and five traveled 20+ yards.
Now, a disclaimer. Bazelak’s day would have looked much better statistically if not for Chance Luper tripping over his own feet on a deep ball at the end of the first half or if Hyrin White avoided a holding penalty on what should have been a 41 yard completion to Niko Hea down the left sideline. Those were two chunk plays nullified by something beyond Bazelak’s control.
That doesn’t change the math, though. I’m less concerned about Bazelak’s “deep” passing game and more concerned by the lack of anything in the intermediate range. He attempted two passes between 10 and 20 yards against the Mean Green defense. Two! That seems... Strange?
This is becoming a “thing” for the Tigers’ offense. Sure, they’ll take some deep shots here and there. Drinkwitz tends to scheme up at least a couple “shot plays” every week. But the offense as a whole seems to lack that next level right now.
Is that simply the offense? Is it limitations from the quarterback? Do the Tigers lack the receiving weapons to attack the intermediate portion of the field? Do the Tigers not have the offensive line to hold up for those kinds of plays?
It’s probably a combination of all of the above, to be honest. But for Missouri’s offense to take the next step, it starts with adding more onto the passing game. Bazelak completed just four passes of 20+ yards prior to the North Texas game, according to SEC Stat Cat. He had 18 completions on 35 pass attempts in the 11-20 yard range which resulted in two touchdowns and three interceptions in the first five weeks of the season.
That’s just not enough. You can get by with it against Central Michigan, SEMO and North Texas. You can make it work when Tyler Badie racks up nearly 900 yards from scrimmage in the first six games of the season.
But this season is about building for 2022 and beyond. Lacking a deep threat isn’t going to go well against Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida or Arkansas. And it’s only going to become that much more problematic next year when Tyler Badie isn’t there to bail out the offense the way he was against North Texas.
Bazelak has the foundation in place. He’s wildly effective in the quick passing game. But a year and a half into his starting experience, it’s time to start showing more down the stretch. It begins with a big test at home against Texas A&M.