This is it. The last game of the 2021 season. The first bowl game that the Missouri Tigers will be playing in since 2018 despite being eligible for a bowl in 2019 and 2020. The first bowl game for over half of this roster and the first bowl game for this Missouri football coaching staff.
And the opponent is the annoying, giant-killing, triple-option gurus of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Here’s what Army did during the regular season:
The Black Knights outlasted a surprisingly excellent Western Kentucky squad in the second week of the year, had a baffling loss on the road at Ball State, and then lost consecutive games to P5 opponents in drastically different styles. They also lost to Navy in their last game of the year but that’s not super indicative of the team as a whole.
The first thing that should pop out to you is this: 0-2 against P5 programs. Both were close games, mind you - Wisconsin was a one-score game almost the entire time and the Wake Forest game was an exchange of haymakers - but they are 0-2 nonetheless. Both Wisconsin and Wake Forest are quite a bit better than Missouri, however; in fact, from a quality standpoint, Missouri is somewhere in between Liberty and Georgia State with an offense similar to Wisconsin’s and a defense similar to Wake Forest’s or Ball State’s (three games that the Black Knights lost, btw).
The teams that beat Army held them to under 20 points and forced them to throw more than 10 passes; we’ll see if the Missouri defense can create that scenario.
And here’s an update to Missouri’s season:
Aside from the overtime loss to Boston College, Missouri lost to teams that ranked in the top 25 of SP+ and beat teams that were outside of that range. Army is currently ranked 59th, for what it’s worth.
Army likes to shrink the game down to 9-10 possessions to keep the game as close as possible and force athletically superior teams to play in the uncomfortable position of close-game-against-a-funky-underdog. For the season, Army is 2-2 in one-possession games and Missouri is 3-2.
Let’s look at some keys to the game for Mizzou to win their first bowl game in seven years:
When Missouri Has the Ball
Service academy teams have the reputation as being under recruited and undersized. And, as you can see, the recruiting-stars coming out of high school aren’t there but the size is: Bonsu, Cockrill, and Frey go 6’4”, 6’3”, and 6’5” respectively and each weighs more than 280 so they should provide a similar frame to what Missouri’s offensive line has seen so far this year.
Pass to Win
Let’s get this out of the way first: Army’s defense is good. Damn good. 44th overall, 20th against the run, 39th on standard downs, 45th on passing downs. The Black Knights have two glaring weaknesses, though: pass defense (75th) and stopping explosive plays (88th). So...do you trust Missouri’s passing game to get it done? Because it’s going to have to in order to keep this offense moving. Army’s 3-4 scheme focuses on wiping out the run and forcing opponents to pass by putting them in obvious passing situations. By now you know how the Missouri offense works: an efficiency-based passing game that does just enough and never breaks off a big play with the Tyler Badie-fueled run game that is the sole generator of big plays. The Tigers will have to play off script to find success here which is exactly what Army wants. Connor Bazelak (because you know he’s starting this game) needs to have at least a 45% success rate.
Generate Big Plays
As previously stated, Army’s defense is aggressive against the run to create obvious passing-down situations. While that aggressiveness has worked out for them most of the time, it also leaves them open to big plays if the ball carrier can break through the mush or get over the top. Not only are the Black Knights prone to giving up big plays 12.6% of the time (88th) they also are one of the worst defenses at letting those big plays go for huge chunks of yards (109th). So...the Tigers need to generate some big plays and probably do it through the air! Mizzou should shoot to generate at least eight (8) big plays through the air and create at least fourteen (14) for the game.
Finish your dang drives
How does Army hang with the big boys and win games that they shouldn’t? They move slow - 97th in the country in pace - give you 9-10 possessions per game, and have the 2nd-best points per scoring opportunity at 5.26. What’s more: when they get in goal-to-go situations, they score touchdowns 88% of the time, 8th in the country. They are comfortable at playing uncomfortably close games and win because they maximize on their scoring chances.
Coming in to this game, Missouri is averaging about 12 possessions per game, average 4.1 points per scoring opportunity, and they get touchdowns 78% of the time in goal-to-go situations.
You know I’m the biggest stan for our big, beautiful Thiccer, but field goals aren’t going to cut it here. Missouri is used to getting 5-6 scoring opportunities per game on their 12 possessions and will need to get that with two fewer possessions. 5 opportunities with at least 5 points per opportunity will be most sure-fire way to keep up in a shortened game.
When Army Has the Ball
I mentioned that the Army defensive line isn’t that much smaller than a typical SEC defensive line. The offensive line, however, is quite a bit smaller. Not a single dude over 290 pounds and all of them are under 6’4”. They negate that by a.) running the option, which means b.) cut blocking. A cut block is when an offensive lineman engages his defender by going low and bringing him down by cutting out (aha!) the support from the defender’s legs. While a lot of older football stuff has been made illegal in our modern version of the game, cut blocking is still allowed as long as the defender isn’t engaged with another player and, therefore, can prepare to be cut blocked and counter it. The defense counters cut blockers by placing their hands on a cut-blocking-lineman and pushing down, using the cutter’s momentum of forward-and-down carry him to the ground and freeing the defender up. However, it takes a few extra second to do this and, by that point, the ball is already optioning its way down the field. It’s annoying but it’s why the service academies do it.
Stop the one thing this offense does
Breaking news: triple option teams run the ball. And while Missouri’s run defense improved over the back half of the season they haven’t seen anything like this. Yes, the modern zone-read concepts are the direct descendants of the triple, but Missouri hasn’t seen an under-the-center, fullback-and-two-slot-backs type of option football since 2009. The defensive line getting pushed back was a major issue at the beginning of the year, yes, but also Missouri’s linebackers were constantly out of position to make a play. The option is specifically designed to get linebackers out of position so this could be a rude reminder of what we saw in the first six games of this season. The good news is that this Army offense isn’t nearly as good as previous iterations were but they do enough to stay even with the chains. Missouri needs to aim to keep Army’s rushing success rate under 44% to have a chance in this game.
You’ve heard the old football trope of “3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust”, right? My high school coach always told us “if you can get me 3.5 yards per play I guarantee you I can coach you to a win”. It’s an overly simplistic view but the bones make sense: if you get a little more than 3 yards on your three downs then you get a first down. Simple enough! Army has taken this to heart: they aren’t explosive on the ground (61st) and aren’t even all that efficient on the ground (63rd) and the percentage of 1st-downs that they convert on 1st- or 2nd-down is 59%, 128th in the country! So how do they convert and hold on to the ball? By having the #1 yards-to-go on 3rd down average of 5.6 yards and converting their 3rd-downs 44% of the time, 28th-best in the nation. So the goal should be to hold them to a 35% conversion rate on 3rd-downs or worse.
I would love to see the Tigers win a bowl game for the first time in seven years and send these seniors out with a win. In the big picture this game doesn’t mean much but, in the ultimate small sample sport, 7-6 looks much better than 6-7 so I’m rooting for the prettier record and the sentimental positivity of ending the season with a W. I’ll say Missouri 31 - Army 28. Go get ‘em, boys.