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Beyond the Box Score: Winning with The Little Things

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Or “how to safely put away a game without feeling like you’re putting away a game”

When I write my opponent previews during the season, I like to highlight 2-3 weaknesses that the opponent has displayed in previous games and how the Tigers should attack it. But if you ask me how Mizzou will actually win - as was done in our Pregamin’ piece on Friday - my answers may vary. And, in this case, the weaknesses weren’t necessarily taken advantage of - probably because those were last year’s weaknesses and the Chips improved substantially in those areas - but “the Little Things” were, mostly, taken care of to the advantage of the Tigers.

Here’s the full advanced box score* to start:

Advanced Box Score

Let’s walk through my keys to the game and see how Mizzou fared in each matchup before breaking down the full advanced box score for further analysis.

*some of the numbers you are seeing here are not the numbers you’ll see on any “official” box score that you’ve seen floating around. Why? Because the official box score is incorrect. I’ve watched the game three times now and found that not all targets were accurate, not all catches were correctly labeled, rush yards were inaccurate, and total yards for some players were off because of it. Apparently it’s Week 1 for the scorekeepers, too.

When Missouri Has the Ball

Missouri Offense vs. Central Michigan Defense

Show off that shiny, new, deep ball passing game

Well...Bazelak certainly attempted more deep balls than we had seen in previous games. The issue, of course, is that he didn’t really connect on them. Lovett and Smith were targeted twice on balls travelling further than 20 yards and only Smith was able to haul one in (on the first play of the game, which was a nice touch). Every other pass thrown was short to intermediate, and the biggest gains outside of the first pass to Smith were generated by YAC off of quick dump off passes. Bazelak finished with 7.6 yards per attempt, 0.1 yards higher than my goal, but those deep balls need to be hauled with a tick more frequency to truly be an effective weapon.

Winner: Missouri

Playmaker Downs

I figured CMU’s defense would generate enough havoc to put Mizzou’s offense into a few long-down-and-distance situations (also known as Passing Downs) and was hoping the Tigers could finish the game with at least a 38% conversion rate to keep drives going even when falling behind. Of the 70 plays the Tiger offense ran only 24 passing downs situations, which is good! What’s bad is that they only had a successful play on four of those downs, which comes out to 16.7%. Yuck. What’s worse is that Missouri overwhelmingly threw on those passing downs - 18 times, to be exact - and the Chippewa defense was able to snuff it out and limit the damage. That’s not good for Bazelak or the receivers but the gameplan was also very vanilla so maybe some of that had to do with the scheme and not wanting to show too much? Regardless...

Winner: Central Michigan

Finish your dang drives

Eight scoring opportunities resulted in 34 points, or 4.2 points per scoring opportunity. That is 0.6 points better than last year’s average that ranked towards the bottom of the country. Pro: improvement! Con: still not great! This will continue to be an item to track as the season goes on.

Winner: Central Michigan

When Central Michigan Has the Ball

Missouri’s Defense vs. Central Michigan’s Offense

Knock them off schedule

I was looking for the Tiger defense to keep CMU’s offense at a 45% success rate or worse on standard downs in hopes that they would be forced to throw, something they weren’t particularly good at last year. Of Central Michigan’s 86 plays where they were actively trying to move the ball and score, 52 of them came on standard downs and they had a successful play on 25 of them, good for 48%. Oh, and they still might not be good at passing the ball but...wow, they were really committed to doing so after the success they saw in the first two series. Lucky for Mizzou, huh?

Winner: Central Michigan

Bottle up the run

I was hoping Mizzou’s front six could limit the Chippewa rushing attack to under a 35% success rate. Reader, Central Michigan had a success rate of 48.3% on the ground. Yikes. Compare that to their 37.5% success rate when throwing the ball and you would think that they leaned heavily on the run. Of course, as you know, that was false: counting sacks Central Michigan dialed up 56 pass plays and 29 running plays. Go figure.

Winner: Central Michigan

So what “little things” did Missouri win?

Well, for one, taking care of the ball is a factor that can make the difference in close games. Mizzou benefited from two interceptions and damn near got a third in the Khalil Pimpleton muffed punt that was overturned.

Yards per play is the second factor that can help keep a game close. CMU outgained the Tigers 500-487 while running 20% more plays. That means Mizzou did more with less, gaining 6.9 yards per play compared to CMU’s 5.8. That helps!

Penalties are another. Mizzou played a pretty clean game while CMU defensive backs - namely Dishon McNary - were whistled for pass interference several times. Check it out:

Penalties

CMU doubled up Mizzou on the penalties for four times the yardage, giving Mizzou a +59 in “hidden yards”.

Special teams is another “little thing” that can lead to a larger impact on the overall game. Look at the field position weaponry the Tigers benefited from:

Special Teams Comparison

Missouri was able to return a few Central Michigan kickoffs to give them a +9 yard advantage in kick returns whereas the Chips never had a chance to return a kick off the foot of Sean Koetting. Moreover, look at the average starting field position: thanks to a few interceptions and the aforementioned returns, Missouri’s average starting field position was their own 27-yard line whereas Central Michigan was hemmed in on their own 19. That’s a +8 yard advantage; multiply that over the 13 possession each team have and you get a +104 yard boost for the Tigers. That yardage certainly helped get them in field goal range twice (although Thiccer’s “range” is, apparently, the moon), give the Tigers a shorter field to cross, help tilt the field overall to make CMU work for much longer to get their scoring opportunities.

Lastly, scoring opportunities (defined as drives getting inside the opponent’s 40-yard line or, ya know, scoring). Missouri generated 8 scoring opportunities compared to Central Michigan’s 7 but also benefited from a +0.8 points per scoring opportunity advantage. Creating more opportunities and scoring more per opportunity is a sure-fire way to build a lead when other factors of the game are going against you.

“Close game magic” - which I’ve said before that Drinkwitz has been on an extended run with - is the benefit of good coaching and game management, great quarterback play, and elite special teams. It looks like, so far, Drinkwitz has all three; as long as that holds true he should be favored in close games.

Extra Points

  • Let’s talk about third downs because, as you know, they were bad. Missouri went 1-11, with their only conversion being a 3rd-and-3. Meanwhile, CMU went 8-18 for the game, after going an unsustainable 7-9 to start the game. But while the Chips’ average 3rd-down distance was 8 yards, Missouri’s was 11. A 9% 3rd-down conversion rate is not sustainable for a team looking to make the offseason but neither is a ridiculous average of 3rd-and-11.
  • Missouri’s run defense wasn’t great, which we have discussed in several posts on this site so far. But while, yes, CMU was deadly on the ground, 190 of their 247 rushing yards (76%) were gained on eight rushes. Remember, even though they inexplicably abandoned the running game, the Chips still called 29 rushing plays meaning that Missouri did its job on 21 of the 29 plays (72%). That doesn’t erase or excuse those other eight plays, mind you, it just means that if they can correct the issues on those eight plays they’ll actually be in good shape.
  • Mookie Cooper was not good. Four catches on four targets is nice but it only gained 12 yards with a mere 25% success rate. He was even worse on the jet sweeps, gaining two yards on three carries with no successful plays. If he wasn’t 100% then shame on the staff for continuing to put him out there. If they were just putting stuff on film and waiting to unleash his full repertoire against Kentucky...I guess that’s fine? Remember that Mookie hasn’t played an actual game of organized football since his junior year of high school so there is a solid chance that he was just getting used to game speed. Our expectations for him were sky high and game one didn’t meet them; he has another eleven games in this season to show us what he can do.
  • Credit to the Mizzou defense for punishing CMU’s offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay for insisting on the pass. Jacob Sirmon completed 7 of his first 8 passes and had successful plays on 5 of the first 6 but only had 7 successful pass plays from that point on (until the second-to-last drive of the game). The Tigers clamped down on the Chippewa receivers and completely erased their biggest weapon in Khalil Pimpleton (1 catch on 10 targets).

Conclusion

It doesn’t matter how you win, just win. And with a G5 opponent who was ready and able to hang around, the Tigers needed to take care of business on the boring stuff to pull ahead...and they did. As a fan you always prefer to blow out every opponent you play but there were a lot of lessons the team could learn from this game and it’s better to be made aware of the discrepancies before you’re biggest game of the year. We’ll see how the Kentucky game unfolds but, if past performances are any indication, we should at least be able to rely on “the little things” to be done right.