Missouri is, in fact, not playing kansas, and that is perfectly fine. The Tigers instead have a date with Wake Forest on December 23rd in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, FL.
The Demon Deacons enter this game at 7-5 after an up-and-down season where they lost 4/5 games by single digits yet picked up a win over #13 Florida State. Sam Hartman leads an unorthodox yet efficient offense that can really put some points on the board, while their defense is a tale of two sides.
Here are my five keys for Mizzou to be able to take down Wake Forest and finish the 2022 season above .500.
Containing The Slow Mesh
If you have not watched Wake Forest before, this will be a treat. Dave Clawson has employed a “slow-mesh” scheme in his time at Wake Forest, and it is incredibly effective.
The “slow-mesh” is where the quarterback puts the ball in the stomach of the running back but does not make an immediate read on whether or not to give him the ball. Unlike a normal read option, the quarterback (Sam Hartman) waits, and waits until the defense commits to the running back, the quarterback, or covers the passing routes. The slow-mesh generally has three options, making it all the more difficult to defend. Hartman will wait up to 3-4 seconds before he makes a choice, making this scheme look awkward at times, but it has stumped defenses for years.
So, why is this so successful? The slow-mesh scheme forces the defenders to choose to defend something no matter what. Take the running back? Hartman has the ball skills and legs to fake the read and take it off the edge. Win the battle up front and stack the box? If the defense bites on the long fake, then a run-pass option (usually a slant or go-route) is available downfield. There is almost always an available option, and with how experienced Hartman is at running this system, the right choice is usually made. An example of the slow mesh is provided below.
Wake Forest Slow Mesh Post pic.twitter.com/QTWyTBvrMG— Firstdown_X&Os (@FirstdownX__Os) September 20, 2022
How experienced is he? Hartman himself has thrown for over 12,000 yards, ran for 841 yards, and has 124 total touchdowns in his career. He’s run this system since 2018 (mostly) and has averaged over 30 points per game in every one of those years. He’s played a lot of ball, and been one of the greatest quarterbacks Wake Forest has ever fielded.
So, how do you stop the slow-mesh? First, it comes down to winning the battle up-front. If the Tigers can stop the duo of Christian Turner and Justice Ellison from getting 4-5 yards a pop on the basic read, then that disrupts the rest of the Demon Deacon offense. It also comes down to the members of the Tiger secondary remaining disciplined in the RPO game when Hartman attempts to dump it over the top of the linebackers. There is a lot of eye candy that Hartman and his receivers want defenses to bite on.
Similar to the triple option, defending the slow mesh takes winning up front and the defense remaining disciplined in their jobs.
The Wake Forest slow mesh. Would be so interesting to sit in on just 1 of their offensive meetings. pic.twitter.com/kY5nL0jetl— Move The Chains (@_MoveTheChains_) December 2, 2021
Defending The Jump Ball
When Sam Hartman drops back to pass, he loves two things: slate and go-routes (with an occasional post-route thrown in there). While that may seem predictable, it is still so tough to stop.
I’ve already gone in on how experienced Hartman is at the collegiate level. His receiver, A.T. Perry, is nearly just as seasoned. Perry stands at 6’5” and is known for being an elite jump ball-receiver. After all, he has 2,546 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns over the course of his four-year career, making a living off of dominating in the air. Jahmal Banks comes in at 6’4”, and Donavan Greene is 6’2”. Those are Wake Forest’s top three receivers, and they have size and length.
Hartman throws it up to them early and often, and he has mastered attacking one-on-one matchups. He knows when to lead a receiver or when to throw back-shoulder, and his guys are amazing at adjusting in the air. It remains to be seen how many of Mizzou’s defensive backs play in this game, but whoever is out there will be tested.
Sam Hartman having a RIDICULOUS day.— 247Sports (@247Sports) September 24, 2022
Wake back on top ‼️
Getting Brady Cook Into A Rhythm
The Tiger defense can prepare and slow down the Wake Forest offense all they want. Mizzou will still have to score some points to win.
Brady Cook has come alive in the latter portion of this season, capped off by a 380-yard, 2 touchdown performance in the win over Arkansas. His confidence is the highest it has ever been in his short career in Columbia, and he finally has the belief of the fanbase behind him. Now, he just needs to keep the positive momentum going.
He has to show the fans, his coaches, and his teammates that he can be the quarterback of the future for this program. Finishing off the 2022 season with a good performance in the bowl game will really solidify him as the starter for this team going into 2023.
Luckily for Cook, the Demon Deacons have struggled in pass defense all season-long. They allow opposing teams to throw for 272.8 yards per game, which ranks in the bottom 20 among possible teams. They’ve been torched by the likes of DJ Uiagalelei (Clemson), MJ Morris (NCSU) and Garrett Shrader (Cuse) thus far. Cook can certainly do the same, but it will take another accurate performance as well as a well-called game from Drinkwitz and Co.
Establishing The Running Game
The biggest thing that can help Cook out is an effective rushing attack. Running the ball well keeps the Demon Deacon defense honest, would keep the ball out of Hartman’s hands, and puts less pressure on the shoulders of Cook.
The Tigers have been an up-and-down team on the ground this season, but Cody Schrader has burst onto the scene as a quality back. Despite some offensive line struggles, the Truman State transfer has run for 692 yards and eight touchdowns and won over the Tiger fan base. He can be an X-factor in this game, but only if the O-line can open him up holes. Cook’s ability to scramble and keep the ball off the read option should help with the spacing up front as well, as every team will now take his legs into account after the Arkansas game.
And, while Wake struggles to defend the pass, they’ve been stout against the run. They allow a meager 137.2 yards per game on the ground and are known as a very physical front seven. That doesn’t bode well for a Tiger offensive line that has been thrown around at times this season, but they have shown improvement in recent weeks. If they can hold their own, Schrader continues to run hard, and Cook can be effective with his legs again, then this offense can score with Wake Forest.
In bowl games, with how evenly matched most teams are, a couple of key factors generally play a major role. One of those factors is turnovers.
The Demon Deacons have been plagued by them at times this season. They had EIGHT of them in a blowout loss to Louisville, three in the loss to NC State, and two in the close win over Liberty. Hartman is generally smart with the ball, but he has had some issues with security at times. As have some of their running backs.
The Tigers have not necessarily excelled at taking the ball away this season, and with so many defenders out of this game, turnovers may come at a premium. Still, after losing the turnover battle to Army in the 2021 bowl game (1-0), the Tigers would love to win it this time. Keeping the ball out of Hartman’s hands should be priority #1 in this game, and taking it away is the best way to do it (and also get some easy points).