The second rung in the ladder known as the 2023 football season leads our intrepid Tiger squad to Middle Tennessee, a team fresh off of a shellacking by perennial dynastic southern hegemons, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Here’s the preview I did of the Blue Raiders back in April. The Raiders continue to be exactly who they’ve always been: overlooked talent that maxes out all of their attribute points to explosive plays on both the offensive and defensive side, efficiency be damned. Elite teams will control and overcome that - like Alabama! - whereas mortal teams can get suckered into a shootout and lose in uncomfortable territory - like 2016 Missouri or 2022 Miami.
Regardless of the prior 60 minutes we’ve watched of this team, I think the vast majority of Missouri fans still believe this team is going to be a few deviations above mediocre. Blake Baker will have his work cut out for him and this would be an excellent game for the Tiger receivers to flex their YAC muscles.
Let’s look at the keys to the game:
When Missouri Has the Ball
Middle’s defensive front is what I’ll call slightly undersized: the edge rushers and interior lineman all average out to about 6’2.5” and weigh in the same 260-280 range. Part of this is the talent that the Raiders can attract, but also is a product of their defensive scheme: throw away your giant, immovable linemen and bring in low-to-the-ground, lighter pass rushing machines to get into the quarterback as fast as possible at any cost. Similarly, their coverage scheme encourage disruption as well, putting them in positions to jump routes for a quick deflection or interception. It takes discipline to not fall into the traps and make the safest reads, and if done right then the offense flips the script and goes for an explosive in the positive direction. Here’s hoping that’s the case in Saturday.
Here’s what Missouri needs to do:
Run the dang ball
Missouri has a size advantage on the lines and - based on nothing but 60 minutes of FCS evisceration - should be much better at running the ol’ inside/outside zone that Drinkwitz and Moore use as the core planks for the offensive platform. The Raiders should be much more game at stopping it than South Dakota was but they’ll also be selling out for TFLs and leave some gaps. I’m not dumb enough to think Mizzou can flirt with a 60% success rate on the ground this week so let’s look for a 46% rushing success rate.
Generate some big dang plays
It doesn’t matter how. Deep shots are cool. So are screen passes that gain 20+ yards after the catch. Or even our little muscle hamster Cody Schrader scurrying for 15 yards on the end around. Point is, Middle Tennessee’s defense gives you chances for big gains if you can decipher their aggression and this Mizzou team should be able to do so. Let’s set the bar at ten explosive plays, minimum.
Finish your dang drives
Longtime readers of my previews and Beyond the Box Score know this is a bugaboo of mine and something that Eli’s teams have struggled with. Last week Mizzou created 7 scoring opportunities and averaged 5 points per trip which is good! So good, in fact, that I’m essentially asking for it again! Middle isn’t going to want to settle for field goals and the Tigers shouldn’t be trotting out Mevis unless they want to break Thiccer of his brain worms via repetitive exposure therapy. In any case, I’m going to ask for 9 scoring opportunities and 5.5 points per opportunity.
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
Most of Middle’s offensive skill position guys are under 6’0” tall, with most of the receivers under 5’9”. Again, the Raiders value speed and explosiveness over almost everything and recruit accordingly. That means outside runs that break for 20, quick screens and slants that put the receiver in a position to juke his way to 40+ yard gains, etc. Missouri has the talent and depth to hang but will have to be “patiently aggressive” and pick their spots in order to not let a big gainer slip by.
Create some dang HAVOC!
I mentioned this in Beyond the Box Score on Tuesday but Missouri was surprisingly quiet in the havoc department, and the secondary in particular had a very pedestrian single pass broken up. I think the defensive line will have plenty of opportunities to turn Middle’s offensive line into turnstiles but the secondary needs to get some active hands as well. Outside of FCS games Blake Baker’s Missouri defenses need havoc rates in at least the 25% range for victories over FBS teams; let’s shoot for that.
Get some dang turnovers!
And with all of that havoc, turnovers should come with it. South Dakota did a good job of holding on to the ball while getting wrecked on multiple occasions but I’d like to think that luck turns here. Let’s see at least two turnovers by Missouri’s defense.
Missouri has more talent but Middle has the scheme that amplifies the Random Number Generator of college football and generates upsets. I’m not, like, nervous nervous or anything, but history has shown us that this game has all the potential to be uncomfortable for too long. Here’s hoping this is a nice, boring victory that ends in the second win of the year.