Okay, so Mizzou got a big road win, but Georgia was banged up. Now the real season begins. Again. For the fifth time. Okay, so maybe people aren't taking Mizzou seriously yet, but at least we're getting talked about!
Gary Pinkel keeps saying we haven't played our best game yet. I'd agree with that. There's a lot to like in this film, but definitely room for improvement, especially in pass blocking and linebacker play. But rather than focusing on those things, I think such a big win deserves a pat on the back, so I'll focus on the things we did right today.
One of the things I was concerned about heading into league play was whether the line would by physical enough in SEC play. There are two ways to beat a team: either physically outclass them or execute better than them. I was worried that Mizzou's success this season was due to execution rather than physical dominance.
It's true that Georgia's maligned defense is not great. But the Bulldogs do have disruptive playmakers on the defensive line. To say the least, Mizzou held its own. On called runs, Mizzou had ZERO plays that lost yardage. Not counting the runs against the stacked box in the fourth quarter, I only counted eight runs did not pick up at least four yards and 16 that were successful. And only a couple of those involved offensive line players getting pushed aside. Ironically, it was the pass protection where they pushed us around a bit last Saturday, and that was the one area where I thought we were solid. Still, I think we're ready to compete in this league physically, and I wasn't sure about that earlier this year.
A few plays are worth pointing out here. First, some good ol' smashmouth. Against a physical SEC defensive line, this is two yards of surge before you even see contact and four yards before he's brought down. This happened multiple times.
Second, a counter with a twist. The classic counter has a back step one direction and then go immediately the other way against the blocking. Mizzou doesn't rely on a lot of misdirection other than the inside run vs. the outside bubble screen. But this is very subtle misdirection, and could easily be mistaken for a cutback if you didn't watch it a second time. What's interesting is the right guard and tackle double team their man, and left guard Max Copeland takes one little jab step to the right. The linebackers key on that blocking and flow toward that hole. As Henry Josey cuts back, Copeland has gone back left to double team the DE, while Eric Waters takes out the leverage LB, and the other LBs are caught in the traffic. It's an absolutely beautiful play, and a nice wrinkle from Josh Henson.
Now let's look at sealing the edge. Last year we spent half the season just trying to figure out who to put a hat on. This year the line is starting to do some of the stuff you expect from a high-level, experienced college line. Here you see a seal block being handed off so the tackle can then take out the LB. These guys made this look easy a few times this game, but I can't tell you how many times that inside man just can't take the handoff or the first guy rushes out of the block before it's handed off.
Tea and QBs
I am a big fan of how Gary Pinkel is managing Maty Mauk. He's taken great pains to let him know he's free to make plays. A complex position like QB can be a lot like a golf swing. You can't really master it until you've got all the little details down. But as you're learning, if you try to keep all the things you need to remember in your head at once, you inevitably hook the ball into the trees. Mauk is a playmaker by all accounts. Turn him loose and live with the highs and lows. Sure, he might throw five picks against Florida and ruin any chance we had. But we won't score a single TD if he can't play with confidence. I know the coaches are talking him up, but there wasn't much to go on. He only had one pass where he had to read the defense and choose the receiver, and that was almost an interception on a simple swing pass. Even the pass to Dorial Green-Beckham was scripted.
Almost as long as I've watched Mizzou, when key players have gone down, I tend to think, "Well, maybe the backup will step up or the other players play so well we don't miss him." I'm still waiting for that to happen. Actually that's not true. It happened once. Chase Daniel. Iowa State.
Mauk has big shoes to fill. And he'll have to do it against the best pass defense in the country with at least three surefire draft picks in the secondary. The truth is (and Florida's long litany of failed five-star QBs is proof) that quarterbacks really are like tea, as Pinkel likes to say. You don't know what you've got until you put them in hot water.
Twenty-one points. That's the magic number for me against Florida. Hit that, and I think our defense can win us the game. We've got a lot of playmakers on this offense. If Mauk can distribute the ball to them and go deep over the middle just enough to keep the defense honest, we have a good shot at that. But there I go again building up my hopes. I will say this: If Mauk does come out and move the offense against Florida and South Carolina, the ceiling on this team just went through the roof in the coming years. There I go again. I'll shut up now.
Mizzou likes to use leverage to turn running plays back into the pursuit in the middle of the field. In the second half, they really ramped this up, including several times where they got really aggressive and forced Georgia to go straight through or over the top. It was anything but playing "not to lose." The problem with this appraoch, as is illustrated by the last clip in this sequence, is that if the linemen get a hat on a linebacker, straight-up-the-gut can go for big yardage.
Appreciating the players
You know, my normal schtick is to find high points in a loss and things to fix in a victory. But I just have to take a few moments to appreciate these players. I haven't had so much fun just appreciating the players since Danario Alexander and company graduated. James Franklin was playing at a level I wasn't sure he was capable of reaching. I think he was starting to exceed all but Chance McDanielson in the time I've watched Mizzou for the last 20 years or so. His passing might have been a touch below Blaine Gabbert's, but he made up for it with his excellent scrambling.
E.J. Gaines is the best secondary player I think I can ever remember at Mizzou, and not just in pass coverage. I never realized just how good Andrew Wilson was until this season. L'Damian Washington may be our best receiver this year. Wow, has this guy gone from "that wafer-thin guy with iffy hands" to probably getting a look from an NFL team or two. And I absolutely LOVE this stable of running backs. I could show highlights all day, and I haven't even covered the D-line, most of the receivers or the O-line. But I'll just pick a couple of running back plays that show why I love this group so much. There's not a single jitterbug move from any of the backs for the entire game. Hard to believe a Pinkel team could be this north-south.
Seriously, folks. Take a moment to appreciate these players. You'll be talking about them in five years the way we talk about Maclin, Chase, Aldon and Danario. I mean, this is just one game.