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MISSOURI AT GEORGIA PREVIEW: Are the Tigers ready to take advantage of Dawg vulnerability?

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The S&P+ picks aren't as pessimistic this week! Georgia is still clearly the better team and is given a 78 percent chance to win the game (average score: 31-18 or so), but the Bulldogs have lost their form over the last couple of weeks, just enough to keep things potentially interesting. If Drew Lock chose Saturday evening as his potential coming-out party, Georgia's defense might accommodate. Regardless, the hedges are pretty and it should be a fun show for a little while.

When Georgia has the ball...

The biggest concern for Missouri's defense in this game is that Georgia has sunk just low enough to perhaps change things up a bit. And when you combine athleticism with unexpected tactics, you might find some advantages.

Standard Downs

Georgia Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 140.4 4 118.1 25 UGA
Standard Downs Success Rate 52.2% 30 41.4% 39 push
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.43 4 0.92 13 push
SD Line Yards per Carry 3.38 19 2.46 33 push
SD Sack Rate 3.1% 42 6.2% 36 push

As one would expect, Georgia has been run-heavy to date on standard downs. When you've got Nick Chubb, you ride him. But Chubb's out now, and in his place is a less efficient, more athletic, more unstable (i.e. fumble-prone) back. If you're a reader of tea leaves (or of Senator Blutarsky's irreplaceable blog -- see here and here), you might start to believe that Georgia comes out passing to some degree on Saturday evening. That could make things interesting.

To date, UGA's passing stats have been great on standard downs, mainly because of the play-action potential.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Malcolm Mitchell (WR): 28 targets, 22 catches, 372 yards (13.3 per target), 4 TD
Reggie Davis (WR): 11 targets, 10 catches, 173 yards (15.7), 1 TD
Sony Michel (RB): 9 targets, 7 catches, 62 yards (6.9), 2 TD
Terry Godwin (WR): 8 targets, 4 catches, 40 yards (5.0)

Georgia has passed infrequently enough that when it has, Mitchell and Davis have potentially been roaming wide open downfield. On Saturday, I kind of expect to see more frequent, shorter passing. And, yes, quite a bit of rushing. Michel's still pretty good at it, and 14th-year senior Keith Marshall is still a viable backup.

Passing Downs

Georgia Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 102.3 73 123.7 28 MU
Passing Downs Success Rate 23.8% 113 25.4% 30 MU big
Passing Downs IsoPPP 2.32 8 1.42 9 push
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.81 28 2.45 25 push
PD Sack Rate 3.4% 19 12.0% 14 push

It's all about forcing second- or third-and-long.

Greyson Lambert stinks on passing downs, and he's an amazing 2-for-17 for 12 yards on third downs with between 4 and 9 yards to go. But I've begun to think that part of this is on the play-calling. First of all, he's also 12-for-17 for 165 yards on third-and-10+; granted, only five of those 12 completions have gone for first downs, but when pushed far enough back, Lambert relaxes and takes easy throws for field position gain. But if it's only, say, third-and-8, it seems like every route goes past the sticks. Just look at the receiving stats here:

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
Terry Godwin (WR): 14 targets, 7 catches, 85 yards (6.1)
Malcolm Mitchell (WR): 13 targets, 6 catches, 84 yards (6.5)
Jeb Blazevich (TE): 8 targets, 2 catches, 26 yards (3.3)
Reggie Davis (WR): 7 targets, 1 catch, 8 yards (1.1)
Isaiah McKenzie (WR): 5 targets, 4 catches, 68 yards (13.6)

Godwin's averaging 12 yards per catch, Mitchell 14, and Blazevich 13 ... with a catch rate of 43 percent. Either there are no fallback/dump-down options, or Lambert's not looking for them. Regardless, though Lambert isn't getting sacked much, he's getting pressured and making sketchy throws. This is obviously something Mizzou can take advantage of ... if the Tigers are actually forcing passing downs. Easier said than done.

When Mizzou has the ball...

Standard Downs

Mizzou Offense Georgia Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 78.7 124 114.5 35 UGA big
Standard Downs Success Rate 35.7% 127 36.7% 11 UGA very big
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.09 65 1.06 59 push
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.20 123 2.60 43 UGA big
SD Sack Rate 6.1% 87 2.9% 103 MU

Mizzou's moving up! To 124th! Better than four whole teams on standard downs now!!!

I'm really curious how Missouri chooses to (attempt to) attack Georgia's defense on first downs. My first inclination is that Missouri would want to establish a rhythm for a maybe-actually-100%-for-the-first-time Russell Hansbrough and mix in the same side-to-side passing that we saw against South Carolina. Only, UGA does a good job of stuffing the run (and Missouri doesn't do a particularly good job of stopping you from doing that), and the Dawgs' biggest vulnerability comes downfield in the passing game. Does that mean we see a little bit of Hansbrough-as-decoy, like we saw early against Kentucky, where Mizzou actually came out winging the ball downfield a bit? Or do you give it to Hansbrough on first down, then do it again to steal yards (and work clock) on (presumably) on second-and-9? Not sure the best answer.

Actually, no, the best answer is what I find myself saying frequently: Make this week Nate Brown's coming-out party.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Nate Brown (WR): 20 targets, 15 catches, 147 yards (7.4), 3 TD
J'Mon Moore (WR): 19 targets, 7 catches, 115 yards (6.1)
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 13 targets, 8 catches, 116 yards (8.9), 1 TD
Jason Reese (TE): 10 targets, 4 catches, 28 yards (2.8)
Sean Culkin (TE): 8 targets, 7 catches, 45 yards (5.6)
Keyon Dilosa (WR): 6 targets, 6 catches, 39 yards (6.5)
Ish Witter (RB): 5 targets, 2 catches, 12 yards (2.4)

When Brown makes a play -- the spinning touchdown catch against South Carolina, or the other South Carolina touchdown, catching the ball in coverage along the sideline -- he is making difficult things look natural. He has given us glimpses of his four-star potential. And, being a true sophomore thrust into the role of Top Play-Maker (therefore drawing defensive attention), he has also disappeared for large stretches of time. Brown has decent speed, good strength, and excellent body control. He's got Future Bud Sasser written all over him. But at some point, future has to become present. If that happens in 2016, so be it. If it happens on Saturday, even better.

Passing Downs

Mizzou Offense Georgia Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 90.0 96 89.4 97 push
Passing Downs Success Rate 27.0% 93 30.8% 81 push
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.58 102 1.72 63 UGA
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.34 54 3.04 57 push
PD Sack Rate 5.3% 47 6.0% 80 MU

You never, ever want to rely on passing downs success to succeed. It will occasionally work, but usually it won't. Granted, stealing yards on second-and-long is one of of Josh Henson's strengths -- especially with Lock -- but let's just say there have been far too many opportunities for theft this year.

I expect a pretty high percentage of carries from Hansbrough and Ish Witter on these downs, but this game will probably be decided by whether Drew Lock and his receivers can take advantage of the glitches Georgia tends to offer up in these situations.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 15 targets, 9 catches, 90 yards (6.0), 2 TD
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 10 targets, 3 catches, 24 yards (2.4)
Ish Witter (RB): 9 targets, 6 catches, 34 yards (3.8)
Nate Brown (WR): 9 targets, 3 catches, 53 yards (5.9), 1 TD
Jason Reese (TE): 9 targets, 7 catches, 73 yards (8.1)
Sean Culkin (TE): 6 targets, 5 catches, 56 yards (9.3), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 5 targets, 4 catches, 16 yards (3.2)

Another interesting tactical mystery: How much does UGA defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt blitz? He hasn't done much of it, in part (it seems) because he wants to protect a pretty shaky secondary. But against a shaky receiving corps, does he feel more free to do so? That would up raise the turnover and sack risk for Missouri ... and also raise the chances of a big play.

Five Keys

1. The trenches ... always the trenches

I'll just copy and paste from last week.

Spoiler alert: This is probably going to be the No. 1 key all season. Missouri's offensive line was between bad and terrible for most of four games, and Mizzou had one of the least efficient offenses in the country. ... This key is for both sides of the ball, of course. If Mizzou's defensive line wins its battle, and the Missouri offensive line can either fight to a draw or only occasionally lose, the Tigers might be able to position themselves to win. But this has to be a net win for Mizzou, and preferably a large one.

Yep.

2. Field position

Field position is a combination of basically four interrelated factors: efficiency, random big plays (which don't lead to points but flip the field), special teams, and turnovers. Punting, defensive efficiency, and good big-play prevention have been in Missouri's favor this year ... and offensive efficiency, a lack of big offensive plays, and a lack of returns have hurt. And since neither Missouri nor its opponents have been turning the ball over just at ton, that has resulted in basically both teams in a Missouri game starting with pretty bad field position.

A push is fine. But if either Georgia or Missouri is able to create some turnovers, big returns, random big plays, etc., this could turn into a pretty significant advantage. Georgia is more likely to do so, but if the Michel is fumbling or Lambert is making poor decisions on passing downs, then Mizzou will have an opportunity to do some flipping of its own.

3. Finishing

In three SEC games for Missouri, the team that has averaged more points per scoring opportunity is 3-0 ... despite the fact that, in two of three games, the winning team actually created fewer opportunities than the losing team. (Mizzou did so against Kentucky, South Carolina did so against Mizzou.) When you get a chance, finish it in the end zone. EASY, RIGHT?

4. Downfield passing

Georgia's offense is aggressive and woefully inefficient on passing downs, and there's a distinct possibility that the Dawgs come out firing a bit more than usual from the start. Meanwhile, the Dawgs are allowing opponents to reel in passes at an alarming rate (for UGA fans): Alabama and Tennessee combined to not only complete 62 percent of their passes, but at a clip of 14 yards per completion. Big plays aren't really something that exist in Missouri games, but Georgia's strengths AND weaknesses could change that. Who's generating more big chunks of yardage? (Again, the answer is probably Georgia, but it's not guaranteed.)

5. The first quarter

Mizzou won it against South Carolina and lost it against Florida. An early deficit could spell doom, but an early lead could result in a pretty fragile Georgia team cracking a bit.

***

Like the Florida game, this one is pretty tactically interesting, even if one team is a relatively significant favorite. Georgia has stumbled pretty significantly in the last two weeks, and while that could mean this week is the Dawgs' bounceback, it could also mean that a rather vulnerable Georgia team takes the field.

If Missouri is able to trade shots early on, the collective puckering in the stadium -- we've all experienced it, when the warning signs start to appear, the "ohhhhhh" rumble starts to take over in the crowd, and a home-field advantage becomes a disadvantage (you know, like in every Mizzou-Georgia game) -- could give Missouri a much better than 22 percent chance of winning.

I'm assuming the Tigers aren't quite ready for that, though. There's opportunity here because of the way Georgia is playing, but anything optimistic related to this offense is based on faith, not evidence. Assume a pretty easy Georgia win, but watch out for the puckering.