And yes, the current S&P+ rankings suggest that Missouri might not win another game this season. I consider that a warning; if Missouri's offense doesn't improve, the Tigers are doomed. But while Missouri did not have a good offense on Saturday (South Carolina's defense isn't awful, but it's not great, and Missouri managed just national-average efficiency with no explosiveness whatsoever), we indeed saw clear, definable improvement.
This is the annual October rebuild. You have to take the first step before you can take any more. But Missouri will have to take quite a few more if the Tigers want to continue playing into December. We saw last year that this is far from impossible, but this is the biggest hole we've seen the offense dig for itself under Gary Pinkel.
I wrote that three long weeks (and zero touchdowns) ago. Because Missouri's defense has been as good as it's ever been this year -- currently 12th in Def. S&P+ after ranking 15th last year -- we can watch a historically awful offense and think of the almosts. And holy cow, the almosts from just the last three games (never mind the Kentucky game) are incredible.
- On Missouri's first play against Florida, Wesley Leftwich catches a ball down the sideline but steps out of bounds on his way toward a potential touchdown.
- Two plays later, J'Mon Moore steps out of bounds right before diving into the end zone.
- On the first play of the game against Georgia, Ian Simon picks off a pass but gets talked at the half-yard line.
- Nate Brown catches a 33-yard pass against the Dawgs but can't maintain his balance after the catch, preventing a sure touchdown.
- Anthony Sherrils picks off a pass at the goal line against Georgia but can't quite keep it from touching the ground. Georgia subsequently kicks a field goal.
- Aarion Penton gets called for defensive pass interference on a potentially uncatchable ball, setting up Georgia's game-winning field goal.
But that was only from the last two games. That list pales in comparison to the almosts against Vandy. Holy moly, it took a lot to lose this game. Andrew Baggett hitting the crossbar on a field goal (which, yes, Vandy repaid with its own clang later on). Logan Cheadle dropping an interception on what would become Vandy's only touchdown drive. Nate Brown making an amazing catch over a defender in the end zone and getting his feet down in bounds, but losing the ball on the landing about a half-second before it could become an official catch. Walter Brady stripping Kyle Shurmur on what almost became a fumble return touchdown for Rickey Hatley; replay showing that Shurmur's arm had just begun to go forward for an incomplete pass.
And on and on. Emanuel Hall making 95% of a great diving catch but letting the ball skid on the ground before securing. Wesley Leftwich making 95% of a diving catch but letting the ball skid on the ground before securing. J'Mon Moore failing to get a foot down in bounds in the end zone on Mizzou's final drive.
The hardest time to catch a break is when you desperately need one. Mizzou has been a break or two from winning three separate games this year (and a break or two from losing one to two more, yes) but has been befallen by one thing after another.
That sucks. I feel really bad for the guys who are playing out of their minds -- Kentrell Brothers, Charles Harris, Brady, Corey Fatony, etc. -- and i feel bad for the guys who are trying as hard as they can to make something happen and keep falling an inch short. This is frustrating for fans, but it has to be absolutely miserable for the guys on the field. All you can ask is that they keep their heads and keep trying to push forward. Mizzou's bowl hopes are minimal now after losing to the worst team left on the schedule, but if "we're just a few plays from 7-1" can serve as a rallying cry (and doesn't just double the frustration), then use it. None of the final four opponents are unbeatable ... well ... if this long-sought "offensive improvement" thing ever takes shape, anyway.
It's a lot easier when you can pin a loss on one thing
Against Georgia, it was really easy to say the Missouri offensive line cost the Tigers the game. That ignores all sorts of obvious other problems -- receivers not being good enough, Drew Lock making an iffy read or two, a couple of strange play-calls, Andrew Baggett missing a field goal, etc. -- but as far as generalizations go, it was a pretty good one. Mizzou couldn't block for its runners or protect its passer and lost as a result.
For this game, though? It's harder to do that. I mean, to be sure, the offensive line was below average at best. We'll get to that. But Missouri's failures on Saturday were both widespread and random.
- Possession 1: Mizzou has a second-and-2, then two rushes gain zero yards. Line: bad.
- Possession 2: Wes Leftwich drops a third-down pass at the sticks on third-and-4.
- Possession 4: A nice punt return by Cam Hilton is negated by an illegal block, then Russell Hansbrough slips and falls on third-and-1 (though, because of awful blocking, he probably wouldn't have gotten that yard anyway).
- Possession 5: Taylor Chappell loses Stephen Weatherly for a first-down sack, and J'Mon Moore gets both hands on a long pass but can't hold on on third-and-long.
- Possession 7: Brown makes an amazing TD catch ... almost. Incomplete. Field goal.
- Possession 8: Leftwich gets behind the defense, and Drew Lock misses him by about a foot.
- Possession 9: Hall gets behind the defense and makes an awesome diving catch ... almost.
- Possession 10: Leftwich makes a diving catch, but it scrapes the ground. Vandy is called for pass interference, but the completion would have gained 30 yards and resulted in a shorter field goal for Baggett (after Leftwich made a leaping TD catch but couldn't get a foot in bounds).
- Possession 11: After two quick first downs, Vandy's Landon Stokes is left unblocked on a play designed to go to Jason Reese. Only, it appears Reese doesn't get into his route quickly enough or something; whatever, the timing is off, and Stokes gets an easy sack.
- Possession 12: Given second life on the final possession, Lock lobs to Moore, who makes the catch but can't get a foot down in bounds.
That's a lot of almosts right there, any one of which may have turned the game around. But I guess most of them fall into one of two categories: short-yardage awfulness or almost-awesome deep balls. And both of those lead back to the fact that Missouri's run game is an absolute nightmare. You don't have to rely on bombs to bail you out if you're able to consistently get yards on first and second down. Mizzou did not*.
* Mizzou actually got creative on Saturday, occasionally succeeding on first down but almost always following it up with a disaster. Through the first three quarters, before Mizzou finally ditched the run completely, Mizzou averaged 4.0 yards per play with a 54% success rate on first down. The former is neither great nor terrible, but the latter is downright good. But after seven successful plays, Mizzou managed four plays for seven yards, committed two penalties, and fumbled (on the option pitch Hansbrough mishandled). The Tigers were allergic to success.
Against a defense that had had some issues against the run, Russell Hansbrough and Ish Witter combined to gain 15 yards in 10 carries. That's horrific. Just about the only good rushes were on Lock scrambles and a fake punt. Oh yeah, and Lock was sacked four times.
So yes, the line is still really, really bad, a confusing, abysmal unit compared to what we thought we'd see this year. It was still the worst unit on the field Saturday afternoon and evening. But Mizzou almost figured out ways around it and came up an inch or two short repeatedly.
We knew that Missouri's offense was going to have quite a few young pieces in 2015. The receiving corps is one of Missouri's youngest ever, and with Morgan Steward still hurting, the experience at running back was basically nil beyond Russell Hansbrough. Plus, there would be at least one sophomore starting up front. And, of course, Maty Mauk's absence means that the quarterback position is also quite a bit younger than we expected it to be in the offseason.
You can't rely on young guys to carry large loads without faltering at times. That would be unfair. But you can hope they improve.
Go ahead, write a list of the offensive players who are better now than they were in early September (and not for injury reasons). Here's mine:
- Emanuel Hall
- Ish Witter
That's all I can think of. Drew Lock isn't regressing horribly, but he's frustrated and occasionally missing reads. Nate Brown and J'Mon Moore aren't any more reliable than they were in Week 1. (I still think Brown's got a breakout game in him, but it hasn't come yet.) Jason Reese got an opportunity with Sean Culkin's absence but still suffered from drops and has seen his playing time reduced drastically with Culkin back. Ray Wingo has seen almost no targets recently. Nate Crawford clearly has the coaches' trust but doesn't appear to have become a reliable weapon yet. Alec Abeln has gone from starter to (mostly) bench. With the struggles on the line, no other underclassmen has yet earned reps. Chase Abbington still doesn't hardly see the field.
Wesley Leftwich was Missouri's leading receiver on Saturday. He had a couple of nearly awesome plays, but in the end these 11 targets produced 38 yards, best on the team. If you'd told me that Leftwich was getting 11 targets in a game in late-October, I'd have been all sorts of concerned. That would mean that neither Brown nor Moore nor anyone else had raised their game and become the No. 1 guy. They haven't, and Leftwich was the guy.
The go-to line when your offense is struggling is "Fire [Offensive Coordinator]!" Well, until they come up with a third option for moving the ball beyond running and passing, I have no idea what firing Josh Henson would do. I have no idea what plays I'd be calling instead of him. In recent weeks, Missouri has tried short, quick passing; it worked pretty well against South Carolina and has only served to lose four yards at a time (because the receivers are struggling to block, too) since then. The Tigers have tried leaning on the run on first down and it's gotten them almost literally nothing. And on Saturday, they let Lock look downfield and prayed for a miracle. It almost came on about seven different occasions. It never once did.
I have no idea what bringing in a new offensive coordinator would do for this offense, not when every single unit on the offense has stagnated or regressed. Until you can actually create even small holes for Hansbrough and Witter, leaning on the run more won't do you any good. Until you can figure out how to get a receiver open, throwing more won't do you any good.
(This isn't intended to let Henson off the hook, by the way. That late-game option against Georgia was mind-boggling, and Missouri still doesn't attempt to use the middle of the field enough in the passing game. But on the list of problems, play-calling is about ninth.)
Gary Pinkel is a loyal guy, and it's an understatement to say that this has worked out well for him. When something goes wrong, he and his assistants (most of whom have been with him for a really, really long time) double down on their "process," figure out a solution, implement it, and rebound. It doesn't always happen in-season -- it did in 2014, but sometimes it doesn't happen until the following spring. And over the course of 25 years, he and his staff have rebounded quite a few times. At Toledo, his Rockets fell from 8-3 to 4-7 in 1993, then went 11-0-1 two years later. But 1999, they were back down to 6-5, but they went 10-1 in 2000.
It's been the same at Missouri. A 5-6 disaster in 2004 was the precursor to seven wins, then eight, then 12. Mizzou went 22-6 in 2008, fell to a lucky 8-5 in 2009, then won 10 games again in 2010. They ended a seven-year bowl streak with a 5-7 dud in 2012, then went 23-5 with two top-15 finishes.
Pinkel might have an interesting choice to make in this coming offseason.
When I spoke with Pinkel this summer, one of the things I was curious about was Washington's mid-1980s lull under Don James.
BC: So the downturn for Washington in the mid-1980s has always been really interesting to me. Obviously the Internet didn’t really exist at that point, so there’s not as much to read about from that time. But there was a downturn and a rebound. What were some of the causes of going from almost winning the national title in ’84, then going down for a bit.
GP: I think we had one losing season, kind of like we’ve had here. I’m not blaming injuries, but we did have tons of injuries [in 2012] here. I should have done a better job of coaching, but honestly, I think if I do a better job of coaching, we win one more game that year. That’s it. But I didn’t get that done. That’s on me.
But then, they were yelling at Coach James. 'Make changes, get rid of this guy.' He didn’t. What I saw him do was just get back to ... not the "basics," that’s an overused term. But the emphasis of the detail in everything we do.
And the other thing we did was, he didn’t talk to the players much at that time. That was just him. But he brought a bunch of players in and talked to them, and I think that was him searching out how to get better.
The bottom line was, we also weren’t as good personnel-wise. You never want to say that because that means you recruited poorly. You can’t blame it on players. But the truth of the matter was, we had a bit of a lull in recruiting. But we came out of it, then obviously just went crazy.
That was a great experience, though. I saved those clippings. I was struggling at Toledo, and … Coach James, we had won all those games, been to the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl. And they’re sitting there saying, "Well, he’s too old. Should he be coaching anymore?" And I’m looking back and thinking, "Are you kidding me? They were on him like this?"
BC: Joe Paterno was past his prime 16 different times.
Through all the loyalty and steadfastness and processes, however, James did make one particular move that helped to turn Washington's prospects around. Following a disappointing 1988 campaign, in which the Huskies went 6-5 and missed a bowl for the first time in 10 years, he fired his offensive line coach and brought in Keith Gilbertson, a former grad assistant of his who had won 28 games in three seasons as Idaho's head coach.
Along with the aforementioned improvement in recruiting, which Pinkel mentioned above, Washington's rebound was immediate: 8-4 in 1989, 10-2 in 1990, 12-0 in 1991.
James was as loyal as anybody, but he still recognized the need to make a move when he had no other choice. I'm not saying Pinkel should or will do the same at the end of this season, but if your system is based on development above all else, and one of your problems is suddenly a lack of development in specific areas, then you will probably at least consider it.
We might actually see a move or two on the coaching staff in this coming offseason. Or, we'll see no moves at all, and everybody will yell, and the Process will lead Missouri's offense out of the muck. I guess there's a third alternative there (no moves and no improvement), but I'm giving Pinkel and his staff the benefit of the doubt for now, even if there's more doubt now than ever.