1. The power of not moving backwards
This wasn't a particularly good offensive performance. Let's start there. Mizzou averaged 4.3 yards per play against a defense that allowed 6 to Kentucky, 6.9 to North Carolina, and 9.1 to Georgia. Mizzou had minimal big-play presence -- longest pass: 17 yards -- and, for obvious reasons, played its hand with extreme conservatism.
The goal of Gary Pinkel and Josh Henson in starting a true freshman, Drew Lock, at quarterback was obvious: put him in the fewest possible situations to fail. That was hard to do considering Missouri's field position situation; of the Tigers' 11 possessions, eight began at or inside their 30 (Mizzou went three-and-out in five of those eight), and four began at or inside the 11.
The goal was obviously to win by not losing, and considering the personnel at hand, that made sense. But with Lock behind center, Missouri indeed did not lose. And while the Tigers certainly didn't do a ton of moving forward, they didn't move backwards. That made all the difference.
Against Kentucky, 54% of Missouri's passes, 48% of the Tigers' first-down plays, and 43% of their overall snaps gained one or fewer yards. A stream of second- and third-and-longs doomed the Tigers, who couldn't come up with enough big plays to counter the extreme inefficiency.
Against South Carolina, only 37% of their passes, 44% of their first-down plays, and 37% of their overall snaps gained one or fewer. That's not a significant difference, but once Mizzou got out of the shadow of its own end zone, the difference in efficiency became clear.
Drew Lock had one of the funniest passing lines you'll ever see. While his 75 percent completion rate (21-for-28!) was magnificent and directly on par with the first-start greatness of Blaine Gabbert (25-for-33) and Chase Daniel (23-for-32), those 21 completions gained only 136 yards, 6.5 yards per catch. In his debut against Murray State in 2006, Daniel's 23 completions gained 320 yards; in his debut against Illinois in 2009, Gabbert's 25 completions produced 319 yards.
But Missouri was constantly moving forward, if only by a few feet. The pass was mostly an extension of the run game ... and the run game actually existed at times!
On Saturday, Mizzou running backs carried 32 times for 187 yards (5.2 per carry) and a touchdown. Ish Witter had the most consistently impressive game of his career, following blocks and showing nice vision and carrying 17 times for 98 yards. Russell Hansbrough (11 for 43) is still lacking the burst we know he can have when healthy, but Witter, Hunt, and Abbington averaged 5.9 yards per carry between them.
There were still a few too many stuffs in the run game, but there were also creases and running lanes and backs bursting through those lanes. If the run game took a tiny step forward against Kentucky last week, this was a solid two or three steps forward.
The passing game produced short gains instead of incompletions, and the running game actually pushed forward from time to time. It was, if nothing else, heartening.
2. The power of finishing drives
When you create more scoring chances than your opponent, you are supposed to win. Teams that produce one more scoring opportunity than their opponents have won 63% of games this season with an average winning margin of about 4.3 points. Missouri lost by eight because Kentucky turned its three chances into touchdowns while Missouri went TD, punt, FG, FG.
For the season, Missouri now ranks an incredible 125th in points per scoring opportunities (3.0). Only FAU (2.9), Vanderbilt (2.9), and Utah State (2.5) have been worse. Blowing chances means, quite simply, that you need to create more opportunities to win. Missouri isn't creating enough, and the Tigers are damn sure blowing the chances they get. That cannot continue.
As iffy as Missouri was at creating scoring opportunities through four games, the Tigers were far worse at finishing them. When you've got an inefficient offense, and you've got to create five scoring opportunities to get three opps' worth of points, you're doomed.
Scoring Opportunities: South Carolina 5, Missouri 4
Points Per Opportunity: Missouri 6.0, South Carolina 2.0
Because of the way South Carolina was able to tilt the field in its favor, especially in the first (average starting field position: SC 42, MU 27) and fourth (SC 32, MU 7) quarters, the Gamecocks were able to drive into Mizzou field position and create opportunities more effectively than the Tigers. Part of that had to do with Missouri's conservatism -- when pinned near their goal line, the Tigers usually went three-and-out, which resulted in a punt and a repeat, especially since Corey Fatony had the worst punting day of his career (first three punts: 24, 39, and 28 yards).
But the roles were reversed inside the 40. Missouri's four scoring opportunities created three touchdowns and a field goal; South Carolina, with its own impatient, unsure freshman quarterback, created a field goal, a touchdown, a missed field goal, an interception, and a punt. Mizzou's offense grew more confident as it approached South Carolina's end zone; South Carolina needed a funky bounce just to score its one TD.
Drew Lock's two sexiest passes of the day were his two touchdown passes to Nate Brown. His ability to throw into tight but open spaces, as opposed to looking for open receivers, is what separates him most from the suspended Maty Mauk at the moment. Between that and the aforementioned not-terrible run game, Missouri was a killing machine when it had the chance to score points. South Carolina was not. Funny how much of a difference that can make in what is otherwise an incredibly even game.