Like virtually every remaining game on the schedule, Saturday's contest at Arkansas State should offer enough of a challenge that a Missouri team playing poorly will lose. And Tiger fans don't need to look too far back for affirmation in that regard -- two years ago, Mizzou trailed ASU, 16-14, in the third quarter before hitting the gas and winning, 41-19. Mizzou is the superior team on paper, but the Tigers will have to prove it.
Fredi Knighten (5'11, 197, Sr.) -- 8-for-23, 86 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 1 sack (3.3 yards/att); 13 carries, 64 yards (4.9 yards/carry)
James Tabary (6'2, 209, RSFr.) -- 7-for-11, 95 yards (8.6 yards/att)
Knighten is fun to watch when you don't have a stake in the outcome. He threw for 3,277 yards last year and, excluding sacks, rushed for 969. From my 2015 ASU preview:
I'm not going to try to convince you that Fredi Knighten is an NFL-caliber passer, but the senior from Little Rock's Pulaski Academy was good enough through the air. ASU's offense improved to nearly a top-50 unit, with Knighten combining efficiency passes to slot receiver (and Ace Sanders Lite) J.D. McKissic with more aggressive passes to Tres Houston and breakout freshman Dijon Paschal.
He spread the ball around beautifully, with seven players getting targeted at least twice per game, and ASU was able to manipulate defenses enough with the pass to open up running lanes for Knighten, the explosive Michael Gordon, and at times, freshman Johnston White.
Knighten still has some more boxes to check on the Becoming a Dangerous Passer list: he got sacked too much (common for a guy used to relying on his legs) and, perhaps relatedly, fumbled too much. But he was a first-year starter. He should be able to put up impressive numbers again even if he doesn't develop much, if only because his supporting cast returns almost entirely intact.
Knighten was dreadful against USC, completing 35 percent of his passes, throwing two picks, and getting benched in the second half. But he was still able to do a little bit of damage on the ground, and the ASU zone read will very much test the discipline of Missouri's defensive front. SEMO was able to get Mizzou to break contain a few times, and ASU could produce a few big plays against a young, aggressive unit.
Michael Gordon (5'9, 201, Sr.) -- 12 carries, 55 yards (4.6), 1 TD; 3 targets, 1 catch, 11 yards (3.7); 2 fumbles
Johnston White (5'11, 182, So.) -- 6 carries, 30 yards (5.0); 1 target, 1 catch, 5 yards
Warren Wand (5'5, 174, Fr.) -- 10 carries, 52 yards (5.2); 1 target, 1 catch, 10 yards
Gordon rushed for 1,100 yards last year while White pitched in 514. ASU is balanced but ran slightly more than the national average last year, and if the USC game is any indication, the Red Wolves will be working a third running back -- tiny, super-elusive Warren Wand -- into the rotation as well.
Dijon Paschal (6'1, 211, So.) -- 6 targets, 3 catches, 15 yards (2.5)
Booker Mays (5'10, 175, Sr.) -- 3 targets, 1 catch, 13 yards (4.3)
Chris Murray (5'9, 178, Jr.)
Tres Houston (6'2, 199, Sr.) -- 4 targets, 2 catches, 54 yards (13.5)
Blake Mack (6'3, 231, So.) -- 3 targets, 1 catch, 3 yards (1.0)
J.D. McKissic (5'11, 191, Sr.) -- 5 targets, 5 catches, 36 yards (7.2)
Tyler Trosin (5'11, 207, Sr.) -- 3 targets, 0 catches (0.0)
Darion Griswold (6'5, 255, Sr.) -- 2 targets, 2 catches, 46 yards (23.0)
Warren Leapheart (6'5, 255, Sr.)
ASU was led by a trio of receivers last year -- Houston, Paschal, and McKissic each ended up with between 625 and 680 receiving yards. You probably remember McKissic; he broke quite a few Mizzou tackles a couple of years ago in Columbia. I tend to use the word "wobbly" to describe him; he's definitely not huge, but you can't really wrap your arms around him without him bouncing away. He lines up in the slot and is fed a series of high-percentage passes just to get the ball in his hands. Passes to McKissic are basically long handoffs, and they work relatively well.
If McKissic and the run game are doing damage, that stresses and distracts the defense, opening things up for downfield passing. Paschal averaged 17.5 yards per reception last year as a result. Obviously the USC defense wasn't stressed enough to open anything up -- passes to ASU wideouts not named McKissic were just 7-for-19 for 85 yards, though Tres Houston did have a 41-yard reception. (Tight end Darion Griswold had a 40-yarder, too.)
If what we saw last week from Mizzou's pass defense is any indication, the Tigers have the pieces to shut this passing game down ... at least, unless the run game gets going. This is one of those offenses that, if it gets a step ahead of you tactically, it will stay a step ahead.
Jemar Clark (6'6, 306, Jr.) -- 13 career starts
Kyle Harris (6'4, 267, Sr.) -- 1 career start
Daniel Keith (6'5, 278, RSFr.) -- 1 career start
Steven Stevens (6'4, 296, Sr.)
Devin Mondie (6'5, 304, Jr.) -- 13 career starts
Brandon Berg (6'2, 276, Jr.)
Austin Moreton (6'1, 316, Jr.) -- 2 career starts
Jamal Fontenot (6'4, 300, So.)
Colton Jackson (6'4, 281, Jr.) -- 27 career starts
Joseph Bacchus (6'5, 275, Jr.)
The line was a relative weakness for the offense last year; the Red Wolves ranked just 107th in Adj. Line Yards and 79th in Adj. Sack Rate. There is experience on the edge -- tackles Jemar Clark and Colton Jackson have now combined for 40 career starts -- but ASU is thin and inexperienced at guard. We'll see if they can handle the tackle trio of Josh Augusta, Rickey Hatley, and Terry Beckner Jr. And obviously if the middle of your line is getting caved in, it's going to be hard for you to be too effective on the ground.
(Then again, per charting data, ASU averaged 7.5 yards per carry going up the middle last week against USC, so what do I know...)
Ja'Von Rolland-Jones (6'2, 231, So.) -- 1.5 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack)
Caleb Caston (6'2, 234, So.)
Waylon Roberson (6'2, 338, Jr.) -- 1.5 tackles, 1 blocked kick
Donovan Ransom (6'1, 270, Fr.) -- 1.0 tackles
Jake Swalley (6'2, 292, Jr.)
Robert Mondie (6'2, 321, Sr.)
Chris Stone (6'3, 260, Sr.) -- 3.5 tackles, 1 QB hurry
Griffin Riggs (6'3, 235, Fr.)
1. On 37 USC pass attempts last week, ASU blitzed nearly 50 percent of the time. The Red Wolves didn't really have a choice -- when they didn't blitz, Cody Kessler went 14-for-17 for 168 yards.
2. USC saw major success rushing to the edge of the ASU defense. They were pretty good between the tackles (13 carries, 105 yards) and great on the edge (seven carries, 89 yards).
ASU has pretty good size up front, but the USC game further elaborated on what last season's numbers told us: the Red Wolves are pretty good against the pass (and awesome at rushing the passer) but can't stop a good run game. Ends Stone and Rolland-Jones combined for 21.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks last year, but ASU ranked 107th in Rushing S&P+ and 70th in Adj. Line Yards.
The line didn't make nearly enough plays last week, either of the disruptive or mundane sort; Stone had as many tackles as all other linemen combined. But you better take advantage of ASU's deficiencies against the run, and ... well, until we see a healthy Russell Hansbrough running well behind a healthy, semi-effective line, we don't know that Mizzou will be able to.
Quanterio Heath (6'2, 220, Jr.) -- 6.0 tackles
Austin Copeland (6'1, 218, Sr.)
Tajhea Chambers (6'2, 215, Fr.) -- 6.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL (2.5 sacks)
Khari Lain (5'10, 195, So.) -- 1.5 tackles
Last year's starting WILL linebacker Xavier Woodson was originally suspended for the first half of last week's game for threatening an official in last season's GoDaddy Bowl; evidently, that suspension has extended to two games. This might end up being a blessing in disguise for ASU, as in Woodson's absence, freshman Tajhea Chambers wrecked shop last week at the L.A. Coliseum. He had 2.5 sacks, blowing by what is supposed to be a pretty strong USC line.
Chambers was a quarterback in high school (that's actually where I listed him in my ASU season preview), and unless last week was a total fluke, it appears he will deliver the best possible asset to a 4-2-5 defense: a disruptive linebacker. TCU's 4-2-5 is always good, but when it had last year's absurdly impressive linebackers, it went from good to, well, absurdly impressive.
The inexperience of his linebacking duo probably didn't help in terms of slowing down USC's run game, but if Mizzou can't take advantage of those deficiencies and stay on schedule, Maty Mauk will be scrambling around a lot.
Blaise Taylor (5'9, 163, So.) -- 0.5 tackles
Brandon Bynder (5'11, 172, So.) -- 1.0 tackles
Cody Brown (6'2, 204, Jr.) -- 1.0 tackles
Chris Humes (5'11, 204, Jr.) -- 2.5 tackles
Bo Sentimore (6'0, 181, Jr.) -- 4.0 tackles
Money Hunter (6'1, 210, Jr.) -- 2.0 tackles
Chauncey Mason (5'9, 190, Fr.)
Rocky Hayes (5'11, 182, Sr.) -- 5.0 tackles
Jamaris Hart (5'9, 165, So.) -- 3.0 tackles
Charleston Girley (6'0, 194, Sr.) -- 2.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL (0.5 sacks)
Justin Clifton (6'0, 207, Fr.) -- 3.5 tackles, 1 TFL
Though the pass rush still looks impressive, it does bear mentioning that ASU suffered quite a bit of turnover in the back five. Safety Money Hunter is the only returning starter from last year's secondary (corner Rocky Hayes has also started for portions of his career). The unit has been propped up a bit by JUCO transfers Cody Brown and Bo Sentimore (who appears to have beaten out Hunter for the FS job).
Against USC's young, dynamic receiving corps, ASU's secondary struggled. The five sacks were nice, but when unruffled, Kessler was virtually guaranteed to find an open receiver. Obviously we don't know if Mizzou's less heralded (and younger) receiving corps can take advantage in the same way, but it does bear mentioning that the Tigers have a size advantage. ASU's four listed cornerbacks average only 5'10, 171. There are post-up possibilities there.
Drew White (5'8, 195, Jr.)
J.D. Houston (5'11, 165, Jr.)
Luke Ferguson (6'0, 223, Sr.) -- 7 punts, 45.0 average (2 inside 20); 2 kickoffs, 65.0 average
J.D. Houston (5'11, 165, Jr.)
J.D. McKissic (5'11, 191, Sr.) -- 4 KR, 22.5 average
Michael Gordon (5'9, 201, Sr.) -- 2 KR, 16.0 average
Blaise Taylor (5'9, 163, So.) -- 1 PR, 6.0 average
Chris Murray (5'9, 178, Jr.) -- 1 PR, 0.0 average
ASU ranked 73rd in Special Teams Efficiency last season, and while we have no idea what new kicker Drew White is capable of (he wasn't asked to do anything last week -- after ASU's only touchdown, the Red Wolves went for two for some reason), Luke Ferguson still looks the part. He averaged 41 yards per kick last year and offered few returns, and last week he averaged 45 yards per kick.
McKissic is scary in the return game because he's so hard to tackle, but it's been a while since he was a truly dangerous home run threat. I called him Ace Sanders Lite above, but he doesn't have Sanders' top-end speed.
Keys to the Game
1. The trenches. If Mizzou's offensive line can get a push (one that it didn't have last week without Evan Boehm), and if ASU's offensive line cannot, Mizzou wins this game handily. Plain and simple. ASU has some dangerous skill position weapons, but the Red Wolves have to establish the run for the passing game to open up, and there's no guarantee that will happen. There is a concern on both sides of the ball; ASU's option game could punish Mizzou if the Tigers lack discipline, and, well, if Mizzou couldn't get a push against SEMO's defensive front, then we should make no assumptions there.
2. Assertive running. We're basically assuming Russell Hansbrough will be good to go, but if he's a half-step slow, or if Ish Witter gets a lot of carries and shows the same indecisiveness he hinted at last week (which is common when your line isn't doing much), then Mizzou might not be able to take advantage of ASU's weakness on the edges. And if the Tigers are facing a lot of second-and-9s or third-and-7s, the ASU pass rush could do some damage.
3. A solid start. As mentioned by David Morrison on Thursday, part of Mizzou's recent road success has come from quickly knocking out the hostility of the crowd. The Tigers have been really good at showing early composure and either getting up on the scoreboard or simply avoiding falling too far behind. Granted, Mizzou started just fine in one of Gary Pinkel's most notorious losses (Mizzou scored the first 14 points against Troy in 2004, then gave up the final 24), but a couple of early breaks against Mizzou, and this game could get awfully uncomfortable.
Accepting that things could go quite poorly here, I do think Mizzou's got enough speed to negate ASU's potential strengths and has enough potential in the trenches to control the game there. Now it's up for Mizzou to prove it, especially on the lines. The F/+ projections say Mizzou 33, ASU 19, and I think I see something similar. ASU has the talent to stick around, especially if it gets better breaks than it did last week at USC. But I do figure the Tigers eventually pull away. We'll say something in the 31-16 range.