When everything needs fixing, how do you fix anything?
The strongest theme emerging from Saturday's win over UConn seems to have formed in regard to Missouri's offensive difficulties. And that quite obviously makes sense. It's early, and these numbers can change a lot, but right now Missouri's defense ranks fourth in the country in Def. S&P+ ... and the offense ranks 113th in Off. S&P+. The defense ranks ahead of Alabama's; the offense ranks behind South Alabama's (and way, way behind Kansas').
Joe Walljasper's Trib column, linked above, is certainly accurate in its assessment that Missouri has no idea what it wants to be right now. But when you can't get any push whatsoever with your line, when your running backs can't take advantage of the small creases they've got, when your receivers can't find open space, and when your quarterback can't throw them open ... well ... it's hard to craft too much of an identity around that. In fact, that crafts your identity for you.
So how did we get here? We knew Missouri's offense was going to be far less than elite because of the passing game; there's just no way to rush experience. Double-dipping in the turnover department -- losing all three starters for two consecutive years (while also losing a potential starter in Levi Copelin before the 2014 season) -- left the Tigers with about the greenest receiving corps imaginable, and the hope was that the Tigers could lean on a sturdy run game, led by Hansbrough and a well-seasoned line.
Only, Hansbrough's out. And the line has stunk.
Now ... let me qualify that. Pass protection has been fine and was better than fine on Saturday. Mizzou's struggles in the passing game on Saturday came down to Maty Mauk and Drew Lock struggling to find open receivers.
J’Mon Moore said yesterday that they weren’t expecting UConn to take away the short middle of the field like they did. He said they were expecting more four-deep coverage, which conceivably would open up the field for shorter crossing routes and throws over the short-to-intermediate middle. So, maybe yesterday’s passing struggles (again, the line in pass protection was fine) can be chalked up to that, to forcing Mauk to have to make tight throws deep down the middle and strong throws on out-routes to the sideline (two things he has struggled with this season).
But it doesn’t change the fact that YAC in Missouri’s passing game is almost non-existent this season. I don’t know if it’s because of accuracy and quick-decision issues with Mauk; if it’s because of play design; if it’s because Missouri just doesn’t have that quick-twitch type of receiver that only needs the ball, wherever he is on the field, to make things happen.
Any time Mauk froze in the pocket -- what has become "too slowly going through his progressions" -- The Beef and I immediately began to try to survey the field as well. Everywhere you looked, receivers had defensive backs on their backside. There was nowhere to go with the ball, and as we've learned through the years, Mauk isn't the type to throw the ball into open space assuming a receiver will eventually find that space. He needs to see a guy open. He saw no one open. Of course, that didn't stop him from throwing once.
Ten of Mauk's 19 career interceptions have come in the first quarter of games. A bunch of them have looked very similar to this. On a 2nd-and-5 from the Tigers' 36, Missouri went tempo and Mauk had plenty of time in the pocket. He stood, stood, scampered back a few steps, stood some more, stood some more, looked at Sean Culkin, looked at Culkin some more, then threw a wobbly ball from the near hash to the far sideline. He thought outside linebacker Graham Stewart was in coverage on Culkin, and Stewart was in recover mode, trying to get back outside. Mauk, however, did not see cornerback Jhavon Williams standing right behind Culkin. Williams broke on the ball and picked it off (it looked like Culkin, too, was surprised. He didn't put up much of a fight), returning it 17 yards to the Tigers' 35. Culkin said he just didn't think Williams was in coverage on Culkin. Well, he was. And he set the Huskies up for their only score of the day. Color commentator Kelly Stouffer said "That's a throw a fourth-year junior just can't make." Pretty much, yeah.
Then, when Drew Lock was in on Missouri's final drive, the Tigers could have used Mauk -- Lock tried and failed to throw guys open when there room in front of him to run and pick up a first down. (I did love his "a little bit of immaturity coming out in me" quote, by the way. It's only a matter of time before he's awesome.)
So yes, the pass blocking has been fine, which made the timing of this tweet pretty awkward:
It's amazing how few options you've got when your offensive line is horrendous.— Rock 〽️ Nation (@rockmnation) September 19, 2015
This one was mine. I typed it out sometime early in the second quarter, after an Ish Witter run went nowhere, with the line getting less than no push, for about the sixth straight time. I opened Twitter a little while later to check for responses, and thanks to signal being what it is during games, I believe it didn't actually post until then ... when the main issues were Lock/Mauk trying and failing to throw and complete passes more than five yards downfield.
We saw the passing issues coming, but Mizzou's run failure caught us off-guard. Part of that is because of injury, but part is also because a lack of development in the backfield and an inexcusable lack of push up front.
We thought Ish Witter would have improved a lot more than he has. With how he played late in the year and how he looked in the spring, it really seemed like he was on pace to pull a Hansbrough and turn into a legitimate contributor in his sophomore year. And if he wasn't, then either Trevon Walters or Chase Abbington or a healthy Morgan Steward or a freshman like Marquise Doherty or Ryan Williams would take his place and thrive. But Walters is hurt, Abbington was still playing himself into shape in fall camp, and while Steward and others swear he's at 100% now, he doesn't really look it. (Yes, I left one running back unnamed here. I'll come back to him.)
So Witter has had to become the main guy, and he's not there yet. He has struggled to take full advantage of the blocks he's gotten -- we have been spoiled when it comes to the one-crease-and-go burst that players like Tony Temple, Kendial Lawrence, Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy, and Hansbrough) have given Mizzou in recent years. But either Witter's burst is not where it needs to be yet, or he's not seeing the creases (when they exist) quickly enough. He's a young guy, and he's still got time to thrive, but he's being asked to do more than he can do right now. I struggle to get too frustrated with him.
The line, on the other hand? That thing up front with four senior starters that was supposed to provide steadiness and creases for whoever's behind them? I'm allowing myself to get frustrated with them. Last year, this unit struggled in September, then gelled. We can hope for the same thing this year, and it might come to fruition, but with this level of experience, there's simply no excuse for the fact that UConn's defensive line almost never got pushed backwards. We can talk about the loss of Mitch Morse, and to be sure, Connor McGovern has struggled to live up to Morse's standards at LT, but the entire five-man line has failed to live up to what felt like pretty reasonable expectations. And we just have to hope it improves like last year.
It starts with the finish
I don't know what Missouri's offense can become this year. In theory, Hansbrough's return from injury, whenever that actually takes place, could serve as a catalyst. At the very least, he could turn three-yard gains into five-yard gains. Combine that with improvement up front (which could still theoretically happen), and you have some semblance of the ground game you expected. That opens up play-action opportunities that don't currently exist. Beat Kentucky and South Carolina in the coming weeks, then start to look good, and we can all forget that this September's offense is far worse than last September's offense (which we can agree was pretty sketchy).
But whether the whole product improves or not, Mizzou doesn't have to wait till Hansbrough's return to improve in one specific area: finishing. Even late in the year, Mizzou's 2014 offense wasn't amazing, but the Tigers took advantage of the chances they got. Mizzou averaged a solid 4.6 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent's 40) last season, 45th in the country; this year, the Tigers are averaging an absolutely ghastly 3.3 points per opportunity, 120th. Simply being mediocre at turning chances into points would have put the ASU game away before the fourth quarter and would have at the very least put Mizzou a full touchdown ahead of UConn down the stretch.
Screw that, the game would have been over. Mizzou finished seven of its last eight drives in UConn territory. The Tigers had five scoring opportunities. With last year's scoring averages, that results in an easy 23-6 win -- still frustrating but nowhere close to bad. Instead, they scored one touchdown, missed a 40-yard field goal, turned the ball over on downs twice, and went backwards and punted once. Yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck.
If healthy, Tyler Hunt has earned more touches
When your team has completely lacked in effective play-makers, it's hard to ignore the guy who, in two catches, has almost led the team in receiving yards.
Counting his 78-yard touchdown pass from Drew Lock in the opener, Hunt, the Westran grad and former walk-on, is second on the team with 129 receiving yards on only two catches.
"I feel like I deserve more time out there. I’ve put in a lot of work here," Hunt said. "I’m one of the strongest and fastest guys on the team. I want to prove I can play at this level, and I’ve shown I can on these plays. We’ll just see what happens next."
Hunt ran only once for 2 yards as the Tigers struggled to 85 yards on 34 carries — a 2.5-yard average. Starting running back Russell Hansbrough sat out with a sprained right ankle and center Evan Boehm aggravated his right ankle injury from the season opener but stayed in the game Saturday.
As we've written/read many times, personnel decisions are handled during the week. This guy's going to get this many series/snaps, and this guy's going to get this many. Your Saturday production, combined with your practice performance, dictates how frequently you see the field. That Tyler Hunt has been limited with a groin issue has probably limited both his performance in practice and the reps he's been allotted.
But ... damn. DAMN
When your offense is lacking in any sort of confidence or swagger, you might want to give the ball to that guy a few times, just to see what happens. He's done nothing with his handoffs, and he certainly doesn't have any sort of one-crease-and-go burst that Ish Witter doesn't have. And yes, on one of his two catches, he was wide open enough for you or me to gain 50 yards on the play. Still ... you might want to let him prove he can't carry this offense for short amounts of time. In the total lack of other answers, it doesn't appear there's any harm in giving him a shot.
So how does Mizzou dig out of this? By playing better. I wish I had a more dramatic answer. I wish I could shout "Start Lock and Hunt and five new linemen!" and have it be anything more than cathartic. But it wouldn't be. Mizzou's offense will improve when the guys atop the depth chart play better. And when a certain running back in the #32 jersey gets healthy.
Sure, the play-calling could be a little more helpful in the short-term. I expected (hoped) to see more option -- both of the zone read and speed varieties -- than we have to date, and there's no question that Mizzou's second fourth-down play call in the fourth quarter on Saturday (the one that resulted in Ish Witter getting stoned for no gain) didn't play to Mizzou's strengths. But at some point, you have to simply be better than the man you're playing against. Mizzou's offensive players haven't been. And those opponents are about to start getting better.