I caught myself watching the Year Zero game within the game yesterday. My reaction to nearly every play not only had to do with “Did this play give us a better chance of winning this game?” but nearly had more to do with “Are the players involved in that play going to be around next year?”
Tight end Sean Culkin catches a couple of nice passes over the middle and fights for extra yardage: fine, good, whatever. Tight end Kendall Blanton runs a lovely route and catches a perfectly timed touchdown pass from Drew Lock: OH HELL YES, AWESOME.
Defensive lineman Josh Augusta makes a nice stop in the backfield: Well good for him, glad he seems to be having a nice game. Defensive lineman Jordan Harold does the same: YOU’RE DAMN RIGHT. I’M EXCITED NOW.
The good thing about looking at games in this way is that the outcome isn’t all that important. I wanted my team to win because winning is more fun than losing, but for the rest of this season, my number one concern is finding clues for future breakthroughs and looking for signs of growth.
With that in mind, some more reactions from yesterday:
1. Drew Lock’s CPU needs an offseason upgrade
We’ve been talking a lot about the “half-field reads” that Josh Heupel’s system is based around, and we can see the draw pretty clearly at this point. The tempo aspects of this offense have been very well-installed — you’ll occasionally see procedural issue, a moment where they’re simply moving too fast, but they’re rare, and Mizzou is moving very quickly between snaps. And if you’re getting first downs and rushing to the line, and your quarterback is making simple reads and simple throws and generating more first downs, it takes about four plays for the opposing defense to lose its will.
When it works, it’s gorgeous, and it worked a few times yesterday. The first scoring drive was a thing of beauty: three straight Damarea Crockett runs for 16 yards, a quick pass to Blanton, a 12-yard keeper by Lock (which looked a little awkward, but whatever, it worked), a 27-yard pass to Dimetrios Mason, a 29-yard run up the middle by Crockett.
The second scoring drive was a little bit glitchier but still nice. Two rushes by Ish Witter, a third-down keeper by Lock, a couple of runs by Witter, an easy fourth-down completion to J’Mon Moore, and a 25-yard run up the middle by Witter.
The third scoring drive: same thing. Moore for 7 yards, Culkin up the seam for 23, back to Moore for 12. Witter rushes three times for 26 yards. Back to Blanton for the score.
The three touchdown drives occupied 23 plays, 222 yards, and all of 7 minutes. And Mizzou drove into SC territory six other times and created three more scoring opportunities (first downs inside the 40).
The problem, of course, is the glitches. First, they happen just as quickly as the successes. Second, they show where Mizzou — Lock in particular — still needs to go.
On Mizzou’s third possession, with Marvin Zanders lined up wide, Lock was far too casual in his play fake and had no idea that Bryson Allen-Williams was gaining on him very quickly. Zanders was open, and Lock took a 13-yard sack.
On the seventh possession, coming off of two straight scores, Lock froze up in the pocket when his initial reads were covered. He took an eight-yard sack instead of throwing the ball away or trying to scramble forward for a few yards.
On the second drive after halftime, Lock had Moore break open on the left sideline, but he was reading the right side. He lobbed the ball into coverage and threw a pick at the SC 2. (The last pick was more forgivable — it was third-and-11 with seconds left, and he had no choice but to try to make something happen.)
Missouri returns a large percentage of its current two-deep next year and should expect to improve simply because of that. But Locks ability to shift gears will tell us so much about the Tigers’ ceiling. When his first read comes open as he expects it, this offense hums. But you can almost see the CPU lag when he has to move on to Plan B.
It doesn’t really matter what Plan B is — moving his eyes to the other side of the field, taking off, whatever. He just needs to get there quicker. I think he fits what Heupel wants to do pretty well, especially when he doesn’t forget to throw over the middle. (Blanton could have a lovely season next year.) Plus, his still-extremely-young receiving corps should continue to improve incrementally, which in theory means Plan A will work more frequently. But his decision-making ability, both in quality and speed, will determine how much improvement is possible next year.
This really was pretty fun, by the way. Lock’s a fun guy. He just needs to give himself more reasons to celebrate.
2. Eric Beisel must just be awful in practice
I’ve had this thought in my head many times these past few weeks. The redshirt junior just hasn’t been able to crack into the rotation in his career, and even a change in coaches wasn’t able to turn that around at first. But over the past three games, necessity and injury have forced him into the lineup, and he’s been Mizzou’s leader at making things happen.
Maybe Beisel doesn’t have Michael Scherer’s awareness, and he looks far more comfortable near the line of scrimmage than in pass defense. (To his credit, though, he played that touchdown pass to Rico Dowdle pretty well. He raised his arms at the right time, and no flag came out, so if it hadn’t taken a stupid bounce right up into Dowdle’s line of sight, it would have been a PBU and a South Carolina field goal attempt.)
Still, despite really only playing for three games, he’s already Missouri’s leader in LB tackles for loss. If he keeps up his current pace, he could hit 10 TFLs for the season. For a system that wants to ask its linemen to fill gaps and set its linebackers up to make plays, he has quickly proven himself to be the linebacking corps’ best play-maker. He misses fewer tackles than his counterparts as well (at least according to my flawed eyes). And while it’s a shame that he’s already a junior, that still means he’ll be around in 2017.
I don’t know what has kept him out of the rotation, but he’s in it now, and he is completely taking advantage of the opportunity.
3. Aarion Penton’s had a bad two weeks
Deebo Samuel’s big game came mostly against John Gibson. Gibson didn’t appear too limited by the knee injury that’s kept him out of the lineup, but he still didn’t have the juice needed to slow down a receiver who has caught fire in recent weeks.
Still, if Jake Bentley only had Samuel to lean on, he wouldn’t have had the day he had. Long passes to Bryan Edwards and Chavis Dawkins also gave the Gamecocks the firepower to win this one.
The one to Dawkins (which set up SC’s third touchdown) was the most disappointing to me. It was incredibly well-thrown, but it was disappointing because it came on Aarion Penton, who has gotten burned deep a few times in the last two weeks. Kentucky’s Jeff Badet torched him last week as well. The midseason All-American has evidently not responded well to the plaudits.
Of course, I’m not wearing my 2017 glasses in this section — Penton and Gibson will be gone anyway, right? Yes, but ... the last couple of weeks also haven’t offered any solace in that regard either.
Penton and Gibson are going to be gone next year, and while plenty of 2017ers have seen the field — Logan Cheadle, T.J. Warren (who’s been thrust into more of a nickel/linebacker role), DeMarkus Acy — none have seized opportunities. But among these three, Christian Holmes (who seems to have had his role diminished in recent weeks), Anthony Hines, Finis Stribling IV, and perhaps an incoming freshman ... well ... somebody is going to be starting in 2017. Cheadle will probably get one of the spots, but at this point I have no idea who wins the other spot. And I don’t love Cheadle. Meanwhile, we can’t at least enjoy our seniors with our 2016 glasses on — they’ve struggled recently, too.
4. Holy crap, those shadows
I mean, really. That was tough to watch. But I digress.
5. The benefits of a detached state
I’m a Missouri and Pittsburgh Pirates fan — I am as good at “wait till next year” as anybody I know. If I hadn’t learned patience, I would have given up on sports a long time ago.
Still, it gets really old reviewing losses, doesn’t it? It’s been hard to come up with new things to say (though it was a bit easier this week). But it helped to have a friend in town yesterday. He’s from out of town and hasn’t caught much Mizzou this year. Naturally, he spent most of the game doing what I was trying to do: look for who might bring the team back in the future. “Lock’s only a sophomore, huh?” “What year is that Blanton kid?” Sophomore. “Who’s Richaud Floyd? What year is he?” Redshirt freshman! That was a nice play, huh? “This kicker stinks!” Yeah, but at least he’s a freshman. Et cetera.
It’s hard to keep watching losses, but I mean it when I say there’s not a lot of difference between 2-10 and 4-8 or whatever. The second-year bounce can happen regardless, and I become more confident in it when the losses are like yesterday’s, where your team makes a lot of great plays, outgains its opponents, and loses because of execution issues that could, in theory, rectify themselves over time.
This team has plenty of questions to answer moving forward, and they go beyond cornerback: What happens when Mizzou (probably) moves back to something of a read-and-react system up front on defense? This offensive line is better, but what’s its ceiling? Can the 2017 recruiting class offer some immediate help? Tucker McCann’s going to get better ... right? This run defense is going to be okay again one day ... right?
Still, you can see a path forward. And I see it slightly more clearly after yesterday than I did the day before. That’s something.