Columbia — Here are a few thoughts and observations after re-watching the tape of Missouri’s 24-20 win over Arizona State on Saturday. Corbin Berkstresser's starting debut as quarterback made for a super-long edition, so I decided to hold my defensive and special teams observations until Wednesday.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
(FYI, I’m no coach or anything, so I got a chance to run some of these thoughts past MU’s players and coaches on Monday. Also, all stats are compiled by me; they may be a little off because I obviously don't have access to the all-22 coaching film and the sideline TV angle isn’t the best for identifying things but they should be close.)
*The Tigers made a concerted effort to get the ball to freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, their 6-foot-6, 220-pound star recruit. After catching just one pass for 5 yards against Georgia, Green-Beckham ran four times for 19 yards and also had one catch for 2 yards.
By my count, Green-Beckham played 23 snaps, with 17 coming in the first half. This includes plays waved off due to penalties.
There’s also this: every time Green-Beckham lined up in the slot and ran a bubble screen - which he did on 11 instances - Berkstresser either handed the ball to a running back, ran it himself or found another receiver (such as T.J. Moe, who hauled in a game-high eight passes for 88 yards).
(Editor's note: I should have mentioned that Green-Beckham's sole catch came on a tunnel screen, which is a play designed to go directly to him.)
Now to be fair, Missouri rarely threw the bubble, no matter who was out there. But Berkstresser surmised his chemistry with Moe was a reason he didn't eye No. 15 more.
“I haven’t had as much time with Dorial as I did T.J., maybe,” Berkstresser said. “I trust T.J. a lot. We look forward to the future of getting Dorial more (involved in) the passing game.”
So yes, in the future, keep an eye on how many times MU lines DGB up in the slot. See if he runs a bubble screen, and see if the ball comes his way.
For what it's worth, receivers coach Andy Hill reiterated last week that Green-Beckham is still coming along as a receiver, but I will also say this - blocking doesn’t seem to be a problem for him.
For instance, look at the effort Green-Beckham gives on this 5-yard run by Berkstresser, when he pancakes a cornerback near the edge of the screen. As former Chiefs coach Herm Edwards would say, you can build on that.
*You already know Moe racked up eight catches – the second-most among all SEC receivers last week – while working out of the slot, but did you know Berkstresser targeted him 12 times? That's worth noting because no other MU receiver had more than four catches.
“Corbin, since he got here, has been a younger version of Blaine Gabbert, and what I mean by that is as soon as he sees No. 28 run open, he throws (me) the ball,” Moe joked. “I do like him, and I like James (Franklin) – James moves this offense as good as anybody I’ve seen with his running abilities and downfield throwing.
“But Corbin has just got such a strong arm, he’s able to get the ball to me in some tight windows and hit me in stride. There was one time, after my block in the back (penalty), it was third-and-4 and he hit me so fast coming out of the break that I was able to go for 11 (yards).”
When asked how much the number of targets he had against ASU had to do with the game plan and how much it had to do with Berkstresser simply trusting him, Moe said it was a little bit of both.
“We had a lot of stuff in the game plan for me this week,” Moe said. “But you can have a game plan for anything and you might not have any catches. There are weeks where I’m like ‘Dude, I’m never going to get the ball this week,’ and then I come out with 10 catches, and then it’s like vice versa, where you’re like ‘I’m going to get the ball every play' and you have two or three catches because stuff just doesn’t work.
“So a lot of it has to do with the quarterback and what he prefers, because James is really good at hitting the vertical route downfield and we get a lot of yards doing that, while Corbin, on the other side, is really good at hitting the out route and hitting it quick and with some velocity. We hit a lot of the slants and a lot of the outs last week. It’s something Corbin is really talented (at).”
*In that same vein, both coach Gary Pinkel and offensive coordinator David Yost admitted Monday that the Tigers need to go downfield a bit more. Berkstresser, who completed 21 of 41 passes for 198 yards, threw only three passes that traveled more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He also threw six passes that traveled between 11 and 19 yards, which means he threw a whopping 32 passes that traveled 10 or fewer yards.
Yost attributes this to Arizona State’s defensive scheme and his own conservative playcalling, though he did mention a few specific plays he called in hopes of getting the ball downfield.
One of them came in the second half, when Missouri had a first-and-10 at Arizona State’s 49-yard line. Berkstresser had receiver L’Damian Washington open downfield, but defensive tackles Mike Pennell and Will Sutton broke through the line and forced Berkstresser to throw off his back foot. The pass fell incomplete.
“We’re trying to come up with ways to get the ball downfield because that helps everything else out,” Yost said.
Berkstresser, to his credit, would seem to like that.
“If a quarterback doesn’t (like to throw deep), I don’t know if you’re a quarterback,” Berkstresser said.
*Pinkel raved about Berkstresser’s toughness and calm in third-down situations on Monday, and with good reason. Missouri completed 10-of-22 third-down conversions, nine of which came via a Berkstresser pass or run. That’s how you endear yourself to your coach.
Here’s an example of one such play. With Missouri facing a third-and-6 in the second quarter, Arizona State defensive end Carl Bradford flew off the ball – I’m pretty sure he timed the snap count, hard to blame the tackle – and closed in quickly. Berkstresser still had the wherewithal to step up in the pocket, escape pressure and throw a 5-yard strike to Moe for a first down.
Plays like that also endeared Berkstresser to his teammates.
“He played a (heck) of a game for his first start,” said sophomore lineman Mitch Morse. “I love the kid to death. He took some serious shots and he’s been living in the tubs, but we had class together today and he feels really good about how he played.”
Britt agreed, adding there were a few times he had to help Berkstresser off the turf. Moe was also impressed with the way Berkstresser handled the defensive pressure.
“When you see a guy standing there and take a lot of the punishment he took on Saturday, you can’t help but admire that toughness,” Moe said.
*Berkstresser made two defenders miss and dragged three defenders into the end zone on his 6-yard touchdown run in the first half. One of those defenders was Sutton, who had a heck of a game (we’ll get to him in a bit).
In all, Yost said MU tried to get the ball in the running backs’ hands more last week with the injury to dual-threat quarterback James Franklin, but Berkstresser still finished with 18 carries for 25 yards and showed some power and wiggle along the way.
*Now, about Berkstresser's interception. He basically saw a receiver streaking across the field with man coverage against a linebacker – albeit a very good one in Brandon Magee – and Berkstresser simply got too excited and delivered an underthrown ball that Magee eventually swiped out of the air.
“I saw I had 1-on-1 with my slot receiver, and I got so anxious I let it go too late,” Berkstresser said. “And I’m like ‘Oh my.’ I knew it right when I threw it that I didn’t put enough air on it.”
*I’m going to point out this next play out for two reasons. One, because it happened in the first quarter and co-offensive line coach Bruce Walker said the O-Line got much better afterwards, and two, because it’s an example of the kind of hits Berkstresser was exposed to in his first career start.
With Missouri facing a third-and-9 on its first offensive drive, Pennell - a 350-pound nose tackle - lined up between center Brad McNulty and guard Max Copeland. The ball is hiked, and Pennell raced in, untouched. Berkstresser got rid of the ball in time but took a massive hit.
“We made one call, and then we made another call, and half of them got it and half of them didn’t,” Walker said of his line. “We call that the lookout play, where we just open up the middle of the thing and let a guy run through, turn around and say lookout.”
This was one of a few communication errors for the offensive line on Saturday, Walker said, but as a whole, he felt the group played better than it did the week before.
*Sutton, the 6-foot-4, 267-pound senior, was outright disruptive in the middle of the Sun Devils' defense. He finished the game with eight tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.
Frankly, he stood out on tape more than Georgia’s massive 6-foot-3, 360-pound tackle John Jenkins, who is projected by some to be a first-round NFL Draft pick. They do different things - Jenkins is more of two-gap, 3-4 run-stuffer while Sutton is a one-gap, 4-3 guy - but that's still saying something.
“Sutton’s a great player, great with his hands, a very physical guy,” said guard Jack Meiners, who was beat for a sack by Sutton. “There’s a lot of things we didn’t do like we wanted to do, but that’s on us.”
Meiners, true freshman left guard Evan Boehm, redshirt freshman center Brad McNulty and junior guard Max Copeland were tasked with keeping him in check, but Walker was proud of the way they battled against a strong player.
“He’s experienced, four years older than some of the guys he was going against,” Walker said, setting up the punch line. “I saw him after the game - it looked to me like he was about 36 (years old).”
*Arizona State routinely brought heat off the edge, blitzing five and six men, something Georgia rarely did. Sometimes the Sun Devils even sent defensive backs.
“They brought a lot of corner crash, jet off the edge,” Morse said. “For the most part, blocking-wise off the edge, we did pretty good. I know Justin (Britt) did real well in his technique. Mine was a little off. But for the most part, we kept them at bay. Their defensive front is a lot better than people think they were.”
While this is true, I think the constant pressure the Sun Devils created either up the middle or with these outside blitz packages is part of the reason Berkstresser didn’t take more shots downfield.
Still, Britt looked much more comfortable at left tackle than right tackle, and I didn’t really see Morse get beat that much in pass pro, either. It was a big difference from last week, when Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones wreaked havoc from the edge. This time, Arizona State caused havoc inside.
*For those who say Missouri’s tight ends never block, there’s this – junior Eric Waters, on the line of scrimmage, blocking a defensive end. I saw him do this several times Saturday. In fact, this particular block helped spring running back Kendial Lawrence for a 16-yard gain in the third quarter, Lawrence's longest run of the night. Waters also had help from Copeland, who pulled around and doubled the defensive end.
*Missouri brought out a formation that is near and dear to my heart as a Michigan native and longtime proponent of "old-man football." Twice, the Tigers ran out of the I-formation, with the first coming in the second quarter, with Missouri facing on a third-and-1 at the Arizona State 9-yard line. The Tigers ran a simple handoff to Lawrence, who got the first down with fullback Jared McGriff-Culver (we’ll get to him in a bit) leading the way.
The thing that stuck out to me was the way Britt ferociously pancaked his defender on the play. At 6-foot-6, 315 pounds, Britt has prototypical size for a tackle – he’d no doubt fit in well in the Big 10. To me, that makes him a must-watch any time Missouri uses this formation from here on out.
Missouri also used the I-formation in the third quarter, when Lawrence vaulted over the goal line put MU ahead 24-7.
*McGriff-Culver got lots of work at running back in third-down passing situations on Saturday, possibly as a means to shore up the pass protection after Georgia racked up nine quarterback hurries the week before.
“They were kind of a third-down blitz team, we knew we’d be in a position where we’d use six-man protection for their blitzes, so we said why not use him,” Yost said. “It’s something he’s good at. He understands the schemes, he understands protections, who to pick up….it’s also a chance to take another hit off Marcus (Murphy) and Kendial (Lawrence) in the blitz-type things, so that was good for us and gives him another role on the team, which is really positive.”
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. Be sure to check out Part 2 of the MU film room on Wednesday, when I'll take a look at defense and special teams.
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.