Columbia — Here are a few thoughts and observations after re-watching the tape of Missouri’s 31-10 loss to South Carolina on Saturday.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
(As always, I ran some of these thoughts past MU’s players and coaches on Monday. All opinions are my own, and FYI, some stats may be a little off because the sideline TV angle isn’t the best for deciphering which players are in the game.)
Missouri came close to being been held without a touchdown for only the sixth time during coach Gary Pinkel’s tenure, so let’s start with what South Carolina did to tame the Tigers, who gained 255 total yards on 58 plays.
I wrote on Saturday that the Gamecocks consistently rushed four men and kept two linebackers in the box to contain the Tigers’ running game. What I did not realize then was that the Gamecocks didn’t even use true nickel personnel. In other words, instead of using five defensive backs against Missouri’s four- and five-wide sets, the Gamecocks spent the entire game playing four down linemen and three linebackers, even on third down and in obvious passing situations, as 6-foot-2, 241-pound senior linebacker DeVonte Holloman – a former safety – repeatedly lining up on a receiver outside of the box.
So although Missouri’s running backs managed to run the ball decently on this front – Kendial Lawrence rushed for 67 yards on 11 carries, while Russell Hansbrough rushed for 29 yards on three carries – that helps explain why the Tigers were unable to hit the Gamecocks for big chunks of yardage on the ground. Not only did South Carolina match Missouri's numbers in the box with four linemen and two linebackers against five linemen and a running back, but Holloman was always on the edge, ready to help in run support if needed. Only one time did I see South Carolina use more than four defensive backs.
Co-offensive line coach Josh Henson also pointed to another reason the Tigers couldn’t get a ton going on the ground.
“A lot of our run game had play-action on it, and we probably we didn’t execute that well enough in the first of the game to loosen things up for our run game,” Henson said. “When we did, and we got one of those linebackers out of the box and we were able to hand it off and have even numbers, I thought our running game did alright.”
Quarterback James Franklin ran 15 times for only six yards. South Carolina entered the game allowing an average of 53 rushing yards per game, but some of this aso has to do with Franklin, who admitted Monday that he didn’t have his best game managing Missouri’s run game. So if you add a few missed zone reads to a strong defensive front that flowed to the ball, you get a team stat line of 109 yards on 32 carries.
“We probably had in there four or five plays during the game where I felt like we were on a guy and that guy just one-on-one got off us and made the tackle,” Henson said. “Against a good team, you’ll probably have four or five of those.”
(Bonus note: As it relates to the zone-read, it's surprising how many times the unblocked defensive end has come in to make the play. I saw this a lot against Georgia, and against SC to a lesser degree. But it still happened.)
SC dared Mizzou to throw the ball
CBS analyst Gary Danielson said the Gamecocks were practically daring Missouri to throw the ball on them with their defensive alignment, and I’d tend to agree.
Problem was, Franklin – who completed 11-of-18 passes for 92 yards – was very cautious with the football, which he admitted this week. By my count, he threw only four passes that traveled 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage, and failed to complete any of them.
Two such plays stick out in the second half. The first came in the third quarter, when Franklin saw Marcus Lucas streaking open to his right after beating press coverage, but Franklin overthrew him. The second came in the fourth quarter, when he overshot receiver Gahn McGaffie – who was surrounded by three defenders but in position to make the catch if it had been a tad lower – over the middle.
Another stat speaks to how conservative Missouri’s passing offense was on Saturday. Of Franklin’s 18 passes, 11 were toward the boundary – the short side of the field – while three were in the middle and only four were toward the field. Franklin said his ailing shoulder – which forced him to miss the previous game – still bothered him some against the Gamecocks, so perhaps that’s why he made (or was instructed to make?) so many short, close throws. He didn't forget how to play football overnight, so it's obvious the injury is limiting him.
Either way, Pinkel reiterated Wednesday that he hopes to see Missouri throw the ball downfield more this week. And Franklin might want to start settling in against this "rush four, contain six" defensive look – which Georgia and South Carolina both used in wins over the Tigers – because Henson isn’t convinced it’s going anywhere, not with the defensive linemen the SEC has to offer.
“It’s the SEC, you know? That’s kind of what it’s all about, and that’s where it probably separate itself from rest of college football," Henson said. "Florida will be pretty good, Tennessee will be good, Alabama will be good and im sure Vanderbilt and Kentucky will be good too and A&M…the bottom line is as not as much about who we’re playing as it is about us just playing with good fundamentals.
Breaking down the O-line
It’s certainly tempting to say Missouri didn’t throw deep because of its youthful offensive line, but that’s not entirely true. While the line is a factor – and South Carolina did finish with three sacks – the Gamecocks rarely blitzed (they only sent more than four guys once all game, by my count) which means the O-Line had numbers in pass pro all game long. And aside from star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney causing havoc on three plays in the third quarter, they held up better than I originally thought they did.
“Other than three plays, it was pretty good,” Henson said. “And obviously, those three plays, we got sacked on two of them and had quarterback hurry on the other. If we would have used better technique and played with better fundamentals, I think we would have been fine on those three plays, also.”
Further proof: after Clowney – who is surely going to be a first-round NFL Draft pick someday – got his first sack by swimming past left tackle Justin Britt, Danielson said SEC coaches believe you have to supplement the offensive tackles with tight ends, fullbacks and H-backs to help neutralize all the dynamite defensive ends in the league. At that point, you probably had a fleeting vision of tight end Eric Waters (who played 12 snaps Saturday) said to yourself, "Yeah, why doesn’t Missouri do more of that?”
Well, guess what – Henson said the Tigers had a plan to do just that on Saturday. The O-line just held up well enough to keep it from being a viable course of action.
“It was a backup plan if we felt like we needed it,” Henson said. “I didn’t ever get to the point where I felt like we needed it. I just felt like we needed to execute our fundamentals a little better and we’d be alright.”
One more thing: Missouri passed the ball 26 times on Saturday, and Clowney did damage on four occasions:
*On Missouri’s first drive, he spun inside on Britt – who maintained his block – and chipped center Mitch Morse, which allowed Chaz Sutton – who was streaking across the center’s face – to run unimpeded at Franklin for a sack. Those things happen.
*On Missouri’s first drive of the second half, Britt got beat on the play described a few graphs ago. Heck of a move.
*On the very next play, Clowney sped past Britt and forced Franklin to take off for a 6-yard gain.
So yes, that’s a pretty decent day for any defensive end, as Clowney finished with four tackles and 1 ½ sacks. But Henson says Britt held his own.
“He played (dang) well except for two plays,” Henson said, “and those are the two plays everybody remembers. But that’s life as a tackle. I think the kid only beat him in the run game on one play that I remember.”
It’s also worth noting that Devin Taylor, the Gamecocks’ other vaunted defensive end, finished with only a single tackle.
Your weekly DGB update
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Dorial Green-Beckham played 26 snaps on Saturday, and I had him down for 25, so that sounds about right - I easily could have missed him somewhere. I do know that the ball was thrown his way four times, including a 9-yard completion in the fourth quarter and a failed fade pattern on third-and-goal just before halftime.
“We had 58 snaps on offense,” said receivers coach Andy Hill. “When you go three-and-out and you’re not moving the ball and taking care of the ball…then what you’re wanting to do is not (realistic). When you’re thinking you’ll get 80 plays and you get less than 60, it’s a huge difference.”
When asked about the lack of deep passes the last two games, Hill said the same amount of deep routes are being run as last year, and added that everyone – quarterbacks, receivers, O-line, coaches – is at fault for the Tigers’ inability to take the top off the defense.
“Everybody is a taking a turn right now,” Hill said. “We’re working on just becoming more consistent in practice.”
Finally, when asked why the Tigers can’t just line Green-Beckham out wide and tell him to run a go route so he can take advantage of his 6-foot-6 height and 4.5-speed, Hill - who maintains DGB is still ahead of schedule in his development as a receiver - just smiled.
“We’re working on that,” Hill said. “You’ll see.”
(One bonus DGB note: I've written before that I see him giving good effort in the running game. Well here he is again, blocking downfield on Kendial Lawrence's biggest run of the day, a 28-yard jaunt).
Breaking down Berkstresser
Redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser looked good late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, when he took over for Franklin and promptly completed 7-of-8 passes for 54 yards and the Tigers’ only touchdown.
A couple of things about his scoring drive: first, South Carolina’s starting corners were still in the game, and he threw seven of his eight passes toward the boundary, where his receivers were given a minimum 7-yard cushion on four of his completions. It is also worth noting that his 1-yard touchdown strike to Lucas came on what appeared to be press coverage against a starting corner, as Lucas swam pass his man and caught the short slant for a touchdown.It was a nice play.
I’ll also say this: I don’t know if it’s playcalling or reads or what, but for one of the few times all day, Missouri took advantage of South Carolina’s aforementioned nickel look (with three linebackers, including one lined up against a receiver) during the drive, as Berkstresser found Jimmie Hunt for a 23-yard completion over the middle.
I still maintain that Missouri’s run defense is pretty decent by SEC standards. Running back Marcus Lattimore is a stud, a future NFL’er, and he finished with 87 yards on 21 carries. His first run (21 yards) was also his longest, as he was held to 66 yards on 20 carries the rest of the way.
Where he – and the rest of South Carolina’s backs and tight ends, for that matter – did most of their damage was on quick, short passes that they turned into healthy gains. Led by Lattimore, who had seven catches for 60 yards, SC backs and tight ends combined to finish with 15 of South Carolina’s 21 receptions for 150 yards.
“It was part of the game plan coming in,” Lattimore said. “We knew what kind of defense they were going to play. I love catching the ball. I caught the ball in high school and I have caught the ball a lot here so it's no problem to me.”
Pinkel said Missouri wanted to encourage short passes against the Gamecocks; South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier confirmed this when he said MU sat in a deep Cover 2 zone most of the game. That rang true to me, as these backs and ends often leaked out wide open in the flat and over the middle.
Problem was, MU didn’t do a good job of tackling these guys once they caught it. By my count, when SC’s backs and ends racked up 62 yards after contact on the 12 receptions in which they did not go out of bounds.
Personally, I wonder how much the injury to weakside linebacker Zaviar Gooden had to do with all of this. Gooden, who missed the Arizona State game with a pulled hamstring, tried to gut it out Saturday but lasted less than a quarter before he was pulled for Donovan Bonner.
Gooden, who boasts 4.37 speed in the 40-yard dash, didn’t look like himself. I saw him moving a tad slower than normal and lunging at tacklers he’d normally wrap up. He was pulled a few plays after an end around to receiver Bruce Ellington, when he had chances to bring him down here and here and couldn’t make the tackle. He stayed in for the next play, a run by Lattimore in which he didn’t fly to the ball with his normal gusto, and was pulled.
One of the reasons Gooden is so valuable when he’s healthy is because of his coverage ability in Missouri’s Cover 2 scheme. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said when Gooden is healthy, he has the ability to play man coverage on the weakside, which is very handy – and something they do a lot less when he’s not in the game.
“We don’t do that as much without him in there because he’s got those safety skills and some other guys have got linebacker skills,” Steckel said. “He’s blessed to have both skills, so (without him), we probably don’t man No. 2 weak as much.”
Shaw shreds the defense with the short pass
Much will be made of South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw’s 20-for-21 performance in which he completed 20 straight passes, and rightfully so. Kid was efficient and did what he was asked.
But how does a thing like this happen? Especially against a team like Missouri, which does have a legitimate pass rush? Well, it’s a combination of factors, but mainly this is what I saw: When Shaw received the snap from the shotgun, he also dropped back a minimum of two yards 16 times. See here and here. That means MU’s pass rushers had to go upwards of eight yards to get a hand on him, and Shaw often made quick reads, dumping it to an open back or tight end (because again, MU was giving this up).
By the time the game was over, Shaw had thrown the ball 10 yards past the line of scrimmage only three times – but he was deadly on each of them. Two of them, surprisingly, where thrown to E.J. Gaines’ side of the field in the first half. The first was a 37-yard strike up the sideline that split Gaines and the safety, who were playing Cover 2, and the second was a 23-yard strike to speedy receiver Ace Sanders, who beat Gaines in man-to-man press coverage with a nifty fake at the line of scrimmage.
“The first one we were in Cover 2 so it was just a mix up between coverages, and the second one I just got beat off the line,” Gaines said.
Gaines is still a very good corner; the latter was the first completion I can recall him allowing in man-to-man coverage this year.
Shaw’s final downfield throw also resulted in a touchdown, a 13-yarder to tight end Rory Anderson, who started the play on the line of scrimmage. Shaw rolled out and found Anderson wide open, streaking across the field after the Tigers failed to pick him up.
A TE-friendly Fun N’ Gun?
There used to be a time when Spurrier was hardly known as a tight end’s best friend. During his days at Florida, the Gators rarely threw to the position. But Spurrier has changed his ways, it seems; I only counted one time all game that South Carolina didn’t use a fullback or tight end, and often times the Gamecocks positioned a tight end on the line of scrimmage out of the shotgun.
Tight end Justice Cunningham had four receptions (all on one drive), while Anderson had his touchdown catch. Fullback Qua Gilchrist even leaked into the middle of the field and caught a short pass for a gain.
(Bonus note: After making a few appearance as a third-down pass protector against Arizona State, I don't believe Jared McGriff-Culver saw a snap in the backfield.)
Richardson rips it…again
How about we close this thing on a positive note. After all, the season isn’t over yet (though Saturday’s game against UCF is clearly a must-win). One player who definitely showed up was defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who again turned in another impressive performance that actually earned him this bit of praise from Pinkel.
“Several times, we used him as examples to our defense when he’s running downfield on a tackle 25 yards down the field,” Pinkel said. “He has remarkable movement for a guy that weighs 295 pounds. It’s just nice to see that.”
I’ve written a great deal about Richardson here and here, so I won’t make this too long. He finished with seven tackles and probably should have been credited with more. Here are two standout plays, in particular:
*On first-and-10 in the first quarter, MU ran a stunt only to see Shaw roll to his right, where he seemingly had all day to throw. But Richardson hustled downfield and sacked him along with Andrew Wilson, who came up in coverage.
*On the first next play, MU again runs a stunt but Richardson is doubled. However, he diagnoses the play quickly – see how his head is turned downfield before the other D-linemen? – and he races to the ball, makes the tackle and forces the fumble.
“In practice, we work on takeaway drill all the time,” Wilson said. “It pays off for a lot of guys, and it paid off for Sheldon.”
It also paid off for Wilson, who briefly gave the Tigers some life in the third quarter when he laid a big hit on South Carolina tailback Kenny Miles that caused Miles to fumble. MU, which trailed 21-3 at that point, recovered. It was Wilson’s fourth forced fumble in four games.
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send e-mail to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.