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Column: The ace in the hole: When pass-first doesn’t have to remain pass-first

Nate Atkins

Oct. 21, 2011

If Missouri football isn’t apt to change, it needs to be.

At 3-3, the Tigers are desperate for wins, hungry for a bowl game and enamored with continuing Gary Pinkel’s winning tradition. The solution lies in the backfield, but can Missouri embrace an unconventional leader?

Questions about running back Henry Josey’s ability no longer deserve a voice. The ideal spread running back leads the Big 12 Conference in rushing yards and the entire country in yards per carry (for players with at least 50 rushes).

To place that production into perspective, the only player from a BCS conference with at least 50 rushes who is even comparable to Josey’s 9.69 yards per carry is some guy at Oregon named LaMichael James.

On a team so centered on its passing game, Josey isn’t even the sole rushing threat. The man handing off to him, sophomore quarterback James Franklin, joins Josey in the top 100 in rushing yards while leading the Tigers with seven rushing touchdowns.

Missouri finds itself in a group with Georgia Tech., Nebraska and Kansas State as the only BCS schools to have their quarterback and running back in the top 100 in rushing yards. Of that tier, Franklin and Josey’s 6.6 combined yards per carry ranks first by a landslide.

What’s more is that Missouri recently welcomed back running back Kendial Lawrence (422 yards, four touchdowns in 2010) and should soon see the return of original starter DeVion Moore (517 yards, eight touchdowns in ’10), both coming off injury.

It sounds like I’m reading off names from either Georgia Tech.’s or Oregon’s backfield. These are Missouri Tigers — members of a pass-happy spread attack yet ready to burst with rushing talent. The question is: Can Missouri stray from tradition? Can a pass-first offense for once not be pass-first?

It sure needs serious consideration, because the current system isn’t executing to the level it needs or could. As sound as Missouri’s 13th-ranked offense has been, it has a nasty habit of stalling. The Tigers rank 96th nationally with a 35 percent third-down conversion rate. The stat drives the knife deeper with consideration for Missouri’s season-long struggle in the field goal game.

The third down struggles are partially related to various offensive deficiencies, but even in the best pass-first units, drives stall because a one-dimensional scheme limits an offense’s potential for consistency and unpredictability.

A move toward a balanced scheme can also immensely ease Franklin’s progression as a passer. Placing the focus on Josey will call away some of the blindside pressure that continues to fluster the young quarterback. A move toward the running game will also utilize the edge of Franklin’s game that is already a sure bet.

The current pass-happy system has produced Heisman Trophy finalists, first round NFL Draft picks and top 10 offenses en route to 40 wins the past four seasons. It’s a system to take pride in, but at its best is no perfect unit. The Tigers have never been more capable of complementing a talented passing game with a star and his backfield posse.

The Missouri offense is far from broken. It doesn’t need fixing. But the Tigers would surely benefit by looking down at the hand they’ve been dealt.

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Article comments

Oct. 21, 2011 at 1:23 p.m.

phil: Missouri Is In The Top 30 In Standard Downs Run Percentage, Meaning That With A Few Exceptions (Iowa, Kansas State), They've Been A "Run First" Team, Or At Least An Incredibly Balanced Team, Since About Two-Thirds Of The Way Through Last Season

Oct. 21, 2011 at 4:15 p.m.

Frank: Check out Rock'M'Nation's website today. They put you on blast because you did poor research. Before having an original idea, I'd run it by Bill C., or Dave Matter. At your infant stage of sports opinion writing (you're still in college, it's understandable) you should do some fact checking to base your opinions on. Bill C. has all the stats you could ever need. Frank the Tank

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