The Maneater

Column: Mizzou’s offense is … confusing

Columnist Eli Lederman: “The 2016 iteration of the Missouri Tigers offense is one that has been equal parts exciting, confusing and downright baffling.”

Sophomore quarterback Drew Lock, 3, throws an incomplete pass during the first quarter of the Mizzou’s game facing the LSU tigers at Death Valley.

Five weeks.

It’s about how long it takes to grow sick of the campus dining halls or to figure out that Missouri weather changes hour to hour with the predictability of a 36-sided die. For some, it’s enough time to realize that a major in biology just might not be for them. And for many things, five weeks is a perfect sample size.

So why, after five weeks of Mizzou football, are we still so confused by the Tiger offense?

The 2016 iteration of the Missouri Tigers is one that has been, in equal parts, exciting, confusing and downright baffling.

At points, the Tigers have me convinced that they could take on any team in the Southeastern Conference that doesn’t hail from Tuscaloosa. At others, like a weekend ago in Baton Rouge when Mizzou’s offense scored only seven points against Louisiana State, the Tigers leave us perplexed.

Then there was the Georgia game, where the Tigers could have won in so many different ways, yet they managed to find the lone possible way to lose. That one just left you exasperated.

This brand of inconsistency has become a part of the new norm for football at Missouri. This season alone, we’ve seen three distinctly different Mizzou teams. There’s the team that barely even showed up in games on the road at West Virginia and LSU. Then there’s the team that came out and simply destroyed lowly opponents in Eastern Michigan and Delaware State.

Lastly, there’s the team that showed up and hung with Georgia. That team is probably the most accurate representation of the Tigers in 2016. The problem? We never know which team we’re going to get.

But emerging from this hell storm of confusion that has been this 2016 Tigers football team is one surprising constant: First-year offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s offense.

Well, sort of.

After finishing as the No. 127 offense — next to last — in the nation in 2015, Mizzou’s offense was only going to ascend in 2016. That we knew.

We knew that Drew Lock would be better in year two. We knew J’Mon Moore would be good, but maybe not this good. But what Josh Heupel has executed thus far has been far more than an improvement; it’s been a full overhaul.

A simple comparison of offensive stats between this season and last shows just how significant a change Heupel has brought. In 2015, the Tigers averaged 13.7 PPG (127th), 280.9 YPG (125th) and 15.1 first downs (126th). Through five games this season, 37.0 PPG (38th), 508.6 YPG (18th) and 24.4 first downs (30th). The Tigers rank in the top five in each category within the SEC, and they are currently ranked No. 40 among offenses in the nation, a position the Tigers haven’t been in since 2013 when the Tigers made their first SEC championship appearance.

Even without the stats, anyone who’s watched just a series or two of Mizzou football this season would know this is a changed offense. From the moment the season kicked off in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the Tiger offense took the field, Heupel’s impact was apparent. Everything was faster. Every aspect of the offense — getting to the line, snapping the football, moving downfield — appeared to be much faster.

And that speed wasn’t just an illusion. Through the season’s first five games, Mizzou’s offensive pace of play has vastly improved from last year. The Tigers finished last season No. 122 in the nation in plays per game, averaging 64.2. In the early portion of this season, they’ve jumped all the way up to No. 27, averaging 78.2 per game.

An even more analytical measurement of this bettered pace comes from Football Outsider’s Bill Connelly. Connelly’s pace of play stat takes into account a particular team’s run-pass ratio to inform an Expected Plays Per Game figure, which is then used to compare with the actual plays run. It’s complicated; I know. But according to Connelly’s figures on pace, the Tigers have made a huge jump this season.

Mizzou’s offense now ranks as the 29th fastest in the nation, among offenses like Florida State (31st), Oklahoma State (27th) and Louisville (21st). A fast-moving offense doesn’t guarantee success (just ask 2-4 Syracuse, rated as the nation’s second-fastest offense), but for Mizzou, it’s a major change.

Just a year removed from offensive snoozers like a 9-6 loss to Georgia or a 3-point victory over UConn, Heupel’s new, fast-paced offense is truly refreshing.

There are of course a few caveats to all of this early success on offense. Mizzou’s only wins this season have come against Eastern Michigan and Delaware State, both non-Power Five opponents. In those two wins, the Tigers put up massive offensive numbers, scoring an average of 70 points with 672.5 yards per game.

But in the three games against Power Five opponents, the Tigers offense hasn’t looked quite as prolific. In matchups on the road versus West Virginia and LSU and a tight home loss against the Georgia Bulldogs, Heupel’s offense amassed just 15.0 PPG with an average of 399.3 YPG. Essentially, the Tiger offense has beat up heavily on the weak teams, while remaining pretty ordinary — or maybe even below average — against everyone else.

The other issue with the offense is its adverse impact on Mizzou’s defense.

For a program that prides itself on its defense, and often goes by the nickname “D-line Zou,” Mizzou’s defense has been pretty run-of-the-mill thus far. The Tigers are getting run all over this season, allowing 189.0 yards per game to opposing rushers.

They’ve also given up a troubling 21.6 first downs per game. Both numbers land the Mizzou D, which finished last year as the top five in the country, in the bottom half of the nation. Certainly some of these struggles could be attributed to the loss of 2015 leading tackler Kentrell Brothers, or the dismissal of sack co-leader Walter Brady. But they could also be attributed to the offense.

With the new, fast paced style of play, decreased offensive time of possession has naturally come with it. At 21:48 on average spent holding onto the football, the Tigers possess the country’s third lowest time of possession in the nation. Conversely, the Tigers defense spends 38:12 on the field each game. As a result, the defense seen an average of 80.3 snaps, among the most in the nation.

And in case you thought those added minutes and extra snaps didn’t have an impact, here’s what linebacker Michael Scherer had to say after the defeat in Baton Rouge: ”You could feel (the snaps wearing on us) for sure. Especially the way they were running and passing — you could definitely feel it. I can feel it now, but what are you going to do? Gotta line up and play … Bottom line.”

No matter how talented a defense is, one that spends such an incredible amount of time on the field is going to tire out. It’s inevitable. If you stay on the field long enough and give the opposing offense ample time to score, that’s exactly what is going to happen. Hopefully the coaching staff utilized the bye week post-LSU to figure out some sort of solution.

Well, surprise surprise, just like everything else with Mizzou football, the offense is a mixed bag.

You can’t look at a 79-0 drubbing and say that this offense doesn’t have fire power. With Drew Lock at quarterback, the Tigers have the ability to put up big points.

But it is during those performances against West Virginia and LSU, where simply gaining a first down seems like an accomplishment, that the lows of this offense are just as apparent as the highs are during a blow out.

As Mizzou enters the heart of its schedule, Josh Heupel’s offense will be tested. Will they be able to put up points, or will the offense crumble at the first sight of a half decent SEC defense?

With matchups against SEC foes on the horizon — the first coming this weekend in Gainesville, Florida, against the Gators — the Tigers have a chance to prove themselves one way or another.

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