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November 27, 2013

Missouri's offense tougher than in past years

Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel and his offensive coordinator Dave Christenson visited Southlake Carroll High School and Southlake head coach Todd Dodge prior to the 2005 season after witnessing what the spread offense had done for Mike Leach at out at Texas Tech. They installed Dodge's offense and it really began to flourish in 2006 when former Southlake quarterback Chase Daniel took over the reins. Daniel and Missouri set all kinds of records in his tenure from 2006 to 2008 and played in back to back Big 12 championship games. The offense continued to flourish under multiple quarterbacks with varied skills from a drop back guy like Blaine Gabbert (who became a first round pick in the NFL draft) to James Franklin (a physical runner with a big arm).

However, the offense stalled out in 2012 during Missouri's first year in the SEC. The Tigers talked a big game prior to the season about their brand of offense but in their first two contests they were physically manhandled by bigger teams in Georgia and South Carolina. Injuries started piling up, especially to Franklin and the offensive line. The Missouri staff learned that while you could run the zone read and inverted veer with a 220 pound quarterback in a league with undersized linebackers, such concepts resulted in a quarterback taking too many hits from too many big people. In addition, the five receiver sets they liked to use exposed Franklin to even more hits.

As a result, Josh Henson (co offensive line coach in 2012) took over the coordinator duties from Dave Yost and as a former offensive linemen at Oklahoma State and tight ends coach at LSU, he injected a more physical approach into the Tigers' offense that provided better protection for Franklin. Missouri now uses an in line tight end and puts it guards in a three point stance which helps with run blocking and pass protection. Missouri has fewer designed runs for Franklin and fewer opportunities in the passing game for him to take hits. Most of all, Missouri has trotted four of the same offensive line starters each week after losing half of its two deep last season to injury. The changes have resulted in the Tigers ranking in the top third in the SEC in most offensive categories and even when they lost Franklin to injury in the Georgia game, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk got enough help that the Tigers kept rolling anyway.

Missouri's offense differs in some respects from the Air Raid and they've actually moved farther away from it as time has gone on. For one thing, Missouri originally started out as an up tempo team and in the 2007 season ran 78 plays per game. However, they have moved away from using this tempo all of the time and have averaged closer to 70 to 75 plays per game the past five seasons.

Even so, Missouri has not changed the three basic principles of running the spread and these principles are analogous to those of most spread offenses. The first is the simplest: if a receiver is uncovered on anything other than third and long, that receiver gets the ball. The second is the ability to throw the hitch pattern anywhere on the field (although typically they prefer it to the weakside). Finally, the Tigers want to run bubble screens like toss sweeps.

When Missouri started using the spread, their formations typically included four receiver sets. As Missouri began to throw the ball more and more with Chase Daniel and Gabbert, the Tigers' offense evolved to the point where they generally used sets with five wideouts and no backs. As noted earlier, they've moved away from that alignment this year although you will still see it on occasion and also don't motion a back into the backfield as much either.

Missouri aligns the outside receiver on the field side to the edge of the numbers. On the boundary side, the outside receiver is on the outside of the numbers. The width of the outside receivers facilitates Missouri's bubble and tunnel screen game because the alignments create more space for the pass receiver. Missouri used to use wider spacing with its offensive linemen like Tech did under Mike Leach so that the first step of the offensive lineman was a back step even in the running game. However, that also invited greater penetration by opposing defensive lines; in addition, Missouri's offensive line wasn't physical because they were going backwards all of the time. As a result, they've closed their splits, adjusted the depths of the backs to about five yards, and are coming off of the ball.

In the past, the Tigers ran a lot of outside zone or inverted veer with the quarterback as a running threat between the tackles. Due to the number of hits that Franklin has taken over the years, Missouri now runs much more inside zone with its backs. Franklin has averaged ten carries a game this year and that includes sacks while the running backs are averaging closer to 30 carries game.

Left tackle Justin Britt (6 foot 6, 320 pounds) has really come on this season. He's not particularly athletic and plays high at times but does an excellent job with his hands and has long arms that pay in both run blocking and pass pro. Center Evan Boehm is just a sophomore but is 315 pounds and is relatively athletic; he's very good at blocking nosetackles man to man and allowing other interior linemen to get to the linebackers. They don't make a lot of mistakes either; four of them have started all season and they pick up blitzes and stunts very well. They also have some size as they average 6 foot 4 and 310 pounds. Most of all, running more inside zone rather than the sweep or outside zone you're used to seeing has made them more physical. They push people around and last week against Ole Miss on the road they ran out the clock after a fourth down stop late in the game.

Backs Henry Josey, Russell Hansborough, and Marcus Murphy are all native Texans who are a bit undersized (5 foot 10 or less, 190 pounds or less). However, they are all elusive and have good vision. They have adjusted to more of a north/south running game with a vengeance and have become more physical themselves by playing with good pad level and being authoritative when they plant and go. Josey suffered a knee injury a few years ago and he's not the speedster he once was but he's a better runner and blocker than he was earlier in his career. All of them average over six yards a carry and because they split the workload (averaging 7 to 12 carries a game apiece), they don't get worn down inside like most smaller backs.

Because Missouri likes to run bubble and there's lots of blocking involved for their wideouts, Missouri uses bigger outside receivers than do most programs. Missouri converted tight ends Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker into oversized X receivers a few years ago when they started running the offense and discovered that they made great blockers on bubble screens. They continue the practice today with outside receivers Dorial Beckham Green (6 foot 6, 220 pounds), L'Damian Washington (6 foot 4, 195 pounds), and Bud Sasser (6 foot 2, 210 pounds).

Washington averages 19 yards a catch as the Z receiver while Beckham is the X and averages 14 yards a reception. Marcus Lucas is the Y and works Y Cross and Y Sail to the tune of 12 yards a catch. The Tigers have five receivers with over 19 receptions. They don't move them all over the field and so they've gotten a lot more reps at their positions. As a result, they've improved their route running, ability to read coverages on the fly, and make adjustments.

In its short passing game, Missouri uses man protections and zone or turn back protections. In 2 x 2, the Tigers run a slant/bubble to one side and a vertical/speed out to the other. In a 3 x 1, Missouri runs hitches with the outside receivers to the three receiver side, a stop route four to five yards deep with the inside slot, and a slant to the backside. The quarterback looks for the slant first to give the other routes time to develop and the other receivers either beat their man or settle down in an open spot in a zone. In a 3 x 2 alignment, the combination of routes is the vertical/speed out to the two receiver side and hitches to the other side. The read is the same as in the 2 x 2 with the vertical/speed out having first priority versus both man and two deep coverages.

In its downfield passing game, Missouri tests safeties from its 2 x 2 formations in two deep zones with a smash concept (the slots run corner routes and the outside receivers run hitches). In a 3 x 1 alignment, Missouri likes to run four verticals which (despite its name) means three receivers run go routes and the fourth (a known as a "beater") runs a crossing route. In 3 x 2, Missouri runs smash to both sides with the inside slot on the three receiver side running a post. The priority is hitch, corner, and then post to the three receiver side and hitch and corner to the two receiver side.

Franklin runs fewer option plays and so carries the ball far less than he has the past two years. However, he still got hurt (shoulder) and redshirt freshman Maty Mauk took over for four games. Franklin's footwork has caught up to the rest of his physical tools this season; he's completing 67% of his passes with a touchdown/interception ratio of 14:4. Franklin is more patient and a better reader of defenses than in past seasons; his ball security is the best it's ever been. Mauk will take more chances down the field but he's got better vision, is more elusive, and may be a better playmaker right now than Franklin although he's got a higher risk/reward factor because of it.

Overall, despite the reputation associated with most spread offenses, the Tigers like to run the ball and under Hunter's tutelage they have become much more of a physical team (second in the SEC in rushing) while remaining an explosive one (they average nine plays a game of over ten yards). They are experienced at the skill positions and take care of the ball (just 12 turnovers all season). Also, they have been penalized just 57 times for only 429 yards. A&M needs to start doing things that they haven't done all season like keep people in front of them, not overrun plays at the second level, and contain on the perimeter. Most of all, the Aggies simply need to play a much more physical brand of ball and take the fight to the Tigers instead of having it brought to them.


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