Ask An Expert: Q&A With The Missouri Tigers

One of the things I'll miss about playing Missouri is the interaction with the guys who run SB Nation's Missouri site - Rock M Nation. They've built themselves quite an empire over there, even coming out with their own Missouri football annual this season. 

They know their team well, and if it weren't Nebraska they were playing this weekend, I might even be excited for them. As it is, I hope we crush their hearts, steal their souls, and make them cry to the heavens for mercy. 

One thing about RMN - we've had some great interaction between our communities. It hasn't been 100% rosy, but most of the smack talk and sports hate has been at the level where it's been fun instead of delving into personalities and anger. I guess that's why we're here - that there's a place on the internet where we can call each other names, then go get a beer, even if it's virtual. 

Enough of the cheese, on with the meat. 

(Note - I was working on this last night while we were making our way down to Lincoln for a "Red Letter Day", as my oldest son visits UNL to determine if he'll go to school there. The broadband card's connection was sporadic and we're getting up pretty early in the morning, so I'm going to go ahead and set this to publish while still awaiting RMN's last reply with their prediction since I won't have access to a computer all day.

Updated - 12:25 am, day of game, day of jackal) 

Jon J:  

For years it seems like defense has been Missouri's achille's heel. This season rolls around and you've got a defense that appears to have some teeth. Has Aldon Smith made that much a difference, and what are the weaknesses?  

Bill C.: 

The most amazing part of Mizzou's defensive success this season is that quite a bit of it has come without Aldon Smith, who missed three games with a fractured right fibula.  In all, Mizzou has been without quite a few of their best defensive players -- Smith, linebackers Will Ebner (missed two games due to injury/suspension and is playing with an injured foot) and Luke Lambert (missed three games due to two separate injuries), and safety Jasper Simmons (missed four games due to injury/suspension) have yet to actually see the field at the same time.  That they have been able to plug and play with whoever is healthy has been a huge testament to Defensive Coordinator Dave Steckel. 

We have enjoyed making lots of references to Steckel's background as a former Marine, but in his second year in charge of the defense, you are actually seeing Mizzou's defense playing with military-like precision, discipline and communication.  They don't miss tackles, they don't blow assignments in the secondary, and they swarm, swarm, swarm.  For Mizzou fans who lived through so many defensive breakdowns in 2008 and 2009, it has been a joy to watch.  Steckel both knows and trusts his personnel to do whatever he wants them to do, and it has allowed Mizzou to significantly vary their attacks and tendencies.  They can generate pressure with just their front four, so they can drop quite a few in coverage if they want; and at the same time, ask Texas A&M how effectively they can blitz in passing downs. 

Of course, the ultimate test of their discipline level will come this weekend against Taylor Martinez, who has the best play fake in the business east of Colin Kaepernick

Let's stay on the defensive side of the ball for my first question -- what's different about this year's Nebraska D?  It appears the secondary is ridiculously fast and experienced, but the front line has been vulnerable to both good pass blocking and up-the-middle running.  Is this an accurate statement?

Jon J:  

The first and most obvious answer is the Blackshirts miss Ndamukong Suh, and without him the defensive line hasn't lived up to Bo Pelini's declaration that the defense would be better this season.

By themselves, the front four aren't generating a lot of quarterback pressure, which answers your point about pass blocking. Part of that is by design, the linemen play two-gaps, allowing linebackers and safeties to make plays. Against the run, it's been more of a linebacker issue, pointing to inexperience more than anything.  

The defense lost two projected starters at linebacker (Will Compton, Sean Fisher) at the beginning of the season, and that hasn't helped with the running game. JUCO transfer Lavonte David has started and played exceptionally well this season, although it's taken him time to learn the defense (ala the "out of position" reference). Dejon Gomes has played a hybrid safety/linebacker position for much of the season, but, again, had to learn that role. Compton came back and played against Oklahoma State, so he should be ready to go against Missouri. That may make a big difference, depending on how the Tigers attack Nebraska's defense.  

Secondary is not only experienced and crazy good, but has plenty of depth as well so they do an exceptional job of playing man coverage. They've given up very few big plays this season, even though Okie State's Justin Blackmon gave them some fits last week. I would expect them to cover Missouri's receivers well across the board.  

Given that response, the most obvious way to attack Nebraska's defense is by running straight at them. Does Missouri have the offense to do that for four quarters, and is that what you expect to happen?  

RPT:

A week ago, I would have answered "absolutely not." Now, we have to reassess a little bit. Missouri obviously is not a grind it out style of offense, but against Oklahoma, Mizzou dominated the trenches and ran the ball up the middle almost at will. It's hard to remember the last time Missouri controlled the line of scrimmage against an opponent with the type of line talent Oklahoma has. For most of the season (and almost all of 2009), Missouri has loved the outside zone and getting its playmakers on the perimeter on sweeps. In the last few weeks, offensive coordinator David Yost has dusted off the inside zone from the Brad Smith era, and to say the least, it's paying immediate dividends. Missouri isn't a huge running threat, but it doesn't have to be. The rushing attack doesn't have to be incredible, it just has to give opponents enough trouble to commit to stopping it or pay for ignoring it. Oklahoma, like Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day 2008, couldn't have cared less about the Missouri run threat.

This by no means is meant to insinuate that I think Mizzou will run the ball at will against the Huskers. I do think Missouri will give it more than a fair shot though. The two-linebacker defense with six in the box is the equivalent of daring a spread team to run. Do I think Missouri has a Kendall Hunter-esque effort in them? No. But I think Missouri is in some serious trouble if it can't keep Nebraska honest on the ground. The offensive line has been great at getting to the second level when pulling into running lanes, and anything that keeps Lavonte David away from ball carriers is going to be huge.

If there's one advantage that Mizzou fans appear to have latched onto, it's Martinez's sporadic willingness to turn the ball over. Are turnovers a legitimate concern for the Huskers against Mizzou, or are Tiger fans just kind of grasping at straws here?

Jon J:

Gah!... turnovers? What turnovers? There is no potential for turnovers, that's just Big 12 anti-Nebraska propaganda! 

Look, over there! Don't pay attention to the obvious relation Martinez has to Brett Favre (before the whole "junk on a phone" incident), a willingness to flip the ball in the air when being tackled or to an unsuspecting teammate when they're not looking! None of that has happened. Everything is fine. 

What's that you say? He has not ever carried the ball like a loaf of bread hanging on the end of a ten-foot pole. Lies, lies, lies! You all lie! Bastards! 

I know you guys could go on about Blaine Gabbert, but I'm not going to let you just yet. I'd like to know about your receivers. Who's going to hurt us? Who's the deep ball guy, and the guy that makes the catches in traffic? 

Bill C.:

Honestly, one of the most impressive things about Mizzou's last two games has been the diversity.  Four different receivers have gone for over 85 yards in a game this season:

* Tight end Michael Egnew, a Martin Rucker type who will catch a five-yard pass and try to plow forward for another five.

* Possession receiver T.J. Moe, who got his helmet knocked off and needed stitches (but kept playing) against Illinois, then broke through the long, game-winning touchdown against San Diego State.

* Intermediate threat Jerrell Jackson, who made Oklahoma pay dearly for focusing on Moe, Egnew and the horizontal passing game.

* Mr. Diversity Wes Kemp, who catches quite a few bubble screens but is also the guy most likely to be sent deep deep.

At their current pace, Egnew and Moe would go well over 90 catches for the season, while Jackson and Kemp would both go for around 50.  Mizzou's recent diversity (Kemp was gigantic against A&M, Jackson was the same against Oklahoma) was very encouraging.  Most encouraging, of course, is that Prince Amukamara can only cover one of them at a time.  (Well, he could probably cover two of them, but regardless, that still leaves two others!)

From your vantage point, was there anything in particular that Texas did to disrupt what had been a well-oiled Nebraska offense to that point?  Did they employ the "Stopping Brad Smith" playbook of containment over pressure?  Did they just dominate the Nebraska offensive line?  What (other than The Dropsies) do you figure was most instrumental in their holding Nebraska to six points. 

Jon J: 

There were two things Texas did that disrupted the Husker offense. Nebraska typically reads the defensive tackle on their zone plays, leaving the tackle unblocked. Unfortunately, too many times the play developed too slowly and instead of being left in the dust, the tackle blew up the play. The second thing was the ‘Horns linebackers. They were excellent in their support of the defensive line, but the main thing they did was get to the outside before Nebraska's blockers, blowing up any outside running plays the Huskers tried to run. 

I can say with certainty that Husker fans are nervous about our home record - why we're better on the road than we're playing at home. However, Eric Martin's suspension by the Big 12 may put them in a "us against the world" frame of mind and erase that problem altogether. 

Eric Martin is Nebraska's best special teams player. He's a wedge-breaker, a mean tackler, and generally disruptive, so his loss may give Missouri a little more advantage than anyone cares to admit, IF the Tiger's special teams are actually special. 

Niles Paul had a 100-yard touchdown return against Oklahoma State. Alex Henery is the best kicker in Nebraska's history. Our special teams are very good. How ‘bout Missouri (since this game may come down to this part of the game)? Field goals and returns, what should Husker fans be worried about? 

RPT: Well, Missouri's return game wasn't supposed to be anything to worry about... and then an up-man (Gahn McGaffie) picked up a low opening kickoff and ran it back 86 yards for a touchdown against Oklahoma, sending Faurot Field into previously unseen pandemonium. The kick returner spot used to belong to safety Jasper Simmons, but freshman tailback Marcus Murphy filled in admirably and appears to have not let go of the position. Carl Gettis, Mizzou's punt returner, nearly sucked all the life out of Faurot by muffing a punt in the first quarter last week. This is a roundabout way of saying that the return and coverage units have been rather nondescript this season.

The actual kicking units, though, have been incredible. The only kick Grant Ressel has missed in his career in conference play was a 43-yarder in the monsoon against Nebraska a year ago. With a miss in the season opener against Illinois this year, he's now 39-of-41 for his career. Admittedly, his leg isn't as strong as Henery's, but he's every bit as accurate. The surprising part is how good Missouri's punting has been. Between Matt Grabner and Trey Barrow, the Tigers have pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 16 times, including five dropped inside the 5-yard line. We've talked about how the Missouri defense has stepped up this season without giving due credit to the special teams for putting them in good positions on the field.

Now, Jon, I'm not much of a prediction man and I know Bill will have his thoughts on the final score in his Beyond The Box Score piece on Friday -- would you like to go on record with your prediction?

Jon J: 

Why, of course! What good would all this be if we didn't take a stand! (Ha!) 

Gazing into my magical corn cob..... 

I see a game between two evenly matched teams...  in a sea of Gold???? Wait - at the last possible moment, Tom Osborne has called for a "Gold Out" - all Husker fans wearing gold to make it appear like a road game! 

The Huskers play inspired football, giving up a turnover, but coming up with two from Missouri. Nebraska's offense mixes it up, with only a few long runs, no breakaways, but two long touchdown passes to Niles Paul, one of which he makes over the top of a guy who's just replaced Carl Gettis.

Nebraska scores on another interception return, and Alex Henery adds two field goals, to make 27 points. 

Missouri on the other hand, establishes methodical drives early, mixing running and passing, never gaining more than a eight yards a carry, but moves the ball on the ground throughout the first half. In the second half, Missouri's ground game is limited, but Wes Kemp stars as the guy who continues to catch the ball in traffic. 

Missouri scores three touchdowns and adds one field goal. Late in the second half, three minutes left, the Tigers try a 48-yarder, but it goes wide right. The Tigers try the inside kick, but it's recovered by the Huskers. 

End Result - Nebraska 27, Missouri 24. 

May the magical corn cob never lead us astray! 

How's that for exciting? 

You? 

Bill C:
That’s some impressive detail there.  I’ll just fall back on the same position I always take when it comes to predictions: if Mizzou wins, I want to say I predicted it.  Honestly, anything between a 24-point Nebraska win and a 17-point Mizzou win seems semi-realistic to me, and the temptation to just pick “Mizzou 52, Nebraska 17” is strong, just because it worked two years ago.  Instead, I’ll give an ode to the 1978 game, which was potentially one of the most well-played games in either team’s history.  I’ve watched the game from start to finish, and it was simply incredible.  Therefore I’m going with Mizzou 35, Nebraska 31.

Jon J:  1978? You wound me, sir. You wound me.

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