1. Grade out Blaine Gabbert through six games for us. What are his established strengths and weaknesses? Where can he realistically improve within the 2009 season?
Dave Matter: I'd give Gabbert a B-plus for his play in nonconference action, after which he led the Big 12 in passer rating. He was especially impressive in the second halves in close games against Bowling Green and Nevada. He led a 97-yard yard TD drive to pull away from Nevada and led three straight touchdown drives in the second half against Bowling Green when the Tigers had to score on every possession. Very cool and unflappable for a sophomore.
But he hasn't been the same player the last two weeks, not since Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh dragged him down and sprained Gabbert's right ankle in the process. He's struggled to adjust his mechanics while playing with a heavily wrapped ankle and doesn't have the same touch on mid-range throws. His throwing power doesn't seem to be affected - he put a 60-yard pass on a receiver's hands at Oklahoma State - but he tends to sail intermediate routes way over his intended targets. Also, his running skills have been virtually non-existent since the injury. The rest of his season, and perhaps the rest of Missouri's season, will hinge on his ability to play through the discomfort and make accurate, responsible throws.
Rock M Nation: Is it a copout to give him an incomplete? Gabbert's been a tale of two quarterbacks. In his first start at the college level, Gabbert was in complete control. He absolutely assaulted Illinois (25-of-33, 319 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) at a neutral site, although that victory must be accompanied by a disclaimer that explains how painfully putrid the Fightin' Zookers are this year. As insignificant as that win now seems, it did one important thing: It established that if teams were going to play the run and gamble on Gabbert to beat them in the air, he was more than capable of doing it.
The opposite was true the following week, when Bowling Green sold out in a Cover 4 to make the Missouri running game beat them. It eventually did, but not without a lot of hand wringing into the fourth quarter. During the rest of non-conference, Gabbert put up big numbers in limited time against Furman and lit up Nevada to the tune of 414 yards in his first true road game. This also happened to be the last time we saw him healthy. He was hurt early in the loss to Nebraska and hasn't been the same since.
His strength is clearly the howitzer that resides on his right arm. Missouri offensive coordinator David Yost said that in all the years he's been in the business, only Ryan Mallett has a stronger arm than Gabbert. And from what we've seen of him when healthy, he's not kidding. The kid will roll left, throw off balance against his body, flick the wrist, and watch the ball sail 70 yards. Overlooked, though, is his speed and mobility when he's healthy. Before the ankle injury, he showed deftness in the open field that combined with long strides to create one of Missouri's secret weapons when he decided to keep on the zone read. On top of that, he's been pretty aware in the pocket, as evidenced by the Nevada win in which he was avoiding rushers all night just to have the chance to put up ANY numbers, much less the 414 yards and three touchdowns that he did.
The weakness is still in the mental part of his game. Don't get me wrong, he seems like a bright guy and a student of the game, but he has a tendency to stare down his receivers. Usually, the strength of his arm allows him to get away with it, but one-legged Gabbert can't quite do that, especially against Big 12 competition. His second interception against Nebraska, during which he stared down a deep out, was particularly damaging.
2. What's your evaluation of the offense overall? What's David Yost doing well? Not well? How is he different from Christiansen?
Dave Matter: Missouri coaches talked all offseason and preseason about their running game and offensive line and how they didn't want to put too much on Gabbert's plate in terms of a pass-first approach. But that's exactly what's happened. The running game has been unproductive at times and ignored at others, especially during the second half at Oklahoma State. I still believe Yost is intelligent enough to build this offense around its strengths, but it seems like he's still trying to figure out its identity. Yost doesn't seem as interested as Christensen was with zany formations and trick plays, but he's not bashful when it comes to dialing up a steady diet of downfield throws for his young quarterback.
Rock M Nation: Going into this season, my colleague Bill and I expected for Missouri to be an efficient offense that would lack explosiveness. That notion couldn't have been more flipped on its ear through six games.
Before the season, we heard about how much Yost and Pinkel wanted to return to the running game. This was a combination of the fact that Missouri was 1) breaking in a new quarterback, 2) returning a seasoned offensive line, and 3) returning a 1,000-yard rusher. The Tigers were supposed to be closer to a 50-50 run/pass split, and they've been pretty close, running the ball on 47 percent of plays. The only problem is that the running game hasn't been anywhere near where it needs to be, which I'll address in question three.
All in all, the offensive philosophy hasn't changed that much. What's changed is its flexibility. Last year, when Chase Daniel was behind center, if teams sold out to stop the run, Missouri had no qualms throwing the ball 15 times in a row. That isn't the case this year. Now, the offense isn't quite as efficient on third downs (37 percent, down from 53 percent in both 2008 and 2007), but there's an abundance of downfield plays, thanks in large part to Blaine Gabbert's sexy deep ball.
3. Missouri isn't rushing the ball particularly well yet this year? To what/whom do you assign the blame?
Dave Matter: At times it's been sloppy play by the offensive line. Other times, the backs haven't been very decisive with their cuts. Having De'Vion Moore out three games hurt, too. He's got a better burst at the snap than Derrick Washington. Gabbert hasn't always made the right decision when pulling or keeping the ball on zone-read options. And the downfield blocking has been shoddy on occasion. Bottom line, the running game was a mess in several areas, until things started clicking in the first half at Oklahoma State. Then the coaches stopped running the ball in the second half. Go figure.
Rock M Nation: Oh, sweet mercy. If I had a perfectly accurate answer to that question, the Missouri fan base would secede and name me supreme overlord of its newly found sovereign nation. Excluding the second half of the Bowling Green game, Missouri's rushing game has been either ineffective or non-existent.
Things really came to blows after the Nebraska game. At the risk of slandering my own, allow me to paint a picture of the apocalyptic portion of the Missouri fan base: Imagine a group a little bit jaded by recent success constantly saying that Missouri can "never win the big game," in part because Pinkel is too stubborn to recruit a fullback, institute a power set, or devise a running game that is more North/South than East/West. This is all despite the fact that, entering the Nebraska game, Missouri was second to only USC and Boise State in wins since 2007. And since Missouri has dropped two straight games in a fairly frustrating manner, this portion of the fan base is back behind the internet megaphone.
No one has been spared the public scorn. Pinkel, Yost, Washington, the O-Line. You name 'em, the message boards have blamed 'em. Thanks to the wonders of ESPN360 and SkyCam, we tried to go back and start to place the blame in our "Anatomy of No Gain" post last week. There's a lot of blame to go around. In some games, the O-Line has been blown off the point of attack. Tailback Derrick Washington has admitted to faulty footwork in the early part of the season. Holding penalties have negated several long rushes and several touchdowns. Pinkel and Yost have at times abandoned the running game in favorable situations and stuck to it in unfavorable situations. Missouri could be one big game from getting it back on track, but after seeing OU post negative yardage against UT last week, I'm sure as hell not betting on it this week.
4. The Tigers lost a substantial amount of defensive talent last year -- who are some of the new names we should know?
Dave Matter: The Tigers lost talent, including a first- and second-round draft pick, but this year's defense is playing much better, especially when it comes to communicating its coverages and eliminating big plays in the passing game. The linebacker play has been steady, while All-American Sean Weatherspoon has a strong cast of players around him, including strong-side backer Andrew Gachkar, a converted safety who's versatile enough to cover slot receivers and tight ends. Will Ebner doesn't start but he plays significantly and rivals Weatherspoon as the team's best hitter. Up front, redshirt freshman end Aldon Smith is the team's best pass-rusher and sometimes lines up at tackle on passing downs.
Rock M Nation: It's only fair to start with the old name, Sean Weatherspoon, who is gettin' all Patrick Willis on people and roaming sideline to sideline with unfair speed for a dude his size. But I digress. The linebacking corps surrounding him has been pretty solid so far this year, especially Will Ebner, who took over for Luke Lambert because of injury and nearly Wally Pipped him out of a job. Ebner was playing fantastic before suffering a slight meniscus tear in the Nebraska game, although he's expected to return against Texas less than two weeks after surgery. Andrew Gachkar has also been impressive, showing enough speed to allow Missouri to stay in a base 4-3 rather than having to default to the Nickel set like they did all last season.
Before the season, Gary Pinkel said he had the best trio of ends this year - Brian Coulter, Jacquies Smith and Aldon Smith - that he's had in his tenure. The three have been fantastic in run support, but have left a little bit to be desired on the pass rush as the weeks have progressed. Missouri debuted its "Scorpion" package against Illinois, in which they put the three ends on the field with one defensive tackle (usually Jaron Baston). It wreaked havoc on Juice Williams but has slowly waned.
The other name I'd like to mention is Jasper Simmons, who looks like the type of safety Missouri was REALLY hurting for last season as it was constantly getting torched over top.
5. The book has been written on defending this Texas offense: sit two safeties 10 yards deep, ignore the run, pounce on the short routes, and tackle well. Would you expect Dave Steckel to do the same? How has Missouri been defending teams this year?
Dave Matter: Missouri will pick its opportunities to bring pressure on McCoy, but Steckel won't get restless with the blitz. He likes to play fairly soft zone coverages to limit the big pass plays that killed Missouri's defense so many times last year. This defense tackles pretty well, but the safeties have been prone to jumping shorter routes and leaving corners isolated on receivers on the outside. I'll say this much for Steckel so far: His players never appear to be out of position or confused on the coverage. That's huge upgrade from last season.
Rock M Nation: Actually, you just described the Missouri defense in a nutshell. Last year, former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus had quite a bit of talent, but tried to do too much with it. Eberflus coached from the booth and, according to most indications, really tried to do too much schematically rather than letting his players make plays. None of this applies to Steckel. Steckel is a fiery ex-Marine who has preached simplicity, tenacity and pursuit. The players love his passion, so much so that they begged him to coach from the sidelines, to which he's happily obliged. It's meant more accountability and better communication for a defense that didn't do either particularly well last season.
Missouri won't "ignore" the run, but I'm willing to bet the Tigers won't focus on it. It's a version of bend but don't break, in which the Tigers are going to keep from getting beat deep and force McCoy to be perfect on short routes for 10-15 plays per drive. McCoy was exactly that in Austin in 2008. Here's to hoping there's a chink in the armor in 2009.
6. It's homecoming in Columbia, where homecoming was in fact invented. What does it mean to Mizzou fans and do you expect a rowdy atmosphere Saturday night?
Dave Matter: The game has been a sellout for a few weeks, and MU is gradually developing a pretty raucous atmosphere for big games like this one, especially when fans have all day to treat themselves at the tailgate scene. If the Tigers can somehow keep this game close in the fourth quarter, it should be a pretty wild environment. That's a big if.
Rock M Nation: I can sit here and wax poetic about what the tradition of homecoming means to the university that invented it. But I'll give you the ugly truth about it. It means that Greek students that have been holed up for the last two weeks working day and night on homecoming decorations and floats are going to be looking to let loose and therefore be, um, "chemically enhanced" by game time.
The wind has been taken out of the sails of the fan base at little bit over the last two weeks, so I don't know exactly what to expect. If Texas starts romping early, the crowd won't be a big deal. But if you give the Missouri crowd a reason to get into a game, ESPECIALLY one that's a nationally televised night game, don't underestimate it. It's not The Swamp, but it's not Floyd Casey either.