Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Mizzou Exchange: Dave Matter (Part Two)

Let's continue with Part Two of my conversation with Dave Matter. In his last response, Dave mentioned Mizzou's lack of success against ball-control teams.

The Boy: The most frustrating game you mentioned was ATM. Iowa State moved the ball shockingly well, but that was a full-team collapse on Mizzou's part. With A&M, the Mizzou defense absolutely dominated in the box in the first half. Goodson and Lane had no room to run whatsoever. At halftime, Lane had 13 carries for 44 yards (19 of which came on 2 carries in the last minute when ATM was running out the clock...before that, 11 carries for 25 yards), Goodson 7 for 14. In other words, in the first 29 minutes of the game, ATM RB's combined for 18 carries, 39 yards. Mizzou got nailed by a couple ATM bombs in the 1st quarter (one play-action and one trick play), but that was fine. If ATM can't run the ball, they can't win.

The problem was, here was the time of possession for Mizzou's 1st half drives: 0:50 (ending in a fumble), 2:09, 1:31, 0:37 (fumble), 0:42 (fumble), 3:23. Three turnovers and a self-inflicted time of possession of less than 10 minutes in the first half pretty much spelled doom for the defense. Despite a strong defensive gameplan, Mizzou was gashed for 83 yards on 15 carries by Lane and 57 yards on 8 carries by Goodson. Yes, ATM was aided by curious Mizzou play-calling and the worst fake field goal attempt ever, but that game was decided in the first half, and it was in no way the defense's fault.

From that point on, though, the defense seemed gash itself just fine without help from the Mizzou offense (except against NU, anyway).

The way this discussion is headed, it really does sound like the most important Mizzou player in 2007 could be Ziggy Hood. He was unbelievable against Murray State and Ole Miss (that's not saying a lot), but after he came back from the foot injury he was pretty much invisible (though I believe he said he wasn't any better than about 70%). If he's an Okam-esque difference maker, the defense will have no choice to be solid. And if the defense is solid...well...

So let's wrap up the football talk with another quick pick. Quick—who are the most underrated and overrated players in the Big XII? Here are mine (sans Mizzou, since I can't contain my bias):

Underrated (offense): WR Adarius Bowman (OSU). I realize he was 1st-team All Big XII, making it hard for him to be underrated, but he so rarely gets mentioned among elite players, and his stats (60 catches, 1181 yards, 19.7 per catch, 12 TD's in 2006) are absolutely insane.

Underrated (defense): DB Reggie Smith (OU). He's gotten some recognition, but his impact on the OU defense has been beyond significant. In the two years before his arrival in Norman (2003 and 2004), opponents averaged 8.56 and 8.12 yards per pass. That's bad. In '05 and '06, opponents averaged 6.34 and 7.89. When he's healthy (not a given), he's a big-time difference maker.

Overrated (offense): TE Martellus Bennett (ATM). Got on the 2nd-team All Big XII list last year completely and totally because he was a 5-star recruit in high school. He had a nice year (38 catches, 3 TD's), but not as good as Martin Rucker or Chase Coffman. Really, though, this is just a) residual bitterness from his getting HM All Big XII in '05 over Coffman, and b) future bitterness from when he inevitably gets picked higher than Coffman in some preseason magazines.

Overrated (defense): LB Bo Ruud (NU). Really no better than Corey McKeon or Stewart Bradley last year. He had a fantastic game against MU (7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT), but that was his only standout game. He was a big-play guy like Marcus Bacon (2 other FR's, 2 other FF's), but he only had three games with more than 6 tackles...not all too hot for an LB. In all, he's got a nice nose for the ball, but not so much a nose for the ball-carrier.

Dave Matter: Good points on the A&M game. The Aggies won't be any easier to beat this year. They'll have one of the five best running games in the country this year. Rugged, experienced O-line. A pulverizing powerback in Lane. And I think Goodson has a chance to be the best back in the Big 12 this year, though playing with Lane will affect his stats, especially touchdowns. I've been guilty of riding the A&M bandwagon in the past, but I was considering picking the Aggies to win the South until they stunk up the Holiday Bowl against Cal.

As for underrated/overrated...

Underrated (offense): Colt McCoy, QB, Texas. Bring on the hate mail. I'm going to get blasted for this because so many people outside of Austin think McCoy is overrated, but take a look at his numbers from last year: 68 percent completion; 29 TDs to 7 INTs; 161.8 QB rating (13 points higher than any other Big 12 QB). True, he only threw for 197 yards per game, but he also attempted only 24.5 passes per game, just the sixth-most in the league. He did all of this as a redshirt freshman who succeeded one of the greatest college players of our generation in Vince Young. Missouri fans like to credit McCoy's superior stats to Texas' supporting cast, but I don't buy it. Texas had a better O-line in '06, but I'd take Temple, Franklin, Coffman, Rucker, Ek, Perry, Saunders, Alexander over Texas' 2006 backs and receivers. In my opinion, McCoy didn't get enough credit for 2006. I love the QB rating statistic, and McCoy's was better than that of Brian Brohm, Brady Quinn, Zac Taylor, Chris Leak, Chad Henne and Chase Daniel ... and only eight-hundredths of a point behind Heisman winner Troy Smith.

Underrated (defense): Chris Harrington, DE, A&M. Not a flashy player but holds up well against the run (ranked fourth among Big 12 linemen in tackles last year with 59) and can get after the quarterback (7.5 sacks in '06). He seemed to make a lot of big plays last year in games I watched and was one of the more productive and versatile linemen in the league. Only made honorable mention All-Big 12, though. Silly voters.

Overrated (offense): Bret Meyer, QB, Iowa State. I hate this pick. I really struggled coming up with someone, so we'll pick on the Cyclones. I've never been really wowed by Meyer. His best season was 2005 when he threw 19 TDs to 10 INTs and had two great games in wins over A&M and K-State. But he took a huge step backward last year. Not all of that was his fault. The talent around him was depleted, but he threw as many or more INTs than TDs in seven of eight Big 12 games last year. This won't come off sounding politically correct, but because he's a black quarterback foolish people assume he's a dangerous runner. That's not the case at all. He's averaged less than a yard per carry the last two years. Great pick on Bennett. Though he does have some value steering A&M's run game, he's given way too much credit as a receiver when there are much better receiving tight ends around the league.

Overrated (defense): Alvin Bowen, LB, Iowa State. I don't doubt that Bowen might be a fine linebacker, but I'm always amused when the leading tackler on a horrendous defense gets recognition based on nothing more than his number of tackles. Most of the time that's just an indictment on what's probably a terrible defense that never gets off the field. To his credit, Bowen actually led the country in tackles last year...and was honored with first-team All-Big 12 recognition thanks to voters who do nothing more than read the stat sheet. Do you know who Tim McGarigle is? He's a second-year Rams linebacker (scout team last year) and he's the NCAA Division I-A career leader in tackles. He played at Northwestern from 2002-05. His junior year, Northwestern ranked 119th in total defense. That's dead last. No team was worse. But he got lots of tackles and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick. You can't tell me Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa didn't have five or six better linebackers but had fewer tackles because their defenses didn't stink. OK, I've turned this into a rant, but I've always said it'd be much more enlightening to track missed tackles rather than made tackles.
TB: Because I'm a gigantic nerd, one of my summer projects is entering 2006 play-by-play data for Big XII teams and figuring out different measures of quality and success. For instance, the writers of Football Prospectus ( define a "successful play" as...

- Gaining 40% of needed first down yardage on 1st down
- Gaining 70% of needed first down yardage on 2nd down
- Gaining 100% of needed first down yardage on 3rd or 4th down

So as I enter the play-by-play data, I can start looking at what percentage of a defender's tackles prevented a 'successful' play for the opposing offense and what percentage of a QB's plays resulted in 'success' as defined. I'm also looking at the difference in success levels in close situations versus blowout situations. And again, because I'm gigantic nerd, I'm really looking forward to what this will all say. Unfortunately it takes about 45-60 minutes to enter one game, and last I checked, a lot of games were played last year. I'm through about half of Mizzou's season thus far, though, so I'm making some headway. And I'm always looking for suggestions regarding what else to look for in these stats...

Moving on to softball...Mizzou plays SIU at 4:30 Friday. These two teams played on March 21, and SIU scored a 1-0 no-hitter by Cassidy Scoggins to move Mizzou to a medicore 22-17 on the season. However, Mizzou got hot after that game, winning 15 of 20 to end the regular season. How different is this team than the one Scoggins (who I assume will start Friday's game) shut down eight weeks ago?

(Note: This message was sent a day or two before Friday’s NCAA Regionals. Dave’s response below was posted before Mizzou’s loss to DePaul on Saturday. My next response was made after Mizzou’s loss to DePaul on Sunday. Just thought I’d point that out in case there is any confusion in tenses here.)

DM: The biggest difference with the softball team has been the healthy return of junior pitcher Jen Bruck. After having a baby in January, she has remarkably played all season, but she's just now getting some pop back in her bat and building endurance to pitch with little rest. I've really been impressed with her poise and toughness this season. It's not like she's coming off an ankle injury. She carried a friggin' human being for nine months, gave birth in January, and a few weeks later was zinging fastballs and taking cuts at the plate. That's toughness. She's as intense a competitor and as I've covered at MU, and that includes a lot of football players over the years. She's turned what could be considered a tabboo subject into a blessing and hasn't let it affect her play. She slammed a home run to the deepest part of the park here in Carbondale yesterday. If she keeps that up and has enough strength to be effective on the mound (she's a finesse pitcher, doesn't overpower hitters with a lot of velocity and strikeouts) the Tigers should win this regional and could put a scare into Oklahoma at the Super Regionals.

Wow. That paragraph almost makes me sound like a softball writer.
TB: Looks like in the end, it appears the lack of K’s and easy outs cost the Tigers. Defense really seemed to hold Mizzou back in the last month of the season—for starters, Jen Bruck had 16 E’s! Mizzou gave up fewer unearned runs (53) than they scored (69), but most of their losses down the stretch were littered with unearned runs.

Softball is such a bang-bang sport that K’s and easy outs seem pretty vital. Luckily for Mizzou, they were very young this year. With another year of experience, Bruck means that she might be able to get a few more easy outs next season; plus, the likelihood of finding a strong #2 pitcher increases, as Jana Hainey (7-5, 3.25 ERA, 0.69 K/IP) was only a freshman and Megan Dennis (9-3, 3.55 ERA, 0.57 K/IP) was a sophomore; however, neither was much of a strikeout pitcher, so that leaves the door open for somebody else (no idea who...maybe incoming freshman Lisa Simmons?) to emerge.

Since we’ve crossed the 4,500-word threshold (!) at this point, I guess it’s about time we wrap this up. So I’ll hit you with three rapid-fire questions:

1) How far does Mizzou baseball go this year?

2) On a scale of 1-10, how much does Blaine Gabbert’s commitment to Nebraska hurt Mizzou?

3) I’m preparing for more “What If...” explorations this summer. I’m pulling together a “What If Mizzou Joined the Big Ten in 1996?” piece as we speak, and I’m sure I’ll be looking into Tony Van Zant as well (hopefully I can figure out how to pull box scores from that far back. Also, I stumbled across a recruiting article from 1996 saying that Sebastien Janikowski visited Mizzou that fall, so I’ll probably be exploring that one (glutton for punishment am I). Any ideas? Am I missing some obvious ones? I thought about the Fifth Down as well, but I’m not sure I’m mentally ready for that one just yet.

DM: 1. There's no reason to think Missouri baseball can't make it to Omaha for the CWS. Tigers will most likely host a regional and depending on the matchup in the super regional, they should have the pitching and defense to make a run. Before any of that business, they'll be hungry to capture that elusive Big 12 championship this week in Oklahoma City.

2. If 1 is pain-free and 10 is excruciating, then I'd put Gabbert's decision currently at a 6. Recruiting is way too unpredictable to accurately predict how this will affect the team, especially considering MU can still grab another highly ranked QB in this class. But MU would probably never had otherwise had a chance to sign the No. 1 QB in the nation except for the fact that he played in the state. Looking at it that way, it's a real blown opportunity.

3. Good question on the Big Ten scenario. Based on nothing more than budget and backyard talent-base, I'd say MU would be in the second of three tiers among the Big Ten's football pecking order. Right there along with Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue and maybe Illinois. A few steps ahead of Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota, but nowhere near the power status of Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. I think MU would tap into the Chicago recruiting market if it played in the Big Ten, maybe Michigan, too.

Across the board, there might be a little more parity in the Big Ten than the Big 12, and that fact could give MU a chance to make a splash there, especially with an offense that goes against the norms in that league. We've seen Northwestern and Minnesota put together some stunners over the years, and even Illinois assembled a contender or two the last 10 years. Over the same span, you haven't seen the bottom feeders in the Big 12 (Baylor, Kansas and to some degree Missouri) pull off those sorts of victories and special seasons.

This is way off topic of your question, but one thing the Big Ten has right now over the Big 12 is some exciting young coaching talent: Bret Bielema at Wisconsin, Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, Tim Brewster at Minnesota and Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. Seems to be a little more energy in the Big Ten based on these younger coaches' arrivals.
TB: In a way, I think Big Ten Football is in a Big XII Basketball-esque state of flux. Lots of new blood (aside from Michigan and Ohio State, of course) and lots of uncertainty as to who’s going to end up where in the pecking order. Bielema took a perfect first step in replacing Barry Alvarez; Fitzgerald is going to go through some growing pains since not only is he super-young, but he was also thrown into the job with little preparation; the Brewster hire might have been a reach, but he seems to have gotten off on the right foot recruiting; and Dantonio was a relatively safe hire...and half the time, it seems like safe hires backfire.

And yes, I think we’d fit in pretty well there. Especially when you consider how the divisions would almost have to be broken up (if they did it geographically, anyway): Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Northwestern, and Wisconsin in the ‘West’ division and Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, and Purdue in the ‘East’. That doesn’t really seem too fair, but in the mid-‘90s, when they would have been creating the divisions, Northwestern and Wisconsin were almost on par with the UM/OSU/PSU troika, so it really might have happened that way.

Anyway, before I go too far down that are my quick answers to my own questions above:

1) I still worry that Mizzou relies on too many freshmen to make it to Omaha, but a regional as a #1 seed, there’s really no excuse not to make the Super Regional. And there, it will really depend on the matchup. Kudos to Tim Jamieson, though...a few years ago, a friend of mine from OSU told me that opposing schools loved Jamieson because a) he was an amazingly nice, thoughtful guy, and b) his Mizzou teams were always extremely beatable. He and his staff have really stepped it up a notch both in coaching and recruiting, and he deserves some serious commendation for the job he’s done this year.

2) I’d say Gabbert’s commitment elsewhere is a solid 8. He might be a total bust, just like he might have been had he come to Mizzou, but his biggest impact might have come with the 2008 recruiting class Mizzou could have compiled had he committed here. The way the dominoes were arranging themselves, this could have been a major seal-the-borders class. As it is, the class should be fine—especially if another solid QB comes Mizzou’s way and Mizzou does as well as they might do this year—but for now it’s another recruiting what-coulda-been.

Well, thanks for being the guinea pig on this experiment. I think it turned out pretty well! We’ll have to do this again sometime.

DM: No problem.