Missouri is a team searching for an identity. Offensively they are in transition. Defensively they have an All-American. On the sidelines they have a coach who may be feeling the heat.
Missouri is a team with a plan. It's a new plan. A post-Corby Jones plan. This year Larry Smith brought in a new offensive coordinator from Western Michigan to transform the Tigers from a multi-formation option attack (ala Nebraska) to a wide-open (some would say a little goofy) passing attack (ala Florida).
The Tigers confused Michigan State early in their last game and used that to put 10 quick points on the board. After that though, MU could not put together a substansive threat. The offense continued to attack (though some critics have said otherwise), but Michigan State had figured out the formation puzzles that the Tigers were presenting.
Mizzou opened the game with a trick play. They lined up their QB, center, and two other offensive players on the right hash mark, and the rest of their offense on the left. The diagram here approximates the formation and marks the eligible recievers. [ I'm not sure of the exact alignment of their recievers as I didn't get my tape started soon enough, so if anyone has it, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to those who emailed. I think I have it right now.] This was the first of many times in the first quarter where the Tigers would take advantage of the Spartans failure to get lined up correctly. MSU was called for a illegal participation penalty when they failed to line up correctly against this formation.
The TV people quoted the offensive coordinator (anyone know his name?) as saying that his QB's at Western Michigan audibled the play at the line 60% of the time. Much of Mizzou's game plan vs. MSU seemed to involve showing novel formations and then checking to a play in the direction that the defense made an alignment mistake.
The first of these formations is a balanced version of an unbalanced formation. MU lined up in a one-back formation with a split end to the left and two wingbacks side-by-side outside the TE to the right (SEE BELOW). This gives the strong right side an unbalanced look with five quick blockers and forces the defense to widen both linemen and linebackers to that side.
Missouri ran speed option (much like Nebraska's 31 Sprint) to the SE side when Michigan State over commited to the strong side. When the Spartans responded by keeping another man to the weak side, the Tigers ran a sweep (like NU's 41 pitch) to the strength.
Later in the game when MSU had determined just how to deploy against this, the Tigers tried to run inside zone, but had a tough time finding yards there.
I wouldn't be surpirsed if they had a combonation route throwing package out of this set with the three bunched recievers on the strong side.
The story was similar with another formation that the Tigers used. They again played one back, but this time stacked three wide receivers, one behind the other, on one side (SEE BELOW). They had a tight end (and once a split end) to the other side. They had some success with this early throwing a WR screen to the deepest wide out. Again the QB would take a look at the defense and call a play one way or the other. Mizzou hit a 70-yard double pass out of this formation on its first drive.
Missouri also ran some more traditional sets. They showed Nebraska's Ace and Open formations quite a bit. They also ran some four and five receiver sets. I doubt they empty their backfield much against Nebraska as few teams do that any more (Milt Tenopir made this comment on Sports Nightly this week.) They'll want to keep the threat of draw available. In their running game they focused on inside zone and counter trap. They had some success against Michigan State running counter trap to the weak side.
The Mizzou passing game was focused on short quick passes to the outside (much like the Iowa and San Jose State schemes that caused the Blackshirts some trouble). They ran many combonation patterns varying which receiver would clear the area and which would cut underneath. I imagine that much of this is similar to the Florida attack. Missouri's level of sophistication is obviously not as complex in their first year in this offense. Does anyone know if this Missouri (and former Western Michigan) coach has some connection to Steve Spurrior and the Gators? I think I remember seeing this somewhere.
They also ran a lot of shallow crossing patterns on each side. A defensive coach would likely call these pick plays, but the truth is they are seldom called in college football any more and even NU uses them at times. This is a holdover for MIzzou, as Husker fans will remember the Tigers using these to initiate several near Big Red heart attacks in 1997 in Columbia.
I expect the Tigers to try the same confusion tactics against Nebraska this week that almost caught the Spartans. I think there will be variations of the theme though. Different goofy formations, but still designed to cause the defense headaches in lining up. Missouri ran much of this package in a no-huddle format, forcing MSU to have 14 defenders on the field until they could read the MU formation and personnel. Missouri did a nice job of concealing these and getting subs in and out while maintaining a no-huddle pace. Their no-huddle is designed more for confusion than hurry-up.
Meet Justin Smith.
I don't think the Missouri All-American rush end is really bigger than Grant Wistrom, I think the black uniform just makes him look that way. Wistrom's name comes to mind a lot when watching Smith play. He is big, fast and relentless. Michigan State tried to run counter traps and other plays underneath his penetration, but like Wistrom he could often spin back and get involved. It will be interesting to see how the Huskers choose to deal with him.
The rest of Missouri's defense is able, though not spectacular, and they make some big plays because they attack a lot. Expect the Huskers to have some negative plays. They should also be able to take advantage of the Tiger's aggressiveness for some big plays. Michigan State had a lot of success with running plays when they got past the line -of-scrimmage; there was a lot of room to run back there. They also passed to their TE/H-back quite a bit. Another big day by Wistrom wouldn't surprise me.
Missouri crowded the box against MSU's freshman quarterback even tighter than anyone has done against the Huskers this year. It will be interesting to see if they do the same to NU. It was generally the strong safety stepping up to linebacker depth, though sometimes a corner also tighted up his alignment.
Last year NU opened the game throwing with a jailbreak screen to Davison (yes, Matt, not Bobby), that later set up a fake-jailbreak and deep pattern to Newcombe. Nebraska threw on its first five plays from scrimmage and on ten of the first sixteen snaps. These were almost all rollouts and dropbacks, not play-action. I doubt things will start that wide-open Saturday, but it could.
Will we see much new this weekend? Probably depends on your definition of 'much'. I expect the package to open slowly. We've seen about two or three new things a week. Last week that opening was slowed by poor field position (average starting position was the NU 25) and fewer possesions (only 11 drives and 68 snaps). Maybe they'll play catch-up by showing a few more pages of the playbook?
Uh.... let's not talk about that. Actually, Mizzou hasn't looked very spectacular there, but they have been getting the ball snapped to their punter (which they couldn't do twice last year). This area of the game is basically Nebraska vs. Nebraska in my mind. If the Huskers can rid themselves of the ghosts of Irich returns, they'll be fine. If not, don't go to the fridge during kicks.
Remember that with Larry Smith on the sidelines, any third and long could be a quick kick. He uses that ploy as well as anyone. If it is a close game, that's a great field position move.
The Tigers didn't enter their own stadium in Columbia for the MSU game until just before kickoff. They warmed up on their practice fields and bused to the game just in time to dominate the first quarter and lead 10-0. I don't expect Somoan war drums or green jerseys, but Coach Smith is obviously looking for ways to stoke fires (other than the one under his chair). Don't be surprised if the Tigers try something unusual early. They wouldn't run the Bumerooski on us, would they?
The team I watched scare Michigan State in Columbia is capable of getting some good body blows delivered to the Big Red. Obviously, the Tiger team that fumbled and bumbled their way to embarrassment at Clemson probably isn't. Which one we'll see, I don't know. One of the big differences was turnovers. Clemson started almost every drive in MU territory after turnovers or ohter blunders. The Tigers will believe that they can play with anyone if they avoid those.