Four and Out: Tigers gear up for Gators

2013-10-18T13:22:00Z 2013-10-31T00:49:19Z Four and Out: Tigers gear up for GatorsBy Dave Matter dmatter@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8508 stltoday.com

COLUMBIA, Mo. • Pardon that brief hoops interruption. It’s back to football at the blog.

Let’s rewind for a moment before looking ahead to Saturday’s gargantuan Missouri-Florida showdown. Gary Pinkel has been fortunate to coach enough good teams that he knows what’s coming next for his 14th-ranked and undefeated Tigers. Mizzou climbed more spots than any team in the AP poll this week, up from No. 25. Among the 13 teams ranked higher, only Miami was unranked before the season — though the Hurricanes were receiving votes in the preseason poll.

Through seven weeks of the regular season, the Tigers are arguably the country’s biggest surprise and just pulled off an upset no one would have imagined a month ago, beating No. 7 Georgia by 15 points at Sanford Stadium.

As Pinkel alluded to after Saturday’s win “a lot of things are going to happen” to his team this week. Translation: It’s going to be standing-room only on the bandwagon.

Sure, James Franklin’s shoulder injury will embolden some skeptics, but Pinkel learned three years ago the dangers that lie ahead. He shared a rare anecdote after Saturday’s win: “I’m going to tell you a really quick story,” he said. “You don’t want to hear it.”

Around 1 a.m. after the Tigers beat No. 3 Oklahoma in the 2010 homecoming game — the Sooners were No. 1 in the BCS standings — Pinkel was driving home when he decided to call his mentor and former boss, Don James. It was one of the biggest wins of Pinkel’s coaching career and he wanted to share his joy.

“He put a douse on the flame,” Pinkel said of James. “He said, ‘You know what, the toughest game you’re going to coach is going to be next week.’ And I didn’t listen to him very well. I was kind of mad at him. I hung up because I didn’t want to hear that. Are you kidding me?”

James knew best. Sure enough, Missouri got throttled at Nebraska 31-17 the next week. The Cornhuskers weren’t necessarily the more talented team — they’d finish just 3-3 after the Mizzou game — but they were the more physical team, gashing the Tigers for 328 rushing yards and sacking Blaine Gabbert six times.

Missouri was worse the next week at Texas Tech. Against one of the Big 12’s worst defenses, the Tigers abandoned their running game but threw for just 95 yards on 30 attempts. Mizzou converted 1 of 12 third downs. The dream season was officially over. The Tigers would recover with three straight wins over Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas, but the damage was done.

“We went out to Nebraska and flatlined,” said wideout L’Damian Washington, a redshirt freshman on the 2010 team. “As a senior, as the leaders, we can’t let that happen again.”

Pinkel sensed that 2010 team went astray after beating the Sooners, and he didn't want it happening again.

“Our toughest game is going to be this one coming up,” he said of Saturday’s visit from No. 22 Florida, a 3-point favorite.

Florida has the SEC’s No. 1 defense, and the Gators are surely salivating over the thought of facing redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk in his first career start. But the Gators also have the SEC’s second-lowest scoring offense. Florida has scored more than 24 points in just two of six games, including Saturday’s 17-6 loss at LSU. The Gators average a league-worst 3.8 yards per rushing attempt. Their offensive line has allowed the most tackles for loss (40) in the SEC. Like Mizzou, Florida’s using its backup quarterback, junior Tyler Murphy, who so far has been more efficient than his predecessor, injured junior Jeff Driskel.

If the Tigers can play their best defensive game of the season and continue their takeaway binge, Mauk won’t have to score 40 points to beat the Gators. And if he does, the road gets no easier for Mizzou: Jadeveon Clowney, Connor Shaw and Steve Spurrier come to town the following week.

On that note …

FIRST DOWN: Should Mizzou take down the Gators Saturday, the Tigers will stay in front of the SEC Eastern Division. An MU win Saturday would put Florida two losses behind the Tigers in the conference standings, plus give Mizzou the head-to-head tiebreaker over Florida. The Gators also have crucial division matchups with Georgia and South Carolina — in Jacksonville, Fla., and Columbia, S.C. Bottom line, if the Gators lose Saturday, they fall well behind Missouri in the division race.

Regardless what happens in the Georgia-Vanderbilt game Saturday, a Mizzou win would also keep the Tigers ahead of Georgia in the standings with one fewer SEC loss, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker. Georgia, though, probably has the softest league schedule the rest of the way: at Vandy, Florida (in Jacksonville), at Auburn and home against Kentucky. Win out and Georgia’s in prime position to capture the East — especially with its head-to-head win over South Carolina.

What about those Gamecocks? Team Spurrier travel to Tennessee Saturday, heads to Mizzou next Saturday and close SEC play with home games against Mississippi State and Florida. Wining out puts the Gamecocks in great position to win the East — as long as Georgia loses another league game.

Lose Saturday, and Missouri’s road to Atlanta looks much more difficult. Among the four division contenders, the Tigers would have the toughest schedule, with South Carolina, a trip to Ole Miss and a regular-season home finale against Texas A&M.

If the Tigers can somehow split their next two games and get Franklin back for those final two SEC games, a trip to Atlanta’s not out of the question.

SECOND DOWN: Before we get to the Gators, a few more thoughts on last week’s win at Georgia …

• Over the last few weeks, senior L’Damian Washington has become Missouri’s best wide receiver. Is he the biggest? No. The best raw athlete? Probably not. But the lanky outside threat gets open better than any of his peers. He catches virtually everything thrown his way. He beats coverage downfield, outruns defenders in the open field and goes up and snags the jump ball. If I’m filling out an early edition of the All-SEC ballot, Washington might be the most deserving Mizzou offensive player for consideration.

Washington made the most important play of Saturday’s win — and not the 40-yard touchdown on the throwback pass from Bud Sasser. Six plays earlier, third and 9. The entire state of Georgia was seemingly screaming their lungs out as Missouri’s offense was circling the drain. The Tigers hadn’t converted a third down since 3:58 was left in the second quarter. If Missouri failed to move the chains, Pinkel had already decided he was going to punt — and give the ball back to Aaron Murray for the potential go-ahead scoring drive. Bottom line, the game was on the line.

Out of a four-receiver set, Washington ran a slant from the right side, found some space between Georgia’s zone coverage and made a diving grab of Franklin’s 15-yard pass.

“When he goes over the middle,” ABC analyst Brian Griese said, “he’s such a big target at 6-4 and has such good hands, it’s hard to defend.”

“Coach Pinkel talked to me about that play, and I told him, ‘Thanks for having confidence in me,’” Washington said. “It’s huge to know that you’ve got coaches that count on you. Third and nine with the game on the line, they counted on me. It felt good.”

I’m not sure there’s a player who has finger on the pulse of this team more than Washington. He’s become a true leader of this bunch — and will be counted on even more now that his co-captain on offense, Franklin, is out.

• I wasn’t sure about Mizzou’s secondary heading into the season, but without its best player for most of the game, the group of corners and safeties came up with some pivotal plays against one of the country’s most experienced and successful quarterbacks. Yes, Murray was missing his top three receivers, but Missouri’s secondary made its share of plays against Murray’s supporting cast.

Strong safety Braylon Webb finished with 10 tackles and broke up three passes. Cornerback Randy Ponder’s fourth-quarter interception put Mizzou closer to clinching the win. Corners John Gibson and Aarion Penton split reps in relief of E.J. Gaines after he suffered a strained quad and neither underclassman got exposed in the passing game.

Here’s the most important stat: Murray produced his worst single-game passer rating of the season, at 122.8. Since the 2011 SEC championship game, a span of 22 games, only thre teams have held him to a lower rating: 2011 LSU, 2012 Florida and 2012 South Carolina.

(Gaines' status for Saturday? Penton tweeted that he's making his first career start. Book on Gaines being sidelined, at least until South Carolina comes to town.)

• Does Georgia get a free pass for missing so many injured players? Not at all. Here’s why: The injuries at tailback and receiver had nothing to do with the Bulldogs’ inept play on defense in the first half and the fourth quarter. Todd Gurley’s sprained ankle had nothing to do with the shoddy tackling on Marcus Murphy’s 36-yard touchdown run … or Sasser’s 40-yard strike to Washington … or Henry Josey’s nail-in-the-coffin 7-yard dash through the Dawgs’ defense.

Plus, despite the injuries to Gurley and backup running back Keith Marshall, it was Georgia’s running game that kept the Bulldogs in the game. Freshmen J.J. Green (12 carries for 87 yards) and Brendan Douglas (14 for 70) continually pushed the pile for positive yardage, averaging 7.0 and 5.2 yards per carry, respectively. Missouri didn’t seem all that enthused about having to tackle Douglas, who sledgehammered the Tigers on four of the seven plays of Georgia’s final touchdown drive — only to never carry the ball again.

Georgia’s a better team with its best backs and receivers are healthy, but the Dawgs got more than enough from the fill-in backs — just not enough from a relatively healthy defense.

• I suspect will see more of tight end Eric Waters as a blocker in the coming weeks, perhaps Sean Culkin, too, even though the redshirt freshman has all but disappeared the last few games. Mauk could use some extra protection against the Gators, even if that means fewer four-receiver formations. Waters was used as a blocker on eight of the first 11 plays Mauk saw the field at Georgia.

• Georgia’s offense fell right into the trap Missouri set with its bend-but-don’t-break defense. It’s no secret the Tigers play more conservatively between the 20s and force teams to string together long drives with hope they self-destruct along the way. In the fourth quarter, Murray and the Bulldogs did just that with two interceptions.

“They play a ton of zone coverage,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “That’s what they do. That’s why the backs caught a bunch of balls. We knew that going in. Then when you get a lead it’s a lot more incentive to play zone and have your linebackers dropping (into pass coverage). You leave your corners in Cover 2 to sink to take away some of the more intermediate throws because they know time’s on their side. The clock’s on their side. We need to be patient and take those check downs. When you’re behind it’s a little tougher to do.

“Obviously we were behind 18 points but we had a lot of clock. We got the point differential reduced (to 28-26), and we didn’t have to force anything. We got it back to where we could take what they give us, but sometimes you try to make something more out of a play than we should.”

• Checking in on some stats: Missouri is plus-nine in turnover ratio, the best mark in the SEC. Across the country, only Houston, Oregon and Buffalo are better. … Four teams rank among the FBS top 25 in both rushing offense and rushing defense: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Missouri. … The Tigers share the FBS lead with 13 interceptions, same as Northwestern and Virginia Tech. … No team in the SEC is defending more passes than the Tigers (interceptions plus pass breakups). Mizzou is averaging 6.7 per game, just ahead of LSU (6.3). … More SEC team rankings for Missouri: Scoring offense (No. 2), rushing offense (2), passing offense (3), pass efficiency (6), total offense (3), rush defense (3), pass defense (14), pass defense efficiency (6), sacks (2). … Some SEC individual rankings: Washington is fourth in receiving yards per game and tied with LSU’s Jarvis Landry for the league lead with seven touchdown catches. Marcus Lucas, Washington and Green-Beckham rank sixth, eighth and ninth, respectively, for receptions per game.


THIRD DOWN: See what writers in Florida and elsewhere have to say about Saturday’s Tigers-Gators showdown:

The Tigers badgered Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (two sacks, four tackles for loss) in their 41-26 upset victory in Athens last weekend — two weeks after LSU’s front-seven didn’t register a single quarterback knockdown all game against the Bulldogs.

As for UF’s beleaguered offensive line: a blueprint has been established.

Blitz. A lot.

“Probably. I would if I was scheming against us,” (Max) Garcia, UF’s left guard, said of facing additional pressure moving forward. “Seeing that we had troubles against the blitz, I’d probably do the same thing. As an offensive line, we’re just going to try to do our best against the blitz in practice and making sure we’re mentally there.

“Physically, we are there. I don’t think we have a problem with strength and getting bull-rushed out there. It’s just the mental part of the game that we’ve got to get down, and it really comes down to communication.”

— Jesse Simonton, The Miami Herald

Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Missouri’s defensive line has three potential NFL players.

“One thing that’s amazing to me is that they bat a lot of balls down,” he said. “They’re leading the league in interceptions, but a lot of those are coming off tipped passes by the D-line. Those guys are very active up front and getting off blocks. They’re more destructive than just getting sacks.”

— Jason Lieser, Palm Beach Post

Source: #Gators QB Tyler Murphy injured shoulder at LSU. Missed practice early in the week but looked fine Thursday. Will play vs. Mizzou.

— Tweet from Zach Abolverdi (@ZachAbolverdi ), Gainesville Sun

Muschamp has been quick to criticize his defense. It isn't perfect and it has shown weaknesses. LSU rushed for 175 yards (121 coming from Jeremy Hill) and both the Tigers and Canes hit Florida's secondary with big plays. The Gators clearly miss defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who is out for the season with an ACL injury, and the secondary does have a knack for having eye control issues.
"We just need to play well defensively," Muschamp said. "Our defense doesn't need to worry about [what] our offense does.
"Our defense needs to worry about what our defense needs to do."
Still, only Miami has scored 20 or more points on the Gators this season. Even LSU's high-flying offense managed just 17 points, while becoming the only team to gain more than 275 yards on the Gators (who had 327). Florida leads the SEC with 13 straight conference games in which it did not allow more than 20 points.

— Edward Aschoff, ESPN.com

FOURTH DOWN: Some pivotal matchups for Tigers-Gators …

• Missouri’s wide receivers vs. Florida’s defensive backs: The Tigers’ offensive strength against the Gators’ defensive strength. UF cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy are considered elite NFL talents. Freshman corner Vernon Hargreaves III only leads the SEC in passes defended per game (1.4). Can they call contain Mizzou’s core of tall, productive wideouts. Can Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas win some matcups against the best cover corners they’ve seen all season? Can Mauk deliver the ball in the tightest windows he’s ever seen?

Missouri offensive tackles, tight ends and tailbacks vs. Florida buck Dante Fowler Jr.: Fowler is the Gators’ most lethal pass rusher, and the Tigers can’t afford sacks, tackles behind the line or — most important — another injury at quarterback. That means tackles Justin Britt, Mitch Morse, the tight ends and backs have to do all they can to slow No. 6 from making a mess in the backfield.

Missouri defensive tackles vs. Florida’s interior offensive line: The Gators’ best hope is to control the line of scrimmage and squeeze as much time off the clock as possible. (UF leads the nation in time of possession by no coincidence.) That means Missouri’s interior stoppers – Lucas Vincent, Matt Hoch, Harold Brantley, Marvin Foster and Josh Augusta – have to fight off blocks, control their gaps and help put the Gators into third-down situations. If Florida has its way at the point of attack, Missouri’s offense will spend most of the day watching from the sideline.

FIFTH DOWN: Call me J. C. Louderback. I’m giving you an extra down today.

Clemson 31, Florida State 27: Love Jameis Winston – but not at Death Valley against Tajh Boyd.

Stanford 28, UCLA 24: Cardinal bounce back but Mora’s men won’t make it easy.

Louisville 35, UCF 27

Oklahoma State 31, TCU 21: The Cowboys fell off the radar after losing at West Virginia. Not sure this win will get them back on.

Texas A&M 41, Auburn 28: Too much Johnny.

Washington 34, Arizona State 31: The Huskies rival Georgia for the best two-loss team in America.

LSU 38, Ole Miss 24

Notre Dame 28, USC 21: Ed Oregeron’s honeymoon officially ends in South Bend.

Alabama 44, Arkansas 20

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