COLUMBIA, Mo. – As we look into the crucial matchups for Saturday’s Missouri-Vanderbilt game, it’s difficult to find an area where the Commodores might expose the Tigers. There’s very little that Vandy does well.
This essentially sums up the matchup:
• Mizzou has the nation’s No. 17 scoring offense … Vandy has the nation’s No. 119 scoring defense.
• Mizzou has the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense … Vandy has the nation’s No. 116 scoring offense.
This has all the makings of a rout. But, as Barry Odom said this week, the Tigers can’t just “roll your helmet out there and win a game.”
Here are two ways they can make that happen:
Missouri's passing game
Other than a few interceptions, Kelly Bryant has smoothly piloted Mizzou’s passing attack through the first half of the season, completing 65 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and a QB rating of 156.1. If the season ended today, he'd have the third-best single season rating in Mizzou history, behind only Drew Lock’s 2017 season (165.7), when he set the SEC record for touchdown passes, and Chase Daniel’s 2008 season (159.4). Yes, Bryant’s rating currently exceeds Daniel’s 2007 mark (147.9) when he was a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Consider Vandy coach Derek Mason among those impressed.
“I think he's been able to shed the moniker of just being a running quarterback,” Mason said this week. “I've seen him throw the ball well from the pocket. Coach (Derek) Dooley has done a great job turning him into a pro passer. Everybody wants to believe that it's RPO (run-pass option), but when you look at their game it’s not. It’s a lot of drop-back pass off RPO action or draw action, so I mean it looks different than what people truly believe. It looks more and more like Dak Prescott and some of the things that he does in that offense.”
Prescott was part of Mizzou’s sales pitch to Bryant last fall. Why’s that? Dooley was the Dallas Cowboys receivers coach during Prescott’s first two seasons in the NFL. When Dooley landed the Mizzou coordinator job, he installed some elements of Jason Garret’s Cowboys passing game that was built around a mobile QB in Prescott.
Now it’s up to Mason’s young and struggling secondary to slow down Bryant and his collection of receivers. The Commodores start three redshirt freshmen in the secondary and it showed through the season’s first half. Four teams have completed at least 65 percent of their passes against Mason’s defense. Purdue and LSU combined for 11 passing touchdowns. Three of Vandy’s opponents have posted passer ratings of 175 or better. The Commodores have intercepted only two of the 179 passes they’ve faced.
The Tigers won’t have to wait until third down to beat the Dores through the air. Opponents are shredding Vandy on first down, with a 193.8 efficiency rating on first down (fourth-worst in the country) for eight touchdowns and 13 passes of 25 yards or more.
Bryant threw the ball well in the second half back at Wyoming when the Tigers had to rally, but he did some of his best work all season on the final drive against Ole Miss last week. Dooley could have stuck with the run to bleed the clock on a series that started on the 2-yard line but trusted Bryant to convert a couple challenging passes. First, a 20-yarder to Johnathon Johnson on second-and-11 from deep in Mizzou territory, then a third-and-6 completion to Johnson for 17 yards that slammed the door shut on an Ole Miss miracle comeback.
“Two just remarkable plays by Kelly and J.J,,” Dooley said. “Great players win games. It's not a play call or a coach. And those guys that in critical moment just made a huge play on third down. Just throw and catch. There's nothing more gratifying on offense to take the air out of the ball when you have a lead, and it's hard to do because they're sticking everybody in the box. You're trying to bleed clock and at some point you have to make a play throwing the football.”
One more note on Mizzou’s passing game. Earlier in the season fans seemed distressed that tight end Albert Okwuegubunam wasn’t getting enough targets. Now the anxiety has shifted to Jalen Knox’s targets. This is a balanced passing attack. Balance can be healthy. The Tigers aren’t going to produce a 1,000-yard receiver this year. During some of the Lock years, the offense struggled to function if J’Mon Moore or Emanuel Hall didn’t have a 100-yard game. This team doesn’t have an obvious No. 1 target like those guys — and that’s OK. Bryant spreads the ball around more evenly. The top targeted players aren’t outside receivers. Johnson, who plays in the slot, leads the team with 38 targets. Next is tailback Tyler Badie (25), then Okwuegbunam (24), who’s tied with outside receiver Jonathan Nance (24), followed by Knox (20), slot receiver Barrett Banister (14), outside receiver Kam Scott (14) and tight end Daniel Parker Jr. (13). Only 30 percent of the passing targets are going to the top three outside receivers: Nance, Knox and Scott. But this team continues to move the chains and score touchdowns.
“We don't just have like one guy,” Dooley said. “We need everybody to contribute. We're going to lean on everybody. They've done a great job of really being a tight knit supportive group of each other. They work really hard, they’ve pushed each other, they celebrate each other's success. So consequently, they've had some good production lately. We try to use all our players and create roles for them. And I think that helps competition.”
Vandy's playmakers in space
If Missouri has any concerns in this game it centers around Vandy’s three elite playmakers on offense: running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney. The first two are having productive seasons. Pinkney not so much. He’s caught just 13 passes in six games. The Tigers will be mindful of all three. Vaughn ran for 182 yards at Mizzou last year, while the two pass-catchers combined for 13 receptions for 187 yards and a touchdown each. If the Tigers struggle to tackle in open space, a sleepy Vandy attack could erupt at any point.
“They all three can score from anywhere on the field,” Odom said. “So you know that's a challenge for us defensively to play assignment sound but also give them enough looks so that they don't get free releases and that we clog up some things in the middle. That allows us to disrupt the running game to have a chance for success on that side of the ball.”
Mizzou’s Larry Rountree leads the SEC in rushing yards after contact with 341, according to SECStatCat.com, but Vaughn is just a few spots behind him at 324. Vaughn has 37 broken tackles, more than all SEC East backs and just ahead of Rountree (33). Vaughn is hit or miss: 14.7 percent of his rushes go for negative yards. That’s a lot. He’s a patient runner behind a line that’s struggled at times, so if the Tigers get off blocks and stay in their gaps, they can bottle him up near the line.
Lipscomb is fifth in the SEC in receiving yards after the catch with 234 with 67 percent of his yards coming after he makes the reception. That ranks second in the SEC. The Tigers have to cover him but just as important they need to bring him to the turf.
Tackling, tackling, tackling.
Vandy is a heavy run-pass option offense, running RPO plays on 18.4 percent of its snaps, according to SECStatCat. In the SEC, only Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee run a greater rate of RPO plays. That’s where the Tigers have to be sound in their assignments and keep quarterback Riley Neal guessing so he can’t make easy reads on every snap.
The Tigers should be able to put some pressure on the pocket. Neal has been sacked 13 times, second-most in the SEC, and he’s thrown the league’s third-most uncatchable passes. He has the SEC’s worst completion percentage on throws under pressure at just 26.3. (For comparison’s sake, Bryant is ranked third among current SEC starters at 54.5 percent, behind only LSU’s Joe Burrow and Florida’s Kyle Trask.)
Neal’s targets are trusty — Vandy has a very low drop percentage (2.9) on Neal’s passes — but he has trouble getting them the ball. Only Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Auburn’s Bo Nix have thrown more inaccurate passes than Neal’s 73.