The Tigers Hang Tough in Norman

Sep 26, 2011 at 4:31 pm
The empty backfield makes Truman sad.
The empty backfield makes Truman sad.
It wasn't supposed to be a fair fight. After all, the Oklahoma Sooners were favored by more than three touchdowns going into Saturday's game against the Tigers. A combination of a number one ranking, a Mizzou team in a transition year, and homefield advantage was a damning cocktail for Missouri. 

So it was a little surprising to see the Tigers come out Saturday evening and take it to the Sooners, running up and down the field en route to an early 14-3 lead. Missouri looked faster, they looked tougher, and quarterback James Franklin looked more poised than Heisman candidate Landry Jones

A funny thing happened on the way to the upset, though, and Mizzou ultimately lost by the score of 38-28. A whole lot better than the 21.5 point beating Oklahoma was expected to post, yes, but a loss all the same. What was frustrating, though, wasn't the final score. It was the fact the Tigers did much of the damage to their cause themselves. 

Early on, Mizzou came out running a single-back formation, with James Franklin and Henry Josey, the Tigers' electrifying sophomore running back, together in the backfield. Forced to account for both Franklin and Josey, as well as all the varied passing options Missouri can utilize, Oklahoma struggled to contain the Tiger offense. Josey in particular ran wild, breaking big gains both outside and in on cutbacks throughout the first quarter. 

It was a telling display of the sort of trouble a spread can cause for defenses, creating huge holes all over the field. When Franklin hit L'Damian Washington for a 45-yard touchdown pass, it was a direct result of the space the Sooners were trying to cover and the dual threats Josey and Franklin himself posed. Too much space to cover + too many options to cover = offensive success. 

But then, just when it looked like the Tigers might be on their way to knocking Oklahoma off the top of the mountain for the second straight season, they abruptly stopped doing what was working. About midway through the second quarter, the Tigers began emptying the backfield, taking their most electrifying playmaker out of the equation and allowing the Sooners to focus on the pass only. 

I have to say, I respect the hell out of the job the Missouri coaches do, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, where they've built one of the most potent units in college football. But on Saturday David Yost and Gary Pinkel's plan of attack was too clever by half, letting Oklahoma off the hook by removing the biggest threat the Tigers had. By attempting to spread the field further with four and even five wideout packages, Mizzou telegraphed the passing game and made Franklin the only running option for much of the way. Without the threat of two running options heading in multiple directions, Oklahoma was able to bottle Franklin up in the backfield time and time again. 

It was a disastrous decision, as it allowed Oklahoma to go into nickel coverage for most of the game and take advantage of their stellar collection of defensive backs. They didn't pressure Franklin often, but still managed to shut down the passing game with superior coverage, having no fear of the ground game. Forced to throw into the teeth of a defense playing pass only, Franklin predictably struggled, and the Tigers were completely stymied for most of the second and third quarters. When they finally went back to running the ball late, the points came. By that time, though, the Oklahoma offense and Ryan Broyles had done their thing, and the hole was just too deep. 

Josey still finished the game with 133 yards on 14 carries, and Franklin went over 100 yards himself with 103 on 25 carries, but it could have been so much more. Perhaps the Tigers felt a need to limit Josey's touches, and the injuries at running back were somewhat to blame for the poor gameplan. Still, though, college teams go seven deep at tailback for a reason, and there had to be someone available to take the handoff even without Josey in the game (I'm interested to see what Greg White could do in game situations as a larger, more power-oriented back, personally, but that's not really the point), just to force the Sooners to account for two running threats. 

There were plenty of other reasons the Tigers lost, of course, the biggest being they were playing Oklahoma in Norman, where the Sooners haven't lost since the Bush administration. They had no answer for Ryan Broyles. Grant Ressel went all Scott Norwood. Twice. Michael Egnew was virtually invisible in the passing game. So sure, there are plenty of reasons the Tigers ultimately lost Saturday's game. But I can't help but believe the biggest reason of all is when Missouri had the Sooners on the ropes the coaches tried to get fancy, rather than sticking with what was working and going for the kill shot. 

I can only hope it's a lesson that takes. The Tigers have the makings of a remarkable dual-threat running game for the next couple seasons, the sort of hurry-up ground attack that can both hold the ball and break the explosive plays at any moment. But it will only work if the coaching staff has the vision to realize what they have and the fortitude to stick with it.