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April 12, 2010

Mizzou addresses short-yardage shortcomings

Pete Scantlebury
Rivals.com College Football
Staff Writer
COLUMBIA, Mo. - If 2009 was a season of ups and downs for Missouri, perhaps the lowest point was the Tigers' third-down conversion rate.

For the first time in two seasons, the Tigers failed to convert more than 50 percent of their third-down attempts. In fact, they didn't even come close. The first-year Blaine Gabbert-led offense turned only 37 percent of its third downs into extended drives. By comparison, in 2006 - Chase Daniel's first year as quarterback - Missouri converted 48 percent of its third downs.

It's not all bad news, however. There appears to be a correlation between experience level at quarterback and a team's conversion rate. For instance, in 2008, when the Big 12 had arguably the best group of quarterbacks in the country, five teams - Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Missouri and Kansas - converted more than 50 percent of their third downs. Those five teams also had the best five quarterbacks in the conference. Last year, only one team in the Big 12 sported a 50-percent rate: Texas A&M. Missouri finished ninth in the conference.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has said the low conversion rate was skewed because of an inordinate amount of third-and-long situations (Missouri went 35-for-134 when it was third- or fourth-and-4 or more). What concerned Pinkel, however, was the poor success rate on third-and-short situations.

"Obviously, we're working on it a lot," Pinkel said. "You should be making 95 percent of your third-and-1s and fourth-and-1s. We're working on it. I don't think we're where we've got to be. Hopefully, we'll get a lot better at that."

A closer look at the numbers shows Pinkel has good reason for concern.

Missouri finished the year converting 44-of-71 short-yardage situations. That's 62 percent, far from Pinkel's desired percentage.

In third- or fourth-and-1 situations, Missouri was 22-of-32 (69 percent).

The Tigers were worse in conference play, turning 46 late-down, short-yardage opportunities into only 24 first downs, a 52-percent clip.

Perhaps the most troubling stat? Missouri had 15 fourth-quarter, late-down, short-yardage opportunities in Big 12 play. Only three of those resulted in first downs. In their loss to Oklahoma State, the Tigers converted one first down in six opportunities in the fourth quarter.

Missouri has made a concerted effort to improve in this area this spring. Most of the time, it's subtle. Sometimes, it's clear - such as when Gabbert lined up under center last Tuesday on a third-and-1 and handed the ball off to Kendial Lawrence, who charged off the left tackle for a first down.

On Saturday, facing a fourth-and-1 and 31 yards from the end zone, Missouri again showed its dedication to improving the conversion rate. Gabbert handed the ball off to Washington on a counter - despite having four wide receivers on the field - and he turned upfield for a touchdown run.

Gabbert said the changes Missouri is making this spring to improve its short-yardage situations has very little to do with Xs and Os. He said it's all about accountability.

"You just have to do your job," Gabbert said. "At that distance, it's just man-on-man football. If one person messes up, that screws the whole play up. This whole spring, we've just been focused on the little things.

"If one person out of 11 messes up, it ruins everything. We've been talking about being accountable to the team, being accountable to the offense, and now we're starting to execute better."

Pete Scantlebury is a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Originally from Stone Mountain, Ga., Pete has covered Missouri sports since 2006 and now writes for PowerMizzou.com.
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