Powered Up: Winning with Defense

For the last calendar year, Missouri has armed every marketing campaign it has with the slogan "A New Era." And it is. But for the Tigers, this new era is not only about its conference, about its opponents, but it is becoming increasingly clear it is also a new era on the field.
For years, Mizzou fans got used to watching a video game offense. The Tigers put up ridiculous numbers on offense. The table to the right is a quick analysis of the Tigers' offense over the past six seasons and the first three games of this year. The number on the right represents Mizzou's average points per game against Division One opponents.
The trend is fairly apparent. Missouri started to score in 2006, Chase Daniel's first year as quarterback. Over his junior and senior seasons, Missouri had one of the nation's most lethal offenses. In 26 games against FBS opponents in those two seasons, the Tigers scored at least 38 points 19 times. They were just 1-6 in the games in which they failed to score 38. Oklahoma was responsible for three of those games. The only team besides the Sooners to keep Mizzou under 30 in Daniel's final two seasons was Oklahoma State, which intercepted him three times and beat the Tigers 28-23 in 2008.
When Daniel left, the offensive numbers declined. In Blaine Gabbert's two years as the starter, the Tigers' scoring against BCS opponents fell below even Daniel's sophomore season, though marginally so.
With Gabbert gone and James Franklin at quarterback in 2011, the number went back up to 29.8, its highest mark outside of the 2007-08 seasons in which Missouri went a combined 22-6.
In 2012, Missouri has played two games against Division One teams and is scoring just 22 points per game.
There are reasons for that. First, it's only two games. Second, Missouri has not faced a non-BCS opponent yet and, in fact, the only one it will play will be on the road. Franklin only started one of those games. Henry Josey is injured and the offensive line looks absolutely nothing like it was supposed to in early August. But the reasons don't much matter. The fact is, through two games, Missouri's scoring is down nearly a touchdown per game from any of the previous six seasons.

And that's where we get to the whole "New Era" thing.
If you were to list off Missouri's ten best players, I would argue seven play defense. That group consists of Sheldon Richardson, Brad Madison, Kony Ealy, Zaviar Gooden, Andrew Wilson and E.J. Gaines. The only offensive players I'd put on the list are a healthy Franklin, T.J. Moe and Marcus Lucas.
So this team, as Gary Pinkel said in his press conference following the Arizona State game, is going to have to find a new way to win.
"You got a redshirt freshman quarterback, a redshirt freshman center, a freshman out of high school left guard, walk-on right guard and a redshirt sophomore right tackle that had never played before, it ain't gonna look pretty all the time," Pinkel said. "It doesn't matter, we're gonna have to battle through it. Then you throw a redshirt freshman quarterback behind that and it's just, it's a lot of fun. These challenges are just what I look forward to.

"We felt like if we were gonna win, we were gonna have to win with our defense."
It is the defense upon which Missouri will have to count. And that's true whether they play in the Big 12, the SEC, the Mountain West or the Canadian Football League. Can the offense improve? Sure. And it might. But the Tigers aren't going to win a lot of games by putting 38 points on the board this season.

Above, we looked at the offensive numbers against Division One competition over the last seven seasons. At right, we use the same numbers defensively. The number in the right hand column is the average number of points the Tigers have surrendered against FBS teams in the same period of time.
Those numbers tell us that the Tigers worst defenses statistically came in 2008 and 2009. Despite an offense that put up more points per game against the best competition than it did in 2007, Missouri lost twice as many games in 2008. That year, the Tigers gave up 40 points or more four times in a game. They lost three. In 2009, the Tigers gave up 35 or more four times and again lost three. The offense that season was Missouri's least productive in the last six years and the defense gave up more points than any other than 2008.
This year's numbers are a bit deceptive. Again, it's two games. It is skewed by the Georgia game in which the Tigers gave up 41 points, but 14 came on a six-yard drive and a one-yard drive resulting from offensive turnovers. Even in the Arizona State game, poor special teams plays put the Tiger defense in tough situations leading to some Sun Devil points. But that will happen. The defense needs to compensate.
Perhaps the best guideline for this team is the 2010 squad. That group scored 28.2 points per game against FBS opponents, the second-lowest average of the time we're looking at. But the Tigers managed to go 10-3 that season. How? Defense. The Tigers gave up more than 28 points just once (a 31-17 loss to Nebraska). Despite the offense scoring in the 40's only one time, Missouri matched its second-highest win total because it held opponents to 16.9 points per game. Opposing offenses scored 13, 13, 0, 9, 0 and 7 in six of Missouri's FBS wins that year.
And that's the blueprint for 2012. Missouri will not face offenses like the Baylor and Oklahoma State of last year or the vintage Texas and Oklahoma teams of years past. Georgia is probably the best offense Missouri will see in the regular season. On the flip side, most teams they play have better defenses than most of the Big 12. If Missouri is to win a good number of games, it will take a lot more 24-20 wins than 42-35 wins. If the 2012 defense matches that number put up in 2010--or even comes relatively close--Missouri can be pretty good. If not...
The beauty of college football is that style points, largely, are irrelevant. It doesn't matter how you win, only that you win. If the Tiger offense cannot vastly improve (and given the shape of the offensive line and health questions around Franklin, it seems unlikely), Missouri will have to find a new way to skin a cat.
That way is defense. It is that group that will write the script for Missouri's season.
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