Missouri shocked the college football world and not only jumped out to a lead in the SEC East, but has held up down the home stretch and taken a half-game lead in the division all the way to the final weekend of the season. But there's still one hurdle to clear for the Tigers between Columbia and Atlanta.
Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies.
In order to claim the SEC East title in just their second year in the league, the Tigers need to be the second team in as many weeks to solve the Manziel riddle, after LSU shut down the 2012 Heisman winner last week in Death Valley.
So what are some keys for the Tigers against the Aggies?
Don't Let Manziel Get Loose
LSU did a masterful job of keeping Manziel in the pocket by making sure its defensive ends didn't get too far upfield and forced him to make quick decisions in the pocket. That proved problematic, because LSU's defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson got push and created confusion for Manziel that the back end of the defense was able to take advantage of.
"You got to look at your own personnel," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said in quotes released by the university. "You got to look at the scheme of the shoe you are on. You can't all of the sudden run a different defense or coverage you have never played before. I think LSU has their number right now. Nobody else has. I think you look at them and try to learn things and apply them to your own team."
Missouri has the players to repeat the feat.
Everybody knows about defensive end Michael Sam and his SEC-best 10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss, but Kony Ealy, Shane Ray and Markus Golden allow the Tiger defensive staff to rotate fresh bodies in throughout the game. As a result, they're able to take advantage if they wear down the opponents' offensive line during the first three quarters.
Missouri's front four needs to keep him in the pocket, get push from its defensive tackles to get Manziel moving and let linebackers Andrew Wilson and Kentrell Brothers clean up the mess.
Prevent Manziel's Risks From Being Rewarded
Manziel knows what he has to do to win games. His defense is a disaster, and he has to take risks in order for his team to win games.
That's a problem in this matchup though, because Missouri's ability to capitalize on mistakes is one of the biggest reasons why Missouri finds itself 60 minutes from the SEC East title. The Tigers are tied with Vanderbilt for the SEC lead in takeaways with 26 and lead the conference in turnover margin, gaining 1.27 turnovers per game.
Missouri's success in the turnover department starts up front but depends on its back seven to take advantage when quarterbacks take risks or make mistakes.
Cornerback E.J. Gaines knows that it's almost impossible to shut Manziel down.
"I don't think you can look at it as stopping a great player like Johnny Manziel, rather it's about containing him and slowing him down and helping our defense out," he said in quotes released by Missouri.
In a game that's likely going to light up the scoreboard, getting a few key stops might be all Missouri needs to get the job done.
Don't Lose Sight of Your Offensive Identity
Missouri is one bad quarter away from heading into rivalry weekend unblemished, after South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw led his team back from a 17-point fourth-quarter hole to beat Missouri 27-24 in double overtime in October.
Shaw gets credit for that comeback win, but a big reason why that door was open in the first place was because Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel went into a play-calling shell in the second half to protect his lead and redshirt freshman Maty Mauk.
That would spell doom versus the Aggies.
Texas A&M's defense is ripe for the picking virtually every time it steps on the field, and because of that, Missouri has to stay true to itself on Saturday night. They mix it up with the running backs, spread passes around to all of their talented wide receivers and thrive off of the fast tempo Pinkel's offense creates.
Yes, Texas A&M is used to seeing that every day in practice. That doesn't matter. Missouri needs to stay true to itself, exploit A&M's porous rush defense and then take the top off the secondary once it has established the run. That philosophy has worked so far, it will work again, and changing now would be taking an unnecessary risk.
Stay on Wide Receiver Mike Evans
This is much easier said than done, but Missouri absolutely has to keep Aggie wide receiver Mike Evans in check. Cornerback E.J. Gaines is at a six-inch height disadvantage to Evans, which presents problems because Evans is who Manziel looks to when he gets in trouble.
Missouri will have to roll over safety help with Braylon Webb and Matt White to give Gaines some help in passing situations.
"He's a playmaker. He can go up. He's got great size, great range," Pinkel said according to David Morrison of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. "He really handles himself in space going to the ball, in terms of putting his body in a position to keep the defender away and have a better chance of catching the ball."
Evans is a focal point in the passing game, but he's also the ultimate safety valve for Manziel. The Tigers aren't going to take him out of the game, but limiting his impact and making Manziel pay when he looks his way would go a long way towards getting the Aggies off of their game plan.
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