Missouri Tigers vs. Texas Longhorns: Breaking Down the Matchups
I don't know exactly what the odds are of Missouri upsetting No. 3 Texas on Saturday night, but, frankly, it may not matter.
If college football has taught us anything, especially recently, it's that no team is immune from getting knocked off. To wit, a top 10 team has gone down each week this season . And with the exception of the season's fifth week—when several of the big boys took a Saturday off—a team within the top 5 has suffered the same fate.
I don't necessarily think the unranked Tigers will beat the Longhorns to become the next giant killer. On top of being 13.5-point underdogs on Saturday, Missouri, since head coach Gary Pinkel took over in 2001, is just 7-22 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 , including a 1-6 mark against the top five.
Plus, dating back to 1916, Missouri has beaten Texas only once in 15 attempts, with the lone win coming in 1997 against a Longhorn team that finished 4-7.
Compound those numbers by the notion that Texas may have a better athlete at nearly every position, and the Tigers' odds of an upset plummet.
Missouri's only chance of winning is playing a perfect game and hoping lightning strikes again. It's happened more than once, and it could certainly happen again. But if the Tigers are to take advantage of college football's volatility once again rearing its head, they have to win the individual matchups, including what I have deemed to be the game's two most crucial.
Missouri offensive tackles Elvis Fisher and Dan Hoch vs. Texas defensive end Sergio Kindle
The broader picture to this matchup is Missouri's beleaguered offensive line against Texas' dominating front four. But Kindle, a candidate for several national awards, is arguably the Longhorns' most talented and electrifying player. On the other side of the coin, Fisher and Hoch, both sophomores, have struggled against speed rushers as a result of poor technique.
To the edge what Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh is to the interior, Kindle, though he has followed up a 10-sack junior season in 2008 with only two sacks thus far in six games, has the ability to change a game.
At 6'4", 255 pounds, Kindle is bulky enough to contribute against the run, but his speed allows defensive coordinator Will Muschamp the luxury of spreading him all over the field, at both linebacker and defensive end, on either side of the formation.
Without losing focus of Texas' other difference-makers up front, Hoch and Fisher, along with MU's guards and center, have to account for Kindle on every play. And, first and foremost, that means on passing downs, where Kindle and Co. should be able to generate pressure on a less-than-healthy Blaine Gabbert , particularly on third-and-long situations.
Both with distinct size advantages, Hoch (6'7", 320) and Fisher (6'5", 300) absolutely have to neutralize Kindle's speed with a quick first step and a solid punch. And perhaps more importantly, the duo has to be able to get their hands inside on the defensive end, which is a matter of technique that has eluded the Missouri offensive line and resulted in a mess of costly holding penalties.
As a whole, Missouri's offensive line has performed well at times, but breakdowns in communication and poor fundamentals have lead to gaps in pass protection and a failure to create seams in the running game.
The Tigers have allowed eight sacks this season, including a modest total of three in games against Nebraska and Oklahoma State, but quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been feeling the heat considerably more often since Big 12 play began.
And he'll likely be under siege again. The Longhorns rank in middle of the Big 12 with 17 sacks, but the defense is one of the nation's most disruptive, forcing 14 fumbles and a league-high 19 turnovers . If the Tigers can't limit mistakes in the trenches, forget about it.
The Tigers' pass-first, run-second mentality is well-documented, but despite offensive coordinator David Yost's sometimes wavering commitment to the run, Missouri may have no choice but to throw.
Texas has allowed only 225 rushing yards all season , or an average of 37.5 per game, and lead the nation in both categories. Factor in Missouri's season-long struggles in the running game, and Kindle may have the opportunity for a field day against a one-dimensional MU offense.
Edge: Texas—Outside of Suh, Kindle is the best defensive player Missouri will see in 2009. In lieu of all the problems Kindle presents all by himself, the bigger conundrum exists when opposing offenses pay him too much attention, immediately allowing Texas' other defensive stars to play unencumbered. It's been a theme for Texas this season, and it's likely to continue against Missouri.
Texas quarterback Colt McCoy versus Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon
When Texas has the ball, two of the Big 12's fiercest competitors will be on display. A preseason favorite to capture the Heisman Trophy, Colt McCoy has hardly resembled the quarterback that set an NCAA record for completion percentage a season ago.
McCoy has suffered from a mediocre receiving corps, not to mention a running game that produces nearly 170 yards a game but ranks 49th in the country.
Sean Weatherspoon , by all accounts, is perhaps the conference's best linebacker and without a doubt the heart and soul of the Missouri defense. A preseason All-American selection, the 6'2", 245-pound Weatherspoon is a menacing presence and, as a three-year starter at outside linebacker, is zeroing in on Missouri's all-time tackle total, averaging over eight stops per game this season.
If Missouri's underachieving defensive line can sustain unexpected pressure on McCoy, defensive coordinator Dave Steckel won't feel the need to blitz. However, if the need arises, he'll call Weatherspoon's number as the first linebacker to join the rush.
With his strength and good leverage, Weatherspoon will be able to break Texas' protection scheme, but when he gets there, he needs to take McCoy to the ground, putting Texas in difficult down-and-distance scenarios.
Conversely, if Texas is able to protect in the passing game, McCoy will have ample time to find his targets. The Longhorns' offense won't scare anyone running the football, but if running backs Vondrell McGee , Tre' Newton , and Fozzy Whittaker are able to navigate seams in the Missouri defense, things will open up even further for McCoy, who will start despite battling the flu and an injured thumb on his throwing hand.
Missouri's linebackers are susceptible to misdirection, so anticipate Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis employing plenty of read options. After finishing 2008 as Texas' leading rusher, McCoy has just 91 yards on 48 carries this season, but he should be able to take advantage of the Tigers' over-aggressiveness. And that may include running right at Weatherspoon, who at times struggles to shed blocks against top-tier linemen.
Weatherspoon's linebacking mates, Luke Lambert and Andrew Gachkar, are solid, but all three form a trio that lacks top-end speed and hip fluidity. Texas could take advantage by running McCoy on speed options to the edge and throwing the ball down the middle of the field to receiver Jordan Shipley , who presents a difficult matchup for the Missouri secondary.
Edge: Push—Saturday night will be a 60-minute chess match between two of the conference's most decorated players, but something has to give. With the emergence of some of this peers, Weatherspoon hasn't been as effective as he was in 2008, but he'll still receive an asterisk in Texas' offensive game plan.
Weatherspoon will need plenty of help, but with the Longhorns possibly leaning on the running game a bit more than usual as the result of McCoy's bothersome thumb, the Tigers may be able hold Texas in check by feeding off what could be a near-record crowd in Columbia.
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