I tell you what man, my football season isn’t off to a great start. Between Clemson imploding against Duke, Purdue imploding against....everyone and Missouri banging through a 61-yarder to win the game on Saturday, it’s possible the football gods are exacting revenge on me. Last season, all three of the teams I cover won their division. Two (Clemson and K-State) won their conference. That type of football mojo comes with a price, and I fear I’m paying it this season.
My bad, y’all...my fault.
I decided to use my UGA season tickets last Saturday in hopes of watching them murder South Carolina. When I left the house at halftime of the K-State game, I was confident the ‘Cats would turn things around in the second half, and after outscoring Mizzou 10-0 in the 3rd quarter, I felt my confidence was justified. I lose all internet reception in Sanford Stadium, but was able to follow the 4th quarter on one of the ribbons around the stadium....and watched as the Tigers chipped away at the lead...and then took the lead. Kansas State tied it up and the score didn’t move for a few minutes. The scoreboard gave the game time, but didn’t tell me who had the ball. When it stopped at 3 seconds, I told my wife “I hope K-State is setting up for the game winning field goal, and not Missouri.” A few seconds later, the Missouri score ticked up 3 points, and the “F” replaced the game clock.
I was bummed, but didn’t realize how bummed I was going to be until I watched the second half replay. Seriously, a 61-yarder for the win? How does that even happen?
I’ve been working on “how does this even happen” today and I’ve got a few ideas.
Deuce Vaughn, I’m sorry. I didn’t fully appreciate your greatness. With K-State’s line, I thought it would be smooth transition from Vaughn to the Giddens/Ward two headed monster. I was wrong. It’s not that Giddens/Ward are playing poorly, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, but the explosive run plays this team feasted on over the last few seasons are missing.
Against Missouri, Ward had a long of 10 and Giddens had a long of 14. Last season Vaughn broke off a 29-yarder and Giddens hit a 28 yard run. Football is much easier when every handoff is a potential touchdown. That was missing against Missouri, and was missing against Troy as well. The backs aren’t breaking tackles, and when they get into space, they’re not making defenders miss. The easiest way to fix short yardage issues is to get into the end zone from outside a “goal-to-go” situation and that’s not happening. The offense is picking up yards, and the passing game looks solid, but it’s missing the game breaker that can make a play on his own. Football is hard when you have to piece together long drives. K-State’s touchdowns all came on drives over 10 plays. That happened last year as well, but there were some 4-play touchdown drives featuring 4 hand-offs to Deuce as well. Those are missing from this offense.
Missouri, on the other hand, has Luther Burden III. While the ‘Cats were grinding away with 4 yard runs and 8 yard completions, Mizzou was busting big plays. The only scoring drive for the Tigers that took more than 6 plays was the final field goal, otherwise they scored touchdowns on two 6 play drives, and a 2 play drive. The best way to cut down on drive killing mistakes is to cut down on the length of drives. This is still college football, if you can make your opponent work to get the ball down the field, chances are, they’re eventually going to screw up.
K-State kept screwing up.
If I’m the defensive coordinator for an upcoming an opponent, I steal Missouri’s game plan. Keep the safeties deep and don’t give up anything cheap over the top because the Wildcats have yet to prove they can take a handoff or a screen pass and bust something big outside on the offense.
Avery Johnson getting into the game on Saturday is confirmation that the coaching staff is searching for a spark. The offense needs playmakers and it’s possible (if not probable) that he’s the best on the roster. Problem is, he plays quarterback, not running back or receiver, and Will Howard is a damn good quarterback. I’ll be interested to see if the staff can find a way to get Johnson and Howard on the field at the same time moving forward. While Johnson is K-State’s long term solution at quarterback, that doesn’t mean he can’t be the short term solution for replacing the Knowles gadget plays that worked so well last season. If nothing else, if you line Johnson up with Howard, the attention Johnson gets could open things up for everyone else. If you’re going to burn Johnson’s redshirt, go ahead and incinerate it instead of giving him a drive or two every game.
Speaking of the run game, it’s time to take the training wheels off Joe Jackson. It looks like Ward is questionable for the UCF game, and even if he weren’t, Jackson brings something to the game that neither Ward or Giddens has; raw speed to burn.
With all that said, the offense played well enough to win.
The defense on the other hand....woof.
This was the first test of the new look secondary and the ‘Cats get a big, fat, honking F. Drinkwitz moved Burden around, hunted matchups, and K-State allowed Missouri’s best player to beat them. There is a reason Burden was a 5* player coming out of high school. He was the best athlete on the field, by far, and sometimes he’s simply going to be better than your guys. If he has to weave through traffic and break tackles (and he did on occasion, aided by a couple egregious blocks in the back that the refs ignored) that’s one thing, but the first touchdown and last touchdown...
How do you let the best player on the other team run free in the first quarter? It was clearly a busted coverage, and it looks like Sigle was to blame. Parrish tries to pass Burden off and move to the underneath route, but instead of a smooth transition, Sigle, for reasons I don’t understand, looks at the underneath route, instead of looking at one of the best players in Missouri football history running by him. How do you let the best player on the other team exert zero energy to get behind you? It’s not like he ran a great route. In the presser after the game, Coach Klieman said K-State was fooled on a scissor concept. If only that were true. K-State got burned on a straight go route. This wasn’t a case of Missouri scheming Burden open, it was case of K-State’s secondary cutting him loose.
Speaking of the Sigle/Parrish combo, I’m sure it was a rough film session. Later in the game, the Sigle/Parrish combo gave up another big play, this time to Mookie Cooper, on a bust. Not sure who to blame on that one, but it’s another case of poor communication in the secondary. Then Burden turned a 2nd and 12 into a 1st and 10 on a simple flare out. On the way to the first down he shrugged off Parrish’s attempt to tackle him in the backfield and then juked Sigle out of his jock strap 5 yards down the field. Later in the game, Cook found Sigle in man coverage against Marquis Johnson and attacked. Despite Cook under throwing the ball, Sigle was so far behind, it still went for 42 yards. If Cook gets enough air under the ball, it’s a walk-in touchdown. In the 4th quarter, Cook finds Sigle matched up with Burden, and uncorks another poor deep ball, otherwise Burden walks into the end zone with Sigle two steps behind.
It wasn’t just the Sigle/Parrish combo that didn’t cover themselves in glory. On Missouri’s final touchdown, VJ Payne showed an astonishing lack of urgency to get outside and cover Burden on a simple swing pass, allowing him to catch the ball and accelerate without a single Wildcat in the frame. By the time Payne kicked it into gear, all he could do is make a desperation dive as Luther accelerated past him on the way to another unmolested touchdown.
The frustrating part for me is that without the simple busts in the secondary, the defense was fine. The Tigers had 28 carries for 74 yards. It looked like they had things figured out in the third quarter, forcing two straight 3-and-outs but then the 42 yard pass play I mentioned above put Missouri in field goal range without having to do much. The defense was fine most of the game, even good at times, but the bad moments were very bad.
Again, if I’m an offensive coordinator, I look at what Missouri did on Saturday and try to replicate it. Go max protect, and see if K-State’s secondary turns someone loose. Move your best player around behind the line of scrimmage and see if the ‘Cats bust coverage on him coming out of the backfield. This isn’t a defense you want to chip away at, but it is a defense you can beat over the top. Until the back end of the defense proves they can communicate and hold up in coverage, I expect to see other teams using max protect, two receiver combo routes and forcing the Wildcats to communicate.
While Troy posed a threat on the ground, Missouri was the first test for the K-State secondary, and as I mentioned above, they failed miserably. I’m sure the staff will coach them up off this tape, but I have serious concerns about the back end of the defense moving forward. Unless that was an especially slow day for Sigle, he’s going struggle in quarters coverage when he has to pick up a receiver over the top. He was burned multiple times by simply being outrun. That can’t continue. I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing if Colby McCalister or Jack Fabris can hold up better in coverage. They couldn’t do any worse.
It’s weird to say that running back is an issue for K-State, but I’m saying running back is an issue for K-State. That’s where the explosive plays have come from in the past. The quarterback play is fine, the receivers and tight ends are the best they’ve been in the Klieman era, and while the O-line hasn’t been as dominant as I anticipated, some of that is due to the backs constantly getting tackled by safeties and linebackers at the second level.
The O-line’s job is to get the backs to the second level, the backs are responsible for getting past the second level. I haven’t seen them do that, in fact, I’ve seen a couple plays where they seemingly accept the tackle or jog out of bounds instead of trying to make a play. I don’t understand it, but if this team can’t find more explosive plays in the run game, teams are going to keep the safeties back and force them to execute on 10-15 play drives. I expect to see the bend and wait for K-State to shoot themselves in the foot game plan until one of the backs, or Avery Johnson in an extended role, prove they’re a threat to get past the second level.
The good news for Chris Klieman and company is that everything is still on the table. If they can fix the back end of the defense and find a few more explosive plays on offense, they’re still a player in the Big 12. While this loss stings, as long as they get things fixed, it’s inconsequential. However, I saw some things on tape, especially in the defense, that have to be corrected. If they’re not, this team could end up in a bunch of shootouts — and it’s not built to win those games.