Dave Matter has been covering Missouri football for quite awhile, and in the past year became the Tigers beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. So we're pleased to pick his brain once again.
If you're not already, you're encouraged to follow Dave on Twitter at @Dave_Matter. You can also read his coverage of Mizzou at the Post-Dispatch site. You'll be able to hear my answers to his questions on his blog there on Friday.
We thank Dave for his informative answers. Trust me, you're going to know a lot more about Missouri after reading this. Plus, Dave uses the word "guileless.' So if you see him this weekend in Athens, feel free to welcome him to town and buy him a beverage.
1. Missouri's first year in the SEC left a bit to be desired, but this year the Tigers are unbeaten, and while the competition has been weak, Missouri has won each game convincingly, including on the road at Vanderbilt. So where has that left the excitement and interest around the school and the state of Missouri?
Matter: The bandwagon got a little lighter after the 5-7 season, and I think some fans on the fringe have taken a skeptical approach to this season so far. With each convincing win, it seems some fans are starting to believe this team could be something special — and that last year was more of an aberration rather than a sign the program was trending downward. Attendance at the first three home games has been down some from last year — but the opponents weren’t exactly that appealing to attract a big crowd outside of a healthy amount of season-ticket holders. I’m interested to see the attendance figures for the upcoming home games against Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. A win Saturday would fill the bandwagon back up in a hurry.
2. James Franklin is playing like the dangerous, dual-threat quarterback he was pegged to be entering last year. What's been the big difference for him?
Matter: More than anything, he’s healthy. His throwing shoulder was never right last year, and all the practice time he missed during the season affected his accuracy and chemistry with receivers. After the first game of the year, he said he’s feeling as healthy as he’s been since his sophomore year of high school. On top of that, last year’s turmoil made Franklin a tougher person, sharpened his focus. He’s such a unique personality — easily the most candid, jovial, guileless college athlete I’ve ever covered. But this year, he’s a little more guarded, a little edgier. Franklin’s teammates seem to respond to this side of him much better. He’s this team’s unquestioned leader and has been absolutely unflappable in the face of any adversity on the field. But he’s playing well enough that there hasn’t been much adversity to overcome.
3. Everyone heard about Dorial Green-Beckham last year, but he ended up having a quiet freshman year. He's off to a better start now, but the Tigers have multi-pronged threats at receiver and tailback. Will they continue to spread it around?
Matter: They’re better when they get multiple weapons involved. Green-Beckham’s the best raw athlete among the receivers, but he’s not necessarily the most polished playmaker. The offense is much more dangerous when Franklin is throwing deep to L’Damian Washington, one of the fastest players on the team, and throwing slants and screens to Marcus Lucas, a 6-5 rangy receiver with great hands. Green-Beckham can win most 1-on-1 matchups but isn’t the best moving through traffic. Going back to the Chase Daniel-Jeremy Maclin days, this offense is always better when there’s a steady balance between the three or four receivers. That’s the case again with this group.
4. Missouri has allowed 11 sacks, a number that sticks out a bit considering the competition. What's the state of the offensive line?
Matter: It’s much improved from last season — drastically. Two of the sacks came on a disastrous series with Maty Mauk at quarterback. A handful of the other sacks were coverage sacks, more a result of Franklin being too picky waiting for receivers to get open. Otherwise, the pass-blocking has been impressive, especially against Vanderbilt, which blitzed constantly last week. Four of the five starters have started every game and played virtually every snap. The only turnover’s been at left guard, where Max Copeland missed two starts with a sprained ankle but has since rejoined the lineup.
5. Missouri's pass defense ranks last in the SEC (293.8 yards per game) but its run defense is third (118.6). How much is that a reflection of the actual strength and weakness of the defense, and how much is it just that Missouri has been ahead in all its games, forcing the offense to throw?
Matter: Indiana and Vanderbilt put up some second-half passing yardage when they were both well behind on the scoreboard, and that inflated the stats to some degree. Thirty-nine percent of Missouri’s opponents’ passing yardage has come with Missouri ahead by more than two touchdowns. Still, this defense’s specialty is rushing the passer without having to blitz. MU’s seven sacks at Vanderbilt came almost exclusively with a three-man defensive line and eight defenders in coverage. Toledo and Arkansas State both had success throwing short passes in the flat that negated the pass rush and capitalized on shoddy tackling. Otherwise, Missouri’s bend-but-don’t-break style has been fairly successful.
6. Defensively, senior DE Michael Sam has been a breakout player this year, with a couple three-sack games, and he's been the SEC defensive lineman of the week two straight times. But if Georgia focuses its blocking on Sam, who else can Missouri use to pressure Aaron Murray?
Matter: Other than receiver, this team’s deepest position is defensive end. Kony Ealy hasn’t been as disruptive, but he can shift inside and play tackle on passing downs. He’s also deadly deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage. (He picked off a pass at the line of scrimmage at Indiana and returned it for a touchdown.) Markus Golden, a backup converted linebacker, has been effective off the edge, along with backups Shane Ray and Brayden Burnett.
7. Finally, what are the two or three keys for Mizzou if it's going to pull off the upset?
Matter: Missouri can’t afford turnovers. The offense is at its best when it’s in a groove and not stopping itself. The defense needs some early stops and can’t let Georgia’s backup playmakers get too comfortable. Stops on first and second down will give the defense chances to do what it does best, turn loose its edge rushers. A couple impact plays on special teams would be helpful. Missouri hasn’t gotten return specialist Marcus Murphy free for a big return yet. Now’s a an ideal time to change that.
Please plan to stop by for my live chat Friday at 1 p.m. to discuss the Georgia-Missouri game further.