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West Virginia Mountaineers vs Missouri Tigers - Season 127, Episode 2 - Caution: Cornered Animal

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The Mountaineers travel to Columbia to do battle with a Tigers squad that'll be looking to rebound after a season opening loss to Wyoming.

NCAA Football: James Madison at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

When/Where

Date: September 7th, 2019

Time: 12pm EST

Venue: Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium - Columbia, MO

How To Watch/Listen

TV: ESPN2

Streaming: ESPN app

Radio: Find the best place to listen HERE

Degenerates Unite

Spread: West Virginia +12

Over/Under: 65

This is the first time West Virginia has been a 10+ point underdog in a non-conference game since 2014 when it played Nick Saban’s death machine, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

#ThreadWatch

West Virginia: Blue lids. White jerseys. Gold britches.

2/2. Neal's batting .1000.

Missouri: White helmet. Black shirts. White britches.

Edited. These are sharp.

Know The Enemy

Series History: (3-3). Our series with the Tigers is currently all square at 3 wins apiece after we beat them 26-11 in Morgantown to open the 2016 campaign.

2019 Record: (0-1). Do not be one of the people who are taking Missouri’s season opening loss to Wyoming at face value - the Tigers very nearly overcame a classic "everything went wrong for them" game that featured two red zone turnovers and a third in their own half that was returned for a touchdown. We shouldn't expect them to repeat those mistakes this weekend in Columbia.

Head Coach: Barry Odom. Odom is now in his fourth year at his alma mater and has all the makings of a Tiger lifer. He appears to have the program heading in the right direction, as well, with back-to-back bowl appearances in 2017 and 2018.

Offensive Coordinator: Derek Dooley. Dooley is now in his second season on Columbia after spending the previous four as the wide receivers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. He did well with Drew Lock, so the trick will now be to continue that success with Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant.

Defensive Coordinator: Ryan Walters. Walters is now in his fifth season overall at Mizzou, but it's just his second as sole defensive coordinator after sharing duties during the previous two campaigns. His first season in charge saw marked improvement in both scoring and total defense, so we'll see if he can continue that trend in 2019.

By The Numbers

The sample sizes are still a bit small to break out my trusty radar charts, but here are a few numbers that caught my eye while doing my research for this week..

0 - The number of explosive runs (10+ yards) that WVU generated last week against JMU, making us one of only five teams in the country that failed to do so. The other four lost.

6 - The number of plays out of Wyoming's 58 that the Tigers created havoc on last week. That's good for a Havoc Rate of 10.3%, which would've landed them in the bottom 5 nationally in 2018.

52 - The number of explosive passes (20+ yards) that Missouri allowed last year with mostly the same secondary and a stronger pass rush.

Those last two make me think we should be able to attack some down the field, provided we're able to improve upon the first.

When We Have The Ball...

WVU players to watch: QB Austin Kendall, C Josh Sills, LG Mike Brown, RG Chase Behrndt, RT Kelby Wickline

Mizzou players to watch: NT Jordan Elliot, LB Cale Garrett, CB DeMarkus Acy, CB Christian Holmes, S Tyree Gillespie

Missouri's defense has been something of a roller coaster ride since those fantastic units of 2014 and 2015. 2016 saw them drop from 5th and 6th in scoring and total defense all the way down to 89th and 118th, respectively, which they then followed up with a similarly porous 93rd/83rd performance in 2017. However, they rebounded nicely in 2018 under Ryan Walters, and despite losing two of their most disruptive players from that unit in Terry Beckner Jr and Terez Hall, they return enough talent and experience at key positions that you'd expect them to be just fine again in 2019.

Structurally they've transitioned from a base 4-3 to more of a 4-2-5 look, while strategically their strong Defensive Success Rate and relatively weak IsoPPP numbers suggest that they play fairly aggressively, even if that aggressiveness doesn't often manifest itself into negative plays. As for their personnel, they're anchored up front by a very good interior trio featuring All-SEC performer Jordan Elliot, Akial Byers, and Kobe Whiteside. Elliot is undoubtedly the ringleader, but all three are known entities that played big roles in a stout run defense last year (22nd nationally in yards per game, 16th in explosive runs allowed). Unfortunately the guys flanking them on the edge haven't yet been able to match that standard. The rotation, which includes Chris Turner, Jatorian Hansford, Tre Williams, Franklin Agbasimere, and Isaiah McGuire, is not without promise, but as a group they combined for just 10.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks in 2018. They really need somebody (or ideally multiple somebodies) to step up and start turning that promise into production.

The main man in the second level is again middle linebacker Cale Garrett. Garrett was a 1st team All-SEC performer in 2018, and after registering 16 tackles last weekend he seems to destined to finish top 5 in the conference in tackles for a third consecutive season. Next to him will be nearly-as-active sophomore Nick Bolton, who chipped in last weekend with 9 stops of his own. It's crucial that we get hats on these two this week.

Their secondary seems to be about on par with ours in that they got beat deep a bit last year but should now hopefully be that much better for it? Or something? Either way, both corners (Acy and Holmes) are back and got their hands on lots of balls last year, and the emergence of sophomore Jarvis Ware has now given them a third starter-level option on the outside. On the back end, Joshuah Bledsoe seems locked in at free safety while Tyree Gillespie is one of the most active players on the entire defense from their version of our Cat, finishing 3rd on the team in tackles in 2018. The third spot, a hybrid box safety role comparable to our Spear, seems to be a two-man rotation for now with both Khalil Oliver and Ronnell Perkins seeing time.

Defining success: Can we please get some physicality? Anybody??

A lot of people seem to be pointing at the Wyoming box score and taking the 297 rushing yards they were able to rack up last week as evidence that we too should be able to find joy, but again those folks are missing some critical context - namely that Wyoming has 6'3 220lb thoroughbred Sean Chambers at QB and we, uh, don't. Almost all of Wyoming's success came either directly from Chambers' legs or the threat they imposed, and as optimistic as I am about the foundation that Austin Kendall laid last week, the zone read and improvisational scrambling are simply not his forte.

That being said, I still think the key for us this week is to establish the run. Missouri’s ineffectual pass rush and historical vulnerability to explosive plays through the air makes me think that we’ll again have some opportunities to attack downfield in the passing game, but for our own sanity we really need to go out there and prove to ourselves that we can push around a real football team if and when we need to. Last week's 34-yard outburst was our worst performance since Utah in 2017 and the 5th fewest yards we've registered in the last decade, and that's simply inexcusable given the talent in our backfield. On my rewatch it honestly looked like some of our lineman expected JMU to simply accept that they were blocked and let us on our merry way, so I was pleased to see both Neal Brown and Matt Moore call that out and assure us that it's a point of emphasis this week. We don't need to come out and run it like '95 Nebraska, but sustaining some blocks and generating some early movement against an SEC defense will do wonders for our confidence level on both sides of the ball.

When They Have The Ball...

West Virginia players to watch: DT Dante Stills, NT Darius Stills, DE Taijh Alston, Bandit Quondarius Qualls, LB Josh Chandler

Mizzou players to watch: QB Kelly Bryant, RB Larry Rountree III, APB Tyler Badie, WR Johnathan Johnson, TE Albert Okwuegbunam

Mizzou's offense has quietly been one of the better units in the country over the past few years. New OC Derek Dooley slowed things down a bit in 2018 but was no less effective, averaging 36.6 points (18th nationally) and 481.8 yards per game (13th). Dooley walked into a pretty nice QB situation with NFL-bound senior Drew Lock, and unfortunately for us the guy running the show this year is every bit as talented.

If we're being objective, Kelly Bryant's departure from Clemson had much more to do with Trevor Lawrence being Football Jesus than any of his own personal shortcomings, and we shouldn't forget how he amassed 3467 total yards and 24 touchdowns while leading the (former) Tigers on a 12-2 campaign in 2017. He can occasionally be a bit careless with the ball, but last weekend he still looked every bit the dual-threat that he ever was, throwing for 423 yards and moving around really well both on designed runs and as a scrambler.

The running backs are both really good and they'll play them together frequently. Larry Rountree III is the more traditional of the two and went for 1200+ yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore last year. He's a hard runner with a low center of gravity who kind of reminds me of a middle class man's David Montgomery. Tyler Badie is more of an all-purpose type, and in my opinion he's the scariest dude on their offense. He'll get his share of traditional handoffs, but they also do a really good job of moving him around with various types of motion and finding creative ways to get him touches on sweeps, options, and swing passes.

As for the remaining skill guys, the best of the bunch is All-American tight end Albert Okwuegbunam who will reportedly be much more involved this week. Albert caught 43 passes for 466 yards and 6 touchdowns last year and will likely be an early round draft pick whenever he decides to leave. Out wide, the primary target is elusive slot man Johnathan Johnson, but Kam Scott, Jalen Knox, and Arkansas transfer Jonathan Nance are all viable big play threats.

Up front they appear to be pretty solid and had a pair of guys (the left tackle and the right guard) receive some preseason All-Conference hype, and really on paper the offense as a whole profiles as a bigger, stronger, faster unit than the one that gave us early trouble last week.

Defining Success: Mitigate Bryant's legs, get off the field

Mizzou was 58/32 run/pass in the first half last week before they went into comeback mode, which makes me think they want to run the ball if they can. They pulled guards and picked up yards with power from a couple different formations, but I thought they were most dangerous running zone read out of the pistol with 12 personnel, with Okwuegbunam sliding across the formation to kick out the defensive end. This concept also turned into a nifty little play action pass once or twice with Okwuegbunam sliding passed the end and into the flats.

We have to assume that they'll probably watch the JMU game film, right? If I'm them, I'm basically trying to emulate what the Dukes did to us in the first half last weekend, packaging that zone read with a dash of RPO and hammering it until we show them that we can stop it. I think that's what we'll come out looking to do, and it'll be interesting to see how our front six holds up, especially on the interior where the Stills bros will be battling their All-Conference guard.

Equally imperative to stopping the run though is what we do afterwards. If and when we do get them behind the sticks, we have to finish drives and get off the field. Bryant doesn’t appear to run particularly hard, but he's an undeniably good athlete and we absolutely can not let him scramble around and extend plays and drives with his legs the way Ben DiNucci did last weekend. Allowing him to do so is a recipe for disaster.

I don't mean to downplay the problems presented by Bryant’s arm and those pass catching weapons, by the way. Okwuegbunam is a legitimate first round talent, Badie is a really dangerous guy to lose out of the backfield, and all four of their receivers can make plays after the catch. I just happen to think that stopping the run, and especially mitigating the threat of Bryant's legs, are the first boxes that need checked.

Special Teams

The Tigers have a decent specialist in Tyler McCann, who will now handle punting duties in addition to place kicking and kickoffs. McCann only made 73% of his 34 field goal attempts in 2018, but with a long of 57 he certainly has a big leg. In the return game, both the aforementioned Badie and Richaud Floyd are explosive, with the latter nearly breaking one late in the Wyoming game.

Closing Argument/Prediction

I've said it repeatedly throughout this preview and I'll say it again here - do not let Missouri's loss color your opinion of their team or your expectations for the outcome of this game. Are they beatable? Obviously. Are they going to repeat last week's comedy of errors this week at home? Highly unlikely. And don't forget - we were on the other side of a 3/0 turnover margin and barely pulled out a win against FCS James Madison. We're going to need to be substantially better than we were last week to even cover. Fortunately though, I think we have that in us.

First, I think our passing game was really close to having a nice day against JMU. Austin Kendall missed a couple of deep balls and maybe threw to the wrong guy once or twice, but the important thing is that the guys were open, and for reasons detailed above I think we'll have some of those same opportunities this week.

Second, I have to believe that our running game literally cannot get any worse, even against a superior opponent.

The Tigers are probably going to move the ball on us, but I fully expect us to return the favor. I think we get enough from the running game to control the clock, hit enough big plays in the passing game to keep it close, and then steal it late, maybe even with a last second Evan Staley special.

West Virginia 30 27 Missouri