It is always good to sit down and discuss football with the great Missouri blog, Rock M Nation. Unfortunately for Buff fans, it has not been as fun to play Missouri the past two years. We discuss everything from Blaine Gabbert's status, the mood back in Columbia and the dissapointments in the early season among other things.
The big question on everyone's mind is around the health of Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert. What is his status for Saturday and what is your opinion of his performance so far this year?
He'd been in a walking boot after the previous few games, but he was in an actual cast after the Texas game. That didn't exactly last long though, as the cast was gone Tuesday and Gabbert was back in the mix of things at practice. As for his performance this year, I apologize for the length, but allow me to copy exactly what I said to Burnt Orange Nation last week:
Gabbert's been a tale of two quarterbacks. In his first start at the college level, Gabbert was in complete control. He absolutely assaulted Illinois (25-of-33, 319 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) at a neutral site, although that victory must be accompanied by a disclaimer that explains how painfully putrid the Fightin' Zookers are this year. As insignificant as that win now seems, it did one important thing: It established that if teams were going to play the run and gamble on Gabbert to beat them in the air, he was more than capable of doing it.
The opposite was true the following week, when Bowling Green sold out in a Cover 4 to make the Missouri running game beat them. It eventually did, but not without a lot of hand wringing into the fourth quarter. During the rest of non-conference, Gabbert put up big numbers in limited time against Furman and lit up Nevada to the tune of 414 yards in his first true road game. This also happened to be the last time we saw him healthy. He was hurt early in the loss to Nebraska and hasn't been the same since.
His strength is clearly the howitzer that resides on his right arm. Missouri offensive coordinator David Yost said that in all the years he's been in the business, only Ryan Mallett has a stronger arm than Gabbert. And from what we've seen of him when healthy, he's not kidding. The kid will roll left, throw off balance against his body, flick the wrist, and watch the ball sail 70 yards. Overlooked, though, is his speed and mobility when he's healthy. Before the ankle injury, he showed deftness in the open field that combined with long strides to create one of Missouri's secret weapons when he decided to keep on the zone read. On top of that, he's been pretty aware in the pocket, as evidenced by the Nevada win in which he was avoiding rushers all night just to have the chance to put up ANY numbers, much less the 414 yards and three touchdowns that he did.
The weakness is still in the mental part of his game. Don't get me wrong, he seems like a bright guy and a student of the game, but he has a tendency to stare down his receivers. Usually, the strength of his arm allows him to get away with it, but one-legged Gabbert can't quite do that, especially against Big 12 competition. His second interception against Nebraska, during which he stared down a deep out, was particularly damaging.
What is the mood like in Columbia? You knew there would be some struggles losing a lot of productive players from a year ago but are people still believing the Big 12 North is up for grabs or have they scaled back their expectations?
It's odd because expectations really have been scaled back without any change in the potential payoff, if that makes sense. The sheer lunacy of the Big 12 North this year means that Missouri's 0-3 start isn't all that damaging to Missouri's aim at the North, especially with OSU and Texas now behind MU on the schedule.
Expectations shot through the roof after the win against Illinois, and those expectations are slowly crashing back to Earth after watching Mizzou struggle and Illinois quickly become the worst BCS conference team in the country.
But for all of Missouri's struggles, that Big 12 North crown is WIDE open if Missouri wins out. But that's a big "if," given Missouri's recent string of play. We'll know a lot more about Missouri's chances after Saturday.
What has been the biggest disappointment this season so far and what has been the biggest surprise?
The disappearance of the running game in the early season was far and away the biggest disappointment, especially because it really highlighted weaknesses in an offensive line that was supposed to be one of the North's best. Missouri returned three starters -- Elvis Fisher, Tim Barnes, and Kurtis Gregory -- and inserted a tackle -- Dan Hoch -- who was good enough last year to become the first true freshman offensive lineman ever to play under Gary Pinkel at Missouri. The running game is starting to come around a little bit, but the line's early struggles threw the Missouri fan base into an early minor panic.
I'm really not sure where to go with the biggest surprise. As much as people are looking at the last three games and crucifying the defense, it hasn't looked all that bad. There's a bit to be desired in the pass rush and the secondary had some high-profile breakdowns against Texas, but the unit has performed fairly admirably. Before the Texas debacle, the unit had avoided all of the breakdowns in communication that resulted in long play after long play for teams against MU in 2008.
Usually when we talk about Missouri it centers around the offense. Who are the playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and what do they need to do to get back on track after the past three opponents have put up 34 points a game on average?
The big name obviously is Sean Weatherspoon, but the backers at his side have been very, very solid in 2009. Luke Lambert has started at middle linebacker, but he's fought injuries all year long, which is unfortunate for him because Will Ebner has taken over and shows NO signs of ever giving the job back. Ebner is fantastic in pursuit, filling his gaps well and reading/blowing up screens perfectly on a consistent basis. He may be the hardest hitting linebacker in the Big 12 North, and a case could be made for him in that regard for the entire conference. The other backer is Andrew Gachkar, who has been particularly great on the blitz. He's been asked to be in coverage a lot, and was hung out to dry last week when he was asked to cover Jordan Shipley out of the slot pretty much all by himself.
The other name I need to bring up is Aldon Smith, who has separated himself from what people were calling a three-headed monster of him, Jacquies Smith, and Brian Coulter. His sack numbers aren't through the roof, but he's been the end that's gotten the most consistent pressure. More than anything, he always seems to get his hands in passing lanes if he can't get all the way upfield.
Where does Missouri have the advantage this weekend over the Buffs?
I can only hope Missouri will be more battle-tested after two weeks against Oklahoma State and Texas. Other than that, I don't know that I can say where the advantages are, simply because I have no idea which Colorado OR Missouri team will show up. Both teams have played on such far ends of the spectrum this year.
Colorado wins if Blaine Gabbert isn't accurate and the Colorado offense is as opportunistic off of turnovers as it was against Kansas.
Missouri wins if the Tigers protect the football and avoid the defensive meltdown that cost them against Texas.