Three days from now we'll be waking up in 2015. Some will be fuzzy-eyed in their very own sleep number beds at home, others will be in Orlando. ALL of us will be experiencing heart palpitations between the previous night's activities and the upcoming Citrus Bowl.
JDMill: The Missouri Defense ranks in the top 40 in the nation in just about every defensive statistic that isn't advanced (please send my apologies to Bill C.) 38th in Pass D, 30th in Run D, 26th in Scoring D, 23rd in Total D, making it seem like the Tigers are a pretty solid all-around defensive unit. For those of us that haven't watched much Missouri football in 2014, give us an overall view of the defense and what you think the strength and any potential weaknesses of the defense are.
Jack Peglow: The Missouri defense is the reason that the Tigers were able to win as many games as they did this year. If it were not for them keeping things close enough to snatch a few victories from the jaws of defeat, the season could have been significantly different. For Mizzou, it all starts up front. The names most people should already be familiar with are Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the two talented defensive ends that will do their very best to wreak as much havoc in Minnesota's backfield as they have in pretty much every backfield they've been presented with this year. Those two have combined for 22.5 sacks and 37 tackles for loss, they're going to get theirs. They are certainly not the only two dangerous players on the Missouri defensive line, though. Shift your gaze to the interior, and you won't find much of a drop in talent. The tackle-trio of Matt Hoch, Harold Brantley, and Lucas Vincent are not players to overlook, even though their companions on the ends of the line make that an easy task. They do a fantastic job of clogging the inside running lanes, as well as collapsing the inside of the pocket on passing downs. Mizzou also boasts a pair of tackling-machine 2000s at linebacker. Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer have over 200 tackles between them, thanks to some quick feet and athleticism as well as the system that Missouri employs.
Mizzou's plan will be to use its freakishly fast ends to funnel David Cobb inside where either the wide-bodies inside or the linebackers can make a play. The Tigers have used this formula quite successfully throughout the season. Only three teams have been able to rush for more than 200 yards against them, and it took each of them 50, 58, and 49 carries to do so. Cobb will likely get his, but it's going to take more carries than he's used to in order to do so. If Minnesota wants to take advantage of the Mizzou defense's weak spot, they're going to have to put the ball in the air. The secondary is by far the worst position group on the defensive side of the ball. Admittedly, that's due in large part to how good the other position groups are, but it's still a fact. Braylon Webb is a senior strong safety and a team captain, but beyond him the secondary is young and mistake-prone. Fortunately, the Gophers haven't shown that they can pass to win, so at least we have that going for us.
JD: On the flip side, the Missouri offense ranks 75th or worse in the correlating offensive categories. 61st in Rushing O, 96th in Passing O, 103rd in Total O, 77th in Scoring O. What would you say is the identity of this offense? What do they do well and what are they not so hot at?
JP: Offensively, Mizzou is going to do its very best to stay out of its own way. The Tigers are well aware of the fact that the defense is the strength of the team, so the offense is going to limit mistakes, run the ball, and (hopefully) make just enough plays to build a lead. It's an identity that they didn't adopt until about halfway through the season, but once they committed to it the offense really started to click. Maty Mauk seemed to be more confident in the pocket, and the running game flourished alongside him. Now, it is possible that Mauk doesn't play as well in the bowl thanks to the loss of Jimmie Hunt. Mauk's off-games usually coincided with absences in the receiving core, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect him to have a less-than-optimal showing.
Mizzou's offense is at its worst when Mauk is frazzled. If Minnesota can get pressure on him early, it will more than likely lead to a few mistakes. It's on the Gophers to make sure those are big mistakes and not little mistakes, but if they can capitalize then Missouri will be in real hot water. Luckily for Mauk, his go-to guy, All-SEC WR Bud Sasser, will still be there if Maty finds himself in a pinch.
The Tigers will want to get that ground game rolling, and they'll do so by testing the waters early to see if it's going to be Russell Hansbrough or Marcus Murphy that's finding success. Hansbrough has more yards on the year, but Offensive Coordinator Josh Henson has shown that he has no qualms playing the hot hand. If it ends up being Murphy who's finding lanes to run against the Gophers, expect to see him get more carries. Minnesota needs to keep the Tiger rushing game from hitting high-gear if they want to win. Fail to do that, and it'll be tough keeping Mizzou's offense off the field, which leads to a well-rested Tiger defense, which leads to very, very bad things for Minnesota's offense.
JD: Some of the similarities from a statistical standpoint are pretty interesting between the Gophers and the Tigers. Both teams have a better defensive unit than an offensive unit. Both teams outscore their opponents by roughly 6 points/game. On (very elementary) paper, it appears that this will be a game where two good defenses cause two mediocre offenses to struggle in a game where special teams could come into play. Give us an overview of the Tigers special teams unit.
JP: I think I speak for most Mizzou fans when I say that the scenario you just provided - a close, hard-fought game that comes down to special teams play - is EXACTLY what we want to see. For argument's sake, let's say that both teams are dead evenly matched offensively and defensively, leaving it to special teams to break the tie. In this scenario, Missouri smiles and hands the reins to SEC Special Teams Player of the Year and All-American Marcus Murphy. He's the only player in the FBS to have scored a touchdown in all four all-purpose categories (rushing, receiving, kickoff return, and punt return), and he is Mizzou's career special teams touchdown leader with seven. Needless to say, he's a threat to score every time the Gophers kick the ball to him.
On the kicking side of things, the Andrew Baggett vs. Ryan Santoso battle is basically a push. Both make 69.6 and 64.7 percent of their field goals as well as 95.2 and 97.7 percent of their extra points, respectively. Baggett can boom it - he made two 50+ yard field goals against Arkansas to keep Mizzou in the game in the first half - which could prove to be the difference between the two, aside from experience.