COLUMBIA MISSOURI - OCTOBER 23: De'Vion Moore #26 of the Missouri Tigers looks to get past Travis Lewis #28 of the Oklahoma Sooners at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium on October 23 2010 in Columbia Missouri. The Tigers beat the Sooners 36-27. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Aside from the end result last year in Columbia, perhaps the most glaring issue in that game was the absolute lack of anything even remotely close to resembling pressure the Sooners were able to get (or not get as it was) on Blaine Gabbert. To that point, the OU defense did not record a sack the entire game and I'd venture to guess they never even got close enough to register a "QB pressure" either. It was an absolute horrid performance by the OU front four or simply an outstanding performance by the Mizzou front line, depending on which side of the M-I-Z-Z or O-U you happen to fall on.
What is different about this year is two fold. (1) The OU front four has been outstanding through two games and (2) the Mizzou o-line lost arguably its two best players (C Tim Barnes to the NFL and LT Elvis Fisher to a season ending knee injury). The replacement for Barnes, Travis Ruth, is returning from a partially torn Achilles and saw just limited action last week for the first time this year. We saw last week in FSU, a team with some issues on the interior of their line and how the OU DTs were able to take advantage on multiple occasions by blowing up run plays with penetration. QB James Franklin is a much better runner than Gabbert ever was and that might be a good thing, because if the Sooners front four and exploit what appears to be a match-up in their favor Franklin might be running for his life Saturday night. Not only will pass protection be key, so to will the Tigers ability to run the ball. The odds of them winning this game going in are against them, but if they are not able to run the ball with any success things get infinitely worse for them. On the plus side for Mizzou however, through a variety of circumstances, they appear to have found a real threat at the RB position in Henry Josey. Coming off a huge game against Western Illinois, Josey is a big play threat out of the backfield who will just need the tiniest of seams Saturday to turn a average play into a big gain. Containing him and the Mizzou run game in general will go a long way towards the Sooners removing any doubt from this one early.
Maintain your contain. Franklin is not much different than E.J. Manuel from last week in terms of a threat to run with the ball, however I think it's fair to say that he's probably a bigger threat to break repeated long runs. He's not as big as Manuel, but he is faster so if he's able to get behind the defense they're not likely to catch him. That said, in a hard hitting game last week the Sooners were able to knock a 245 pound QB out of the game so it's fair to question how a 220 pound Franklin might hold up if he's asked to run it repeatedly. The fear of the OU defense however is getting to far up field in the rush or not maintaining your rush lanes and giving Franklin a crease to take off. And make no mistake, he won't need much of one before he tucks it and runs. This is always the fear for an OU defense who has historically struggled against this type of QB, so once again it will be interesting to see how Venables chooses to defend him. I expected more of a spy technique last week with Manuel and in reviewing the game don't ever really remember seeing it. So will they choose to go that route against Franklin?
Force Franklin to throw. I seriously doubt this is news to Mizzou fans and something I'm sure they expect to hear from here on out. The simple fact of the matter is Franklin has been inconsistent (and that's putting it kindly) in the pass game, more specifically his accuracy. Again, and it's really scary how similar this week's game is compared to last week against FSU, this is almost exactly what we heard last week in regards to E.J. Manuel. Therefore, you can expect Oklahoma to look to shut down the run game and force Franklin to beat them with his arm. Mizzou will likely look to get him going in the pass game early on with some short to intermediate passes to help build some confidence, so I'd expect the OU DBs to be sitting on the short routes. The drawback to this is how that aggressiveness has come back to bite the defense at times through the first two games. Hopefully they've learned from those mistakes as it might take just one long pass to give Franklin some confidence in what is sure to be a hostile environment.
Travis Lewis' toe. After making a miraculous comeback last week against FSU, there were reports earlier in the week seemingly questioning his availability for Saturday. He is expected to play, but surely coming down off the high that was Florida State could have an impact on just how good that toe really feels now a week later. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Mizzou tries to target him some in coverage. It's no secret that this team still struggles to defend the short crossing stuff over the middle, so expect Mizzou to try and test him with Egnew, Moe, or any others if they can get the match-up. That said, it's not like Travis wasn't a part of that game last year in Columbia and being in his senior year and in front of his home crowd after a three week hiatus, it's probably fair to say he won't have a problem getting up for this one either. Best case scenario, OU gets up early and can pull him to both get him some rest and get Corey Nelson some more snaps at WLB.
Tom Wort's rising star. Aside from a very small handful of plays through the first two games, Tom Wort has been everything OU fans could have (and were demanding to be) asked for. James Franklin though presents a considerable challenge and will be a good test for the Sooners MLB. Will Wort be disciplined enough not to get sucked up into the play and give Franklin the edge or lanes up the middle? Will he avoid over committing on a play and giving Franklin a cut back big gainer? With how many times Franklin is likely to run, will Wort be able to catch him and give him the Davey Boy Smith a.k.a. The British Bulldog?
Will there be any busted coverages this week? It's been really the only black mark on the defense so far. Can they tighten things up this against a QB this week who they're not likely to pose as a serious threat to beat them deep? Or will that belief come back to bite them by playing to close and not respecting the Mizzou WRs to get behind them and Franklin to complete those passes? I really think they'll go in thinking the former, so it will be key to not get lazy and let a guy sneak behind them. Because while Franklin isn't the most consistent passer by far, it's also not like the guy can't throw it down field. He's got a pretty strong arm and while it might not be all that accurate, if he can hang on up there it's certainly not inconceivable that a wide open Mizzou WR couldn't run under it.
This is a defense that looks to be on a mission this year and that is a very, very good thing. However these are the kind of games where if that is in fact the case, you don't let up and rather than giving what's considered to be an over matched opponent any hope, you instead step on their throat from the opening kick. If this is the defense we saw last week against FSU, then I think Mizzou is in serious trouble. If however this is a defense who got amped up for a top five match-up and has a let down in front of their home crowd, well then I think you have to ask which is closer to what we can expect for the rest of this year. So, in short I think we learn a lot about this defense Saturday night. It's easy to get up for the big ones like last week, but can you do it on a week in/week out basis? Because that's what it's gonna take to bring home #8 boys!