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Missouri's offense passing through a new phase

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 | 7:59 p.m. CST; updated 10:23 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 8, 2011

COLUMBIA — The bubble screen is simple. The quarterback takes the snap, and all but one of the wide receivers step up to block defensive backs. As soon as is prudent, the quarterback whips the ball out to the remaining receiver, who ideally uses the blocks to gain a chunk of yards after the catch.

TV announcers are prone to calling it "an extension of the running game." Really what the bubble screen does is attempt to get a player other than the running back out in the open field with the ball as quickly and as easily as possible.

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It's a play Missouri fans would easily recognize. They just haven't seen it as much in 2011.

A lot of the offense has changed for Missouri. For the first time under coach Gary Pinkel, the running back has become the pre-eminent star of the offense, not the quarterback.

Transitioning between quarterbacks is complicated. Different players do different things well. Pinkel is fond of saying that each of his quarterbacks has a different style both on and off the field.

Because of that and what opposing defenses have decided to do, the Missouri passing game has had a much different look in 2011.

Former Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the Tigers' starter in 2009 and 2010, had a big arm and could rifle the ball easily out to T.J. Moe or Michael Egnew on a bubble screen or 6-yard out almost at will. James Franklin doesn't have that luxury.

He does, however, have a luxury that Gabbert didn't have — a running back that leads the Big 12 Conference in rushing in Henry Josey.

"We're handing the ball to No. 20," Moe said. "We don't need to run the bubble if we can block their guys and Henry can go for 60."

With Josey averaging more than 8.5 yards per carry, it's easy to say now that the game plan all along was to run the football, and Franklin maintains that an increased focus on keeping the ball on the ground was a part of Missouri's mindset since the start of the season.

"We wanted to exploit the run a lot more," Franklin said. "The bubble was in there to kind of to protect the run some."

Franklin's distribution of the ball on pass plays has also been different from Gabbert's. Both had the same receivers — every player that caught a pass in 2010 returned for 2011 — but Franklin's completions aren't as dependent on one or two guys as Gabbert's were.

That, too, has been by design, according to offensive coordinator David Yost. In 2009, when Gabbert had now-St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danario Alexander to throw to, Yost's instructions were clear.

"He looked for him, and we told him to look for him," Yost said. "We said, 'Throw it to Danario any time you can.'"

Alexander racked up gaudy numbers in that system. He led the nation with 1,781 yards, was third in catches with 113 and tied for fourth in touchdowns with 14.

Last year Gabbert leaned on Moe and Egnew to be the workhorses. They caught 182 of the team's 312 total receptions in 2010.

Many expected that to be the case this season, but it hasn't been. Both are far below their pace from last season while young players like Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington have seen more passes come their way.

Yost said, though, that Moe and Egnew have been handling the transition well, and there are no hard feelings.

"T.J. and Michael have been great about it," Yost said. "For guys that have caught as many balls as they did last year, would they like the ball every time? Yes. But they don't ever walk into (receivers) coach Hill's office or my office or coach Pinkel's office and say, 'Hey, throw me the ball more.' It's, 'Whatever I can do to help the team.'"

What it comes down to, more than anything, as Pinkel, Yost and others said multiple times on Monday, is that Franklin is forced to make the best of the situation on each play.

"Bottom line is that it's a little bit of just what the defense has given us," Yost said.


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