LEXINGTON, Ky. — Watching the Missouri-Kentucky broadcast on the SEC Network, one line from play-by-play commentator Taylor Zarzour stood out.
“As long as he holds onto it,” said Zarzour as Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. gashed the Tigers for a 12-yard gain late in the fourth quarter, “he plows forward every time.”
When all was said and done in Mizzou’s 35-28 loss to the Wildcats on Saturday, Rodriguez Jr. totaled 206 yards on his 27 carries, leading the way for a rushing offense that amounted for 340 of Kentucky’s 519 total yards. Missouri fought back from a 21-7 deficit, as Jaylon “JC” Carlies forced a Rodriguez Jr. fumble just outside the Tiger goal line with less than two minutes left in the first half. An 80-yard drive capped off by a 17-yard touchdown pass from Connor Bazelak to Keke Chism left the Tigers down 21-14 at halftime.
But, the Missouri offense couldn’t complete the comeback. Kentucky responded to Tyler Badie’s game-tying 17-yard touchdown pass with a five-play touchdown drive to retake the lead. After Blaze Alldredge blocked a field goal late in two minutes left and gave the Tigers new life, Bazelak and company turned the ball over on downs in UK territory to seal the game.
“I’m proud of my football team,” said head coach Eliah Drinkwitz after the game. “Really friggin’ proud of them. I mean, they fought their butt off in a hostile crowd. You know, didn’t start the way we wanted to, the second half didn’t start the way we wanted it to. They freaking fought their butt off, blocked the field goal and gave us a chance to win the game. We didn’t get it done, but there’s no reason to hang our heads, no reason to panic.”
Here’s the key takeaways from the Tigers’ tough effort against Kentucky and from the rest of the college football world in week two.
Mizzou’s offense is potent when well-equipped
The Missouri offense kept up with Kentucky’s scoring all night, never letting the lead grow larger than 14 points. Bazelak finished the night with 294 passing yards and four touchdown passes, including two to tight end Daniel Parker Jr. on a couple of fantastic play calls from Drinkwitz.
That second Bazelak-to-Parker touchdown stood out, coming after Bazelak’s sole interception led to a Kentucky touchdown that put them up 28-14 in the third quarter.
“The [line]backer didn’t bite on it, he made a really nice play on it,” said Bazelak, regarding Jacquez Jones’ interception on a play-action throw across the middle toward Chism. “Should’ve just hit the checkdown like I was doing all day. But, you know, you learn from those things, and we responded super well after they went down and scored… I think that’s a good thing.”
The offensive line made significant improvements in week two, holding the Wildcats to zero sacks until J.J. Weaver went untouched on the right edge to bring down Bazelak on the final third down of the Tigers’ last drive. Bazelak showed no fear in spreading the ball around in an unfamiliar environment and an opposing sold-out SEC stadium, and Drinkwitz was proud of the decisions his quarterback made all game.
“He did enough to keep us in the game,” said Drinkwitz. “Obviously, I wish we had the interception back. It was a bad play call. I thought he did a nice job managing, you know, some of the aggressiveness. We took it down the field, and he took checkdowns, he did a nice job managing it with the feet. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t good enough.”
Drinkwitz also took the blame for the play calling on the last drive, where Bazelak wasn’t operating at 100% because of lingering effects from a hit in the first quarter. Bazelak said he’ll be “all good for next week,” which is reassuring. He captains an offensive attack that can employ a variety of guys to produce. While the rushing attack hopes to improve moving forward, Bazelak once again showed he can be an arm to rely on late.
Turnovers shape the game defensively
Kentucky could’ve taken a 28-7 lead if not for Carlies’ forced fumble and Chad Bailey’s recovery right before the end of the half. That obviously would’ve had a dramatic impact on the outcome of the game, and the Tigers almost wiped another score off the board when Devin Nicholson forced a Rodriguez fumble at the one-yard-line, but Eli Cox beat out Trajan Jeffcoat on the race to the football and secured it in the end zone for the touchdown.
“He’s really stepping into his role, and he’s becoming a great player for our defense,” said Martez Manuel about Carlies, who was responsible for both of Mizzou’s takeaways (interception on a tipped pass at the onset of the second quarter). “A lot of fun to play next to him… nothing but positive things to say about JC.”
It was good to see fumble luck turn around after the Tigers were unable to recover either forced fumble last week against Central Michigan, and Alldredge’s blocked field goal kick nearing the end of the game put the Tigers in position to at least tie things up. But, the Tigers will need the defense to continue to flip possession in their favor, and the turnovers were crucial in keeping Mizzou in the ballgame against the Wildcats.
Defensive front hasn’t performed
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks took responsibility for the Tigers’ slow defensive start, noting a personnel mistake on the first play of the game (a 64-yard run by Wan’Dale Robinson). But, that was just the start for a run defense that had no answers for Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke.
“It’s tackling, it’s bad eyes, you know, it’s gap integrity, it’s beating the man across from you, it’s a lot of different factors that have to get cleaned up and fixed,” said Drinkwitz. “As poor as we did stopping the run, we still had an opportunity to win the game at the end of the game, and you know, I think taking away from that game was we’ve got to find one more play… whether that’s on the offensive side of the ball, whether that’s as a coach making a better play call, or whether that’s on defense… several of the runs that led to big runs were after third-down conversions, where we didn’t keep contain and the quarterback scrambled, or [we] didn’t have the proper zone drop or didn’t play aggressive enough in our man-to-man coverage.”
Interior runs were a staple of the Kentucky offensive production throughout the game, as Rodriguez hit his holes and broke into the second level on a lot of his carries. Linebacker depth continues to be a concern, although Alldredge and Nicholson led the team in tackles with 13 and 8, respectively. There hasn’t been a third guy who’s made a big impact on run-personnel sets. Chad Bailey saw significant run toward the end of the first half and made some tackles, but he didn’t see the field down the stretch.
“We really wish we were playing five guys at linebacker, but the truth is nobody has stepped up in practice to show they deserve the opportunity,” said Drinkwitz. “We would love not to be giving up 340 yards rushing, so other people will play when they earn the opportunity to play.”
It wasn’t just the run defense, though, that caused problems. Although Mizzou held Will Levis in check to just 10 of 18 passing, Wan’Dale Robinson hauled in five balls for 101 yards and was the difference-maker for Kentucky when called upon. Surely that will become a staple throughout Kentucky’s campaign, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers couldn’t prevent him from doing damage.
But, Wilks insists that the mistakes are “self-inflicted,” hopeful that the Tiger defense can turn it around.
“We’ve got to do a great job of using our weapons and getting out of blocks,” he said. “You know, we can’t get engulfed. Our linebackers have to do a great job of playing downhill, trying to get the double-teams off, and we’ve got to do a great job up front staying in our gaps and not getting knocked out… on the outside, we’ve got to do a great job on the perimeter with the safeties and the corners setting edges on the defense, turning their backs inside to pursue, so there’s some things, again, schematically as a coach, that I can do better, and I’m challenging myself, again, to put these guys in a position to be successful. It’s overall effort by everybody.”
Boston College quarterback injures hand, will miss Mizzou game
The Eagles took a massive blow in their 45-28 win over UMass on Saturday, losing second-year starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec to a hand injury that required him to undergo surgery on Monday. Jurkovec attempted the most passes of any quarterback in the ACC last year, and filling in for him will be senior Dennis Grosel, who has starting experience dating back to 2019.
Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley is confident in Grosel’s ability to immediately succeed in the starting role.
“He’s one of the best leaders on the team, even as the backup quarterback,” said Hafley. “So when you have that in your backup, and he steps onto the field, guys don’t flinch. I know right now to the outside world, we’ll be the underdog. We’ll be, ‘Can they even win this many games?’ And, to our team, that doesn’t exist. Our expectation is the same no matter who’s out there. We will press on.”
The Eagles will travel to Philadelphia to take on the Temple Owls this weekend. BC is 2-0 this year with wins over Colgate and UMass.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have a break in their schedule this weekend with a home matchup against FCS foe Southeast Missouri State. Mizzou beat the Redhawks 50-0 in 2019 at Faurot Field.