Mizzou football returns to in-conference competition with a home matchup against the Tennessee Volunteers, and both programs are searching for win number one in the SEC East.
The Tigers and Vols are 0-1 in conference play, Mizzou having lost to Kentucky and Tennessee falling to Florida last weekend. Former Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Heupel returns to Columbia as the Vols head coach, and the quick pace that marked his offenses in both Missouri and Central Florida is a staple of the game plan that the Tigers are expecting.
“I think it’s really different from anything we’ve seen this season,” Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “They really do a nice job of attacking grass in space. They run the football. I think the misnomer is that they just throw it all around the park. They really run it a lot.”
The two reasons for that exist in the Tennessee backfield, as Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small lead the team in scrimmage yards and can easily make guys miss, such as when Evans scampered for a 47-yard screen pass touchdown against Florida. They are both integral parts of an offense with a lot of moving parts.
That versatility comes with the quarterback situation, as both Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker can execute the run-pass option and use their speed to their advantage. Milton, who is recovering from an injury picked up in the Vols’ loss to Pittsburgh, is expected to draw the start over Hooker, who suffered an injury in the fourth quarter against Florida and may not be available against Missouri.
Regardless of personnel, though, Drinkwitz needs his defense on the same page when Tennessee comes out blazing.
“Defense is about communication,” he said. “You’ve got to see the call, get in position, make sure your eyes are on your keys and then react accordingly, and when somebody is snapping the ball every — three plays every 60 seconds, you know, there’s a lot of opportunities for error, and they capitalize on those errors.”
Tennessee is second in the SEC this year with 77.7 plays per game, while the Tigers are second-to-last in the SEC in scoring defense and second-to-last in the FBS in rushing defense. It will be a challenge for Mizzou to keep up with the pace, but the Tigers’ focus all year has been being physically ready for whatever confronts them.
“It’s kind of hard to get in shape in, like, a week, but our whole fall camp has been predicated on being in shape,” said Missouri safety Shawn Robinson, who was the starting quarterback in the 35-12 loss to Tennessee last season. “So, obviously, we’re going to have to get our eyes over to the sideline to get the calls really quickly, because they go up-tempo and they do not stop, but we’ll be ready.”
Mizzou will look to pressure whoever possesses the pocket. The Vols have given up an SEC-worst 13 sacks through their first four games, in contrast to Mizzou’s three sacks allowed through four. The Tigers haven’t given up a sack since the Kentucky game, even with the lingering health issues with team captain Case Cook, a main reason for the success of the Mizzou passing game.
The Tigers will be without Mookie Cooper and Darius Robinson this week, tough blows to Bazelak’s ability to utilize the deep ball and to a thin defensive line that has struggled to succeed when healthy. Barrett Banister, Niko Hea and Case Cook remain questionable going into tomorrow’s matchup at Faurot Field, which kicks off at 11 a.m. CST and will be televised on SEC Network. For two 2-2 teams, this game has massive implications for postseason bowl qualification efforts, especially considering that SEC play is only beginning to gear up.