Another ugly first quarter left the Tigers facing an uphill battle early on Saturday. Missouri’s opening drive was cut short after Connor Bazelak threw an interception inside their own territory, and Zach Calzada hit Ainias Smith on a third down from two yards out for the first score.
Missouri punted away their next drive, and it only took the Aggies five plays to go 89 yards for another touchdown. Isaiah Spiller found paydirt from 48 yards out, giving Texas A&M a 14-0 lead after just seven minutes had elapsed.
The Tigers offense failed to make it past midfield on their next drive before punting again. A&M answered with four double-digit runs (and a pass interference call against Shawn Robinson on third down) that made up an 84-yard A&M touchdown drive to put the Aggies up 21-0. The Tigers contained the Aggies to set up a 3rd-and-15 on the Missouri 20-yard-line, but Jimbo Fisher’s counter run play call worked flawlessly, as Devon Achane broke free and into the end zone.
The final complete drive of the first quarter was Missouri’s, and Texas A&M’s Antonio Johnson picked off Bazelak to regain possession inside Tiger territory.
After transcribing the first quarter, ugly might be an understatement – its unfolding cruelly parallel to the first quarter against Tennessee. The most telling stats of the first quarter: the Tigers defense allowed 152 rushing yards, and the Mizzou offense produced just three first downs.
The Tigers narrowed the Aggies’ lead to just two possessions in the second quarter after Tyler Badie carried Demani Richardson into the end zone on a 32-yard touchdown run, but the Aggies responded with a touchdown and entered halftime with a 28-7 lead and possession out of the break.
The second Missouri touchdown came after the Tiger defense forced a much-needed A&M three-and-out, and a seven-yard Dominic Lovett end around touchdown run capped off a 97-yard drive. However, A&M once again responded with a touchdown of their own, overcoming a 3rd-and-17 at midfield to set up a one-yard punch-in by Achane.
Missouri couldn’t put together a scoring drive after that, falling short in the effort to recoup big losses from the first quarter. The Tigers did what they could to keep things competitive, but they couldn’t string together a consecutive score and stop against an impressive team.
“Overall, just didn’t play well enough in really any of the three phases,” Missouri head football coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “Two turnovers on offense, multiple missed throws, holding penalties, defensively, third downs, sloppy play on special teams with two balls inside the 20. Hats off to A&M, but can’t overcome that. Before we can win a championship, we got to keep from beating ourselves. We weren’t able to do that today.”
Some key takeaways from the Missouri loss to Texas A&M:
Facing reality: Missouri is not a top team
Texas A&M is not a blowover in any capacity. Their rushing attack is truly impressive, and a strong defense really limited what the Tigers could do offensively, putting Mizzou in a lot of third-down situations with its stifling run defense.
Simply put, Missouri was outmatched in the first quarter, and mistakes kept them from fully getting back into the fold. Discipline came into play as the Tigers committed a season-high 13 penalties for over 100 yards. The FBS-worst run defense gave up 283 yards on the ground, which was enough to supplement Calzada’s 13-for-25 passing performance. Ainias Smith was the difference-maker for the Aggies, as his three catches resulted in two touchdowns and the big 3rd-and-17 conversion in the third quarter.
There were multiple moments where it looked like the Tigers set up a situation to turn the tides, but keeping it even wasn’t going to erase the first-quarter deficit.
“I was proud of the second half, the way they fought and how hard they played,” Drinkwitz said. “But before we can win a championship, we can’t beat ourselves. We got a chance to get healthy through the bye week, to re-evaluate who we are and then determine what we want to do for the next five games. We have five opportunities left to represent each other and represent this state and we really got to go back to work to improve.”
Lack of aggressive play calls
During Drinkwitz’s Texas A&M pregame press conference, he spoke about explosive plays being the top metric in determining the winner of games in college football. He outlined these explosive plays as rushes that gain 12 or more yards and passes that gain 16 or more yards, adding that he tries to implement schematics that would generate about 10 or so explosive plays per game.
Texas A&M generated 14 explosive plays to Mizzou’s four. Half of the A&M explosive plays were rushes in the first quarter, and only two of the 14 were passes. Tyler Badie and Tauskie Dove each contributed two explosive plays, Badie’s on his touchdown run and a perfectly executed screen design and Dove’s on two contested jump balls.
Drinkwitz has always maintained a balanced approach to his offensive play calls, but there wasn’t any urgency from his offensive coordination given the Tigers’ big deficit. He refuted the need to try and score on the Tigers’ final first-half drive, in which they ran out the clock starting on their own 18 with 1:28 left.
“We had the interception,” Drinkwitz said in regards to JC Carlies’ play to pick off Calzada (that was Carlies’ fourth takeaway of the season, extremely impressive for a first-year starter). “I thought we were gonna be out with some good field position. But we weren’t because of a penalty. I was trying to make sure they didn’t get the ball back because they had all three of their timeouts and they got the ball to start the second half. So, at that point, I believe it was 28-7 and they had just driven into the red zone and gotten a turnover. If we were to do something and give them the ball back and them get a chance to score then they would start the second half, the game would be over. I thought if we could go three-and-out and score, cut it to 14 and see how it played out, which is exactly how it played.”
But, the Tigers either didn’t have chances to be aggressive, or Drinkwitz decided against it. Javon Foster jumped early on a 4th and 1 during the first quarter when it looked like the Tigers may go for the conversion. On the drive following A&M’s touchdown to make it 35-14, Drinkwitz called a run to Tyler Badie on 3rd and 9, good for a 3-yard loss. The Tigers were 2 for 3 on fourth-down conversions, but these came too late in the game to do Mizzou much good.
Bazelak’s two interceptions really hurt the Tigers’ winning chances, one on a pass with too much air trying to hit Dove on a five-yard hitch, the other on a pass thrown a moment too late on a curl to Dove. These mistakes dig insurmountable holes, and Bazelak’s play will need to improve moving forward.
It also limits the playbook, as it seemed like Drinkwitz sometimes felt hesitant to entrust his quarterback to make deep throws. The two successful passes to Dove represented that he’s capable of doing that, so it’s hard to see where Drinkwitz is at, especially when he affirmed Bazelak’s role as the starter after the game.
Recruiting is going to shape the program
“Nobody is happy with the record,” Drinkwitz said. “Nobody is in there patting themselves on the back. Being 3-4, I get it. We’re all disappointed.”
Mizzou still faces a barrage of SEC teams after its upcoming bye week, including games against Georgia and Florida. But, especially without an opponent to prepare for this weekend, focus can shift to the future, and the effort of the team moving forward will be crucial in setting the tone for a program that’s trying to attract elite talent.
“We’re still fighting,” Drinkwitz said. “I thought today, the first quarter was unacceptable, but I thought the fight that our team showed was good. That’s what I tell recruits. Our team is fighting. We’ve got to continue to recruit at a high level. We’ve got to continue to develop the players that we have and continue to reinforce them with good recruits. There’s plenty of opportunities for those guys that we’re reinforcing.”
Tuesday is a big day as the nation’s top wide receiver recruit, Luther Burden, announces his commitment decision between Mizzou, Alabama and Georgia. While Burden isn’t the end-all-be-all for Mizzou, he’s certainly the best recruit they’re in contention for, and his commitment would send a jolt through the program and the rest of the recruiting world. The Tigers’ 2022 class currently sits at 14 guys, the most recent recruit being 6’6”, 280-pound offensive lineman Valen Erickson.