Missouri’s 31-28 victory over South Carolina might’ve gotten a bit close for comfort, but Eliah Drinkwitz’s excitement at its conclusion was for exactly what the Tigers had to get in a home game at 4-5.
“A win. I mean, they’re hard to get in the SEC,” said Drinkwitz, “especially when you don’t play particularly well in the fourth quarter offensively and have two turnovers, so to find a way to gut it out, for Tyler Badie again, just like the Vanderbilt game, just like the Central Michigan game, to find a way to eat up the clock and rush the ball the way he did was just, that was a big one for us.”
Six turnovers surfaced throughout the game, the highest total in a Missouri game this season. Two came within the first two minutes, as Kris Abrams-Draine picked off South Carolina quarterback Jason Brown to secure his third interception of the season on the opening drive of the game. Four plays later, Connor Bazelak gave the ball right back to the Gamecocks when Cam Smith easily jumped a floater to Tyler Badie near the Missouri sideline.
South Carolina took advantage of the turnover, turning in a touchdown drive on the legs of their running back committee to open up a 7-0 lead. After a Tigers three-and-out, the Gamecocks drove it back down into the red zone, and it looked like Missouri could’ve been in some big trouble early.
But Isaiah McGuire stripped MarShawn Lloyd and recovered his own forced fumble, giving the Tigers possession and a much-needed boost of momentum.
“He’s been our most consistent defensive lineman,” Drinkwitz said of the junior defensive end, “and he talked about on Monday wanting to play fast this week, and really that’s what showed up.”
Drinkwitz then dialed up one of the best offensive drives of the season, using motion and jet sweeps to go 79 yards into the end zone on 12 plays, tying the game at 7-7 on a two-yard Bazelak pass to Daniel Parker Jr.
Missouri forced a three-and-out on the ensuing drive, and the Tigers proceeded to gain their first lead of the game on a 60-yard bomb from Bazelak to Mookie Cooper, his first touchdown of the year. South Carolina responded though, completing four 3rd-down conversions to tie the game at 14-14 with a perfectly placed deep ball from Brown to leading receiver Josh Vann. The Tigers would grab three points at the end of the first half to go up 17-14, as Harrison Mevis and the kicking unit got onto the field within 15 seconds to beat the clock’s expiration.
The Tigers scored their second defensive touchdown of the season when Martez Manuel’s sack of Jason Brown forced a fumble that Trajan Jeffcoat recovered in the end zone, giving the Tigers a 24-14 lead. They added another touchdown to the lead on their next offensive drive, as Tyler Badie capped off a 61-yard drive with a 19-yard touchdown run to go up 31-14 in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers had a chance to put it away, but South Carolina defensive back Marcellas Dial stripped Mookie Cooper for the Tigers’ first lost fumble of the season. The Gamecocks soon scored on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Brown to ZaQuandre White, a throw in the flat to a running back on 4th and 3.
Then came the most egregious turnover of the night, a completely under-thrown backfield pass from Bazelak to Badie. He had a yard of separation from linebacker Brad Johnson, but Bazelak’s lob came up short and allowed Johnson to make a play on the ball and give South Carolina starting field position inside the red zone. White carried in the touchdown to make it 31-28.
That’s when Drinkwitz decided to put Brady Cook into the game to close things out. Two big runs from Badie and one 11-yard option run from Cook burnt out the final four and a half minutes of the game, and Badie finished with 231 yards from scrimmage.
“I felt like we were gonna need the quarterback run,” Drinkwitz said, “and Connor was just not, wasn’t moving the way I wanted him to, and that last pick was just, you know, we needed somebody who could be able to be a threat with his legs.”
Here are the takeaways from Mizzou’s win over South Carolina.
If quarterback play isn’t certain, Badie’s role as the top guy is
Drinkwitz specified his game plan regarding the quarterback situation, which has appeared muddied to fans over the last two weeks.
“Going into the game, I knew I couldn’t prepare all three quarterbacks to play,” Drinkwitz said. “Connor was able to practice and so I knew I couldn’t get all three ready, so I went with more of a Connor-Brady game plan going into it, and so that’s what it was.”
The student section started a “we want Macon” chant after Bazelak’s first interception, but he stood in after the pick to lead a successful offense up until the final quarter. Drinkwitz described his interceptions as “really poor decisions,” ones that continue to cause doubt as to whether or not Bazelak is the long-term starter beyond this season.
But once again, feeding Tyler Badie paid off yet again. His 39 touches produced more than half of the Tigers’ total offensive yardage, and he’s now in fifth for most single-season rushing yards by a Missouri Tiger with two games left this season. His ability to stay healthy has been impressive as well considering his volume, as he’s 12th in rushing attempts (200) and fourth in receptions among running backs (50) in the FBS.
A healthy Mookie Cooper can shine
Tigers fans entered the year with high expectations for the Ohio State transfer, but he was unable to deliver on those due to an injury suffered during training camp. But, now that he’s “the healthiest he’s been” this season according to Drinkwitz, the Missouri offense can bank on him for production moving forward.
He adds another layer to the offense, whether it’s as a deep threat that’s often been lacking for Missouri or as a guy who can make plays as a shifty mover at the line of scrimmage. Drinkwitz’ play calling was at its peak on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see how he utilizes Cooper down the stretch.
“We had a couple of jet sweeps. We felt like we could get to the perimeter on them,” Drinkwitz said. “They play a six-technique and a seven-technique, so we felt like we could get outside without having to utilize our outside zone scheme, so we were able to do a couple of those, and then we actually stole the play on the goal line from the Packers. They ran it last year, so we said that was a pretty cool play — it was called popsicle.”
Look for Cooper to move past the late-game fumble and show off his talents against Florida and Arkansas.
Strong performance from a banged-up offensive line
Without Case Cook, Hyrin White or Zeke Powell, the Mizzou offensive line looked very different than it did at the beginning of the season. But, even with multiple injuries, the unit did a great job in run and pass blocking, allowing just one sack all game and guiding the way for another 200-yard game from Badie.
“I think as much credit as we want to give to Tyler, so proud of the offensive line,” Drinkwitz said. “I mean, Bobby Lawrence got the start tonight. He’d been on, he was on scout team last week… extremely proud of those guys and we gotta get some guys off the injured reserve.”
Drinkwitz lauded offensive line coach Marcus Johnson for his job in preparing his unit for uncharted territory. He also specifically praised Javon Foster, who has done a fantastic job throughout the season since earning a starting role during training camp. He sealed the edge at left tackle on multiple big gains, and he often shot through the defensive line to block linebackers at the second level.
Beyond Foster, Connor Wood and EJ Ndoma-Ogar also saw success at right tackle and right guard, and Luke Griffin has done well in replacement of Cook at left guard. And as stable as ever, Michael Maietti is the anchor at center who guys on the team want to play for.
“Mike Maietti’s like 35 years old, you know,” Badie joked, “and never made it to a bowl game yet, you know. So, my biggest thing is to get him to a bowl game so he can enjoy the experience.”
We’ll see how the injury situation develops over the week, but the entire depth chart is stepping up in a time of need. Drinkwitz specifically noted that White is suffering from a sprained ankle.
Another improved week for the defensive line
Steve Wilks’ defensive unit stepped up without Mekhi Wingo, limiting the Gamecocks’ rushing production to a season-low 57 yards. Three sacks generated losses amounting to 48 yards, and the chemistry between the first and second levels looked strong.
“I think our linebackers are playing downhill and fitting gaps really well,” Drinkwitz said. “I think we’re being more structurally sound with how we play the running back — run game, and keeping contain and leverage, and I think we’re tackling better.”
Brown felt pressure multiple times in the pocket and had to constantly roll out, limiting what was otherwise an impressive performance from South Carolina’s third-string quarterback. McGuire earned SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for his performance, and the turnovers generated by him and the secondary were crucial in turning the game in favor of Missouri.
Florida appears vulnerable
The Gators followed up last week’s blowout loss to South Carolina with a 70-52 over Samford, conceding a program-record 42 points in the first half. Keep in mind Sanford is an FCS team.
Florida needed a career-best performance from Emory Jones to survive a defensive nightmare, and the 5-5 Gators have collapsed after a strong start to the season. Even with their struggles, Missouri can’t go in too confident against Florida, as last year’s halftime skirmish should do more than enough to motivate both sides in need of a win to cement bowl-game eligibility. The Gators opened as nine-point favorites against the Tigers, and it should be a fun contest at Faurot Field this Saturday at 3 p.m.
“We still got a long way to go to be where we want to be, where all the fans want us to be, where as a team we want to be,” Drinkwitz said, “but we’re showing signs of improvement, we’re showing signs of togetherness, we’re showing signs of things that we want to do, but again, when you have two turnovers in the fourth quarter up three possessions, I mean, that’s like beating your head against the wall.”