Tigers knock off Florida in OT, clinch bowl game eligibility

Missouri head football coach Eliah Drinkwitz said there wasn’t any doubt to go for the win in overtime against Florida.

“It’s a strategic decision. If you have offense the second set [of overtime], you’ve gotta go back on offense, and you have to go for two, so why have to go back on offense and then have to go for two? You might as well do it then.”

After Tyler Badie rushed in the responding touchdown, Drinkwitz kept the offense on the field with the season on the line. With two swarming defenders in his face, Bazelak lobbed up a pass to a wide open Daniel Parker Jr., who secured the catch to send the Tigers to their first bowl game in three years.

“Seniors transfer in, some of them are COVID seniors. They’ve gone through a lot, you know,” Drinkwitz said after the game. “For the last 18 months, I don’t think anything’s gone the way they expected it to go… yet they continued to show up every day and give us everything they had. And you know, all week, we just talked about, man, this is senior week. These guys deserve that chance to grab that rock, and that was special.”

The 60-minute slugfest between the two sides was a much lower-scoring affair than many expected from two of the SEC’s weaker defenses. Neither side broke off a touchdown in the first half, as the Tigers kept the Florida offense in check with strong play from the front seven. The Tigers entered the locker room up 9-6 behind three field goals from Harrison Mevis, as good field position during a first quarter drive and a couple of long passes from Connor Bazelak to Niko Hea and Tauskie Dove set up scoring chances.

In the second half, Florida only needed three plays to get into the end zone, as a 45-yard completion from Emory Jones to Trent Whittemore set up a goalline touchdown run from Dameon Pierce. Missouri got a go-ahead response on a 41-yard touchdown connection from Bazelak and Hea in the beginning of the fourth quarter, a drive sparked by two big first down runs from Tyler Badie. 

Florida tied the game on the ensuing drive, but Missouri had a chance to regain the lead during regulation with a Mevis field goal from 46 yards. He pushed it right, giving the ball back to Florida with just a minute to go. After a couple of unsuccessful plays, Florida head coach Dan Mullen decided not to push it and send the game into overtime. 

Jones quickly led the Gators into the end zone in overtime, capping off the drive with a touchdown pass to Whittemore. That’s when the Tigers responded with a score, in direct contrast to their overtime loss to Boston College earlier this season, and a two-point conversion to clinch bowl game eligibility.

“I promised Mike Maietti he’d go bowling if he came back,” Drinkwitz said, choked up. “That’s the only reason he came back, because he’d never been to a bowl game. We came through for that.”

Here are the key takeaways from Missouri’s overtime win over Florida. 

Bazelak was resilient

Connor wasn’t perfect on Saturday, hearing some boos early on and facing a ton of pressure from the Florida defensive line. The Tigers gave up a season-high six sacks, but Bazelak stood in and got the job done for Missouri.

“Everybody has a right to express their opinions. But these young men are playing as hard as they possibly can, and they’re not perfect. None of us are, and [the] number one quarterback requirement is to ignore the noise, and all that is a lot of noise,” Drinkwitz said. “And you can have one of the worst games you’ve ever had, and with two minutes left in the game, you’ve gotta be a rock, and you’ve gotta believe in yourself. And Connor’s doing that, you know, and I get it. The most popular person on a football team is the backup quarterback, but right now, Connor gives us the best opportunity to win the game. And, I thought he stepped up, made some big plays.”

Bazelak showed off his arm a couple of times, hitting Dove for 50-yard and 22-yard completions, and his connections with Hea propelled the offense to scoring opportunities. There weren’t any big miscues to turn the tides of the game, either – a step in the right direction as he continues to learn in his role as the starter. 

Bazelak faced high expectations entering the year, as his hot 2020 start garnered a lot of attention before returning to earth with some late-season turnover issues. Those have obviously marked a lot of his games this season, but it’s tough to expect perfection when competing in the SEC against top-level opposition each week. 

He’s got playmakers around him, notably the Doak Walker Award finalist Tyler Badie who ran for 146 yards and once again put the Tigers in position to win when it mattered most. While some hoped Bazelak would do more with the pieces around him, a lot of the tumultuous fan response he’s received is due to astronomical hopes that are tough to place on a sophomore who’s clearly been banged up this season while playing in an offense that doesn’t attempt to do too much. Bazelak certainly is the starter for the rest of the season, and if he can grow out of forcing some of his throws into significant coverage, then Drinkwitz will face a really tough decision to put him aside in favor of someone else next season. 

Another step up from the defense

Enough cannot be said about the improvements of Steve Wilks’ run defense at this point in the season. Against a Florida rushing attack that features multiple running backs and a mobile quarterback, the Tigers allowed a season-low 2.4 yards per carry and gave up under 100 rushing yards for the second consecutive week.

“Our d-line is playing much better, and I think our two interior backers are playing really hard downhill,” Drinkwitz said. “Chad Bailey and Blaze Alldredge are playing really physical downhill, and our safeties are tackling well in the box. So, it’s just a combination of doing what we’ve been doing, but better.”

Trajan Jeffcoat earned SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for his performance, which included a sack and 2.5 other tackles for loss. Jatorian Hansford got a sack and played well with more opportunity, and like Drinkwitz mentioned, Bailey and Alldredge swarmed the ball and constantly made plays, each picking up at least eight tackles and two TFL. The Tigers only missed three tackles against the Gators.

Many different guys stepped up this season on the defense with injuries affecting the team. Jaylon Carlies, Isaiah McGuire and Kris Abrams-Draine come to mind, but another young face entered the fold. Darius Jackson got his first start of the season at cornerback with the unexpected absence of Akayleb Evans, and he held his own under a big spotlight as a true freshman. 

This defense is young, and a lot of featuring names will return next year with a ton of game experience to build off of. The improvement of the unit as a whole throughout the season gives fans hope for the future.

The team’s togetherness pays off in recruiting world

Everyone knew the stakes of Missouri’s final home game of the season, including some top recruits. IMG Academy defensive end Samuel Mpemba, a St. Louis native and former Ladue athlete, and Boonville defensive end DJ Wesolak were both in attendance at Saturday’s game, and the day after, Francis Howell standout tight end/defensive end Brett Norfleet committed to Missouri to become the Tigers’ first recruit in the 2023 class.

It’s hard to keep a locker room focused on season-end goals when facing early adversity, but Drinkwitz and his staff weathered the storm to keep players hungry, and their effort on the field demonstrates their dedication to success week after week. The Tigers haven’t thrown in the towel, and it’s showing a winning culture that recruits want to be a part of. Missouri still has a lot of open spots for the 2022 class, and it will be interesting to see who joins NewZou22 ahead of National Signing Day in February.

Missouri’s next challenge takes them to Fayetteville for the Battle Line Rivalry, where the Tigers look to defend their trophy against a tough Razorbacks team that just played Alabama to a 42-35 loss.

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