Missouri wasn’t supposed to play LSU this season. The Tigers weren’t supposed to win games like this. This is a rebuild. It’s the start of something new. Heck, the coaching staff literally coined this “New Zou.”
Well, if what we saw on Saturday against LSU is any indication of what the “New Zou” is going to look like, I think Tigers fans have plenty to look forward to.
I’m still not sure I totally understand what just happened. Mizzou was without three of its top four receivers. The Tigers were down to just two defensive tackles. Multiple defensive backs were banged up throughout the game with nagging injuries.
Eli Drinkwitz was asked postgame how his team was able to overcome the clear adversity it faced to win that game. “It ain’t about what we don’t have. It’s what we do have,” Drinkwitz declared. It’s a cliche. But it was true for Missouri against LSU.
Let’s get to some takeaways, shall we?
1) Missouri found its quarterback
My lead takeaway from all three games this season has been a reaction to the quarterback play. Shawn Robinson did enough to keep his job after the loss against Alabama. Connor Bazelak earned the starting job with his impressive performance against Tennessee.
Those questions don’t need to be discussed moving forward. Bazelak is Missouri’s starting quarterback for next week and for many weeks thereafter.
Bazelak joined Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and Drew Lock as the only Missouri quarterbacks in the last 20 years to throw for at least 400 yards against a power five opponent. Lock and Daniel did it once. Gabbert did it twice.
Bazelak just did it in his second career start. With three of his top four receivers out. Against LSU.
Bazelak was nearly perfect against LSU. My favorite throw of the day was one that will likely go overlooked. He threw a back shoulder comeback to D’ionte Smith down the right sideline for a 13-yard game. It wasn’t flashy. But it was symbolic of how advanced Bazelak is for his age. The redshirt freshman threw the ball on the money at the perfect time for Smith to turn around and the ball caught Smith as much as Smith caught the ball.
Timing, rhythm and anticipation are three of the buzz words you often hear about quarterbacks. Bazelak has thrown with timing, rhythm and anticipation since the moment he entered the game against Tennessee, and it continued against LSU.
2) Missouri’s defense stepped up in the biggest moment of the game
It’s strange to say Missouri’s defense stepped up in a game in which the opponent scored 41 points, but it’s true. The Tigers set up the defense in poor situations time and time again.
Missouri failed a fake punt from their own 47 that led to an LSU touchdown. The Tigers fumbled a punt at their own 25 and it led to another LSU touchdown. And then Bazelak fumbled on a sack-strip a the Tigers’ own 31-yard line which led to a field goal. One more time, a fumble on a Larry Rountree III carry led to LSU getting the ball at MU’s 5-yard line. Two plays later, LSU scored yet another touchdown.
Five LSU drives that started on Missouri’s side of the field led directly to 31 LSU points. The defense was put in a bad spot all day long. They didn’t come up with many stops on those short fields. But on the biggest drive of the game, the defense came up clutch.
LSU had the ball on Missouri’s 1-yard line down by four with 37 seconds to play. The Tigers stuffed LSU on a run up the middle on first down. They did it again on another run up the gut on third down.
On third down, Nick Bolton came up with yet another unbelievable play. Bolton saw Terrance Marshall Jr. lined up as a wingback and immediately knew the ball was going his way. Marshall tried running a quick arrow route, but Bolton saw it coming from a mile away. That pass breakup led to the play of the game.
On fourth down with the game on the line LSU put Marshall back in the slot and lined him up one-on-one against Joshuah Bledsoe. Myles Brennan had taken advantage of Marshall against a safety all game long. Not this time. Bledsoe broke up the pass and made the play of the game.
The Tigers’ defense — with their backs against the wall — came up with a stop we’ll be talking about for years to come.
3) Remember when we were worried about Missouri’s wide receivers?
Mizzou entered this game without Keke Chism, Damon Hazelton or Dominic Gicinto due to COVID-19 contact tracing. If you had a visceral reaction to that news early on Saturday morning, I wouldn’t blame you.
But the Tigers had some players really step up. Tauskie Dove beat LSU’s top corner and future first round draft pick Derek Stingley Jr. on multiple routes. Dove finished the day catching all six of his targets for 83 yards including a 58-yard touchdown. Walk-on receiver D’ionte (Boo) Smith deserves to wear an actual wide receiver number (not no. 31) after his six catch, 54-yard performance. Former quarterback Micah Wilson had a great moment on a broken LSU coverage that resulted in a 41-yard touchdown. Freshman Chance Luper caught a 69-yard touchdown in his first career college football game.
And all of that is without mentioning Jalen Knox, who has officially been unlocked by this new offensive coaching staff. Knox finished with 76 yards from scrimmage on eight touches.
Missouri’s receivers were sure-handed, they seemed to be in the right places at the right time and they came up with some massive plays through the air.
Drinkwitz said his goal when he got the job was to add “touchdown makers.”
4) Missouri finally has reason for hope at defensive end
The box score might not reflect this, but Trajan Jeffcoat made multiple difference-making plays against LSU. The Tigers have lacked any sort of pass rush coming off the edge for a few years. Jeffcoat provides reason for optimism.
Is he going to be a superstar? Maybe not. But Jeffcoat is still just a junior and he technically has two more years of eligibility if he wants to use it due to the NCAA’s new rules this year allowing everyone to come back for an extra season.
If Jeffcoat continues on this trajectory, he could be the type of player who serves as a quality stop-gap while Drinkwitz recruits more talent to the position. There were plenty of signs in the first two weeks that Jeffcoat was close. He finished with multiple quarterback hits, four hurries and a sack against LSU.
5) I’m legitimately excited about Mizzou football again
College football is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to wake up on Saturday morning excited because IT’S GAMEDAY! I haven’t felt that way, really, in a while about Mizzou football. I would wake up on Saturday morning and go through the motions and convince myself that Missouri football still gave me reasons for optimism.
But, let’s be honest, I didn’t believe it in my heart of hearts. I enjoyed watching Drew Lock. Emanuel Hall was awesome. There were plenty of defensive players to be excited about. But the truth of the matter is, it was difficult to buy into the long-term trajectory of the program. Maybe that’s unfair. But it’s the truth.
Barry Odom failed in his first two seasons to win the types of games that would lead you to believe he had the program heading in the right direction. That there would be a ceiling to what he could accomplish at Missouri. That potential “program-defining” win came in Drew Lock’s final season against Florida. At that point, it was too late. Too many fans had already made up their minds on what Odom would be.
Things are different with Drinkwitz. I don’t know where this is going. I don’t know if Missouri will reach its ceiling with Drinkwitz as its coach. It’s entirely possible the Tigers still finish the year 3-7 and we all look back at this game with astonishment. It’s also possible LSU just isn’t as good this year as we all expected.
I don’t care about any of that right now. Drinkwitz’s offense is fun to watch. His energy is infectious. He’s found his quarterback. He’s recruiting at an extremely high level. The players are bought in. This is what it looks like to have things headed in the right direction.
I don’t remember the last time I had this much fun watching Missouri play football on a Saturday.
But I can tell you this - I’m going to wake up next Saturday with a little more pep in my step because GAMEDAY is back in Columbia.