Missouri’s had a strange season. It started out with two “swing games” in its first four weeks. The last four weeks have included two games in which everyone knew the Tigers wouldn’t win, and two games in which everyone knew Missouri would win by a sizable margin.
Now we’re back into the swing game portion of the season. South Carolina, Florida and Arkansas are three legitimately winnable games. I don’t know if I expected that to be the case when the season began, but here we are. South Carolina was a coin flip. I’m not going to be surprised if Missouri is favored next week given how poorly Florida performed the last couple games. And then they’ll have a shot against Arkansas, even if the Hogs are favored.
Things are getting fun again.
It all started with a big win Saturday with a big win against the Gamecocks. It wasn’t easy, but they found a way to make it happen. Let’s break down how it happened.
1) Missouri’s improvement against the run looks like it’s real
There were legitimate reasons for optimism in Missouri’s loss against Georgia. I know, they allowed 43 points. How can that be seen as a positive for the defense?
HAVE YOU WATCHED GEORGIA THIS SEASON? THAT’S HOW!
In all seriousness, the run defense was legitimately good. Georgia scored through the air. There is no defense for the perfect pass, and Stetson Bennett threw many of them. You tip your cap and move on. You also acknowledge that very few teams remaining on the schedule have the capability to beat Missouri’s defense the way Georgia did. But was it sustainable, or was it a fluke?
If Saturday’s performance against South Carolina was any indication, it was very much a trend. South Carolina finished the day with 35 carries for 57 yards. That’s a bit misleading, because it includes sacks. If you remove runs by Jason Brown, the Gamecocks finished with 31 carries for 107 yards. That’s an average of 3.5 yards per carry. That would be the fewest yards per carry Missouri has allowed all season. If you include sacks, Missouri’s 1.6 yards allowed per carry are the fewest allowed by the Tigers since South Carolina ran for 0.7 yards per carry back in 2019.
In other words, this was Missouri’s best defensive performance against the run under Eli Drinkwitz.
2) Missouri’s pass defense stepped up in a big way
The difference between this week and last, though, is the passing defense also carried its weight. Jason Brown was sacked three times for a loss of 48 yards. One of those sacks resulted in a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown. There were multiple potential interceptions, even if at least one was taken away for a terrible penalty. According to the broadcast, the Tigers defense had 11 quarterback pressures with more than 10 minutes to play.
The defense was legitimately good. It’s fair to be dubious as to whether or not it will sustain, but why question something positive at this point? I don’t know why it took eight weeks for the Tigers to show up on that side of the ball. I think it’s fair to wonder how many more wins this team would have if it got this kind of defensive performance earlier in the season.
Alas, this is where we’re at, and I’m happy to see that unit performing well down the stretch. There is plenty of time to talk about what it means for defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. We’ll definitely have those conversations. I’m just happy to see them playing well and finally stopping the run. Here’s to hoping it stays that way.
2) It’s officially time to make a change at quarterback
I’m sure Connor Bazelak is a swell individual. He seems like a bright kid. He clearly knows the offense well. He makes quick reads more often than not, and he appears to be the classic “coach on the field.” You could even convince me prior the last few weeks that Bazelak gave Missouri the best chance to win.
Bazelak is officially a low-risk, low-reward quarterback. If you feel like he’s turning the football over multiple times per game lately, well, you’re not wrong. He’s thrown six touchdowns and nine interceptions in his last five games against power five competition.
It wasn’t all bad against South Carolina. He had a fantastic 60-yard touchdown pass to Mookie Cooper. He was able to throw a strike deep over the middle while under pressure, which allowed Cooper to run under the ball and take it in for a score.
Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of those kinds of plays to outweigh the bad side of the ledger.
Missouri was up 31-21 with less than six minutes to play when Bazelak threw one of his worst interceptions of the season. I’m still not sure what he saw. It was third and six from the Missouri 17-yard line. South Carolina scored a touchdown three plays later. A game that should’ve been over was closer than it needed to be. It wasn’t his first questionable decision of the game.
He was replaced on Missouri’s next drive of the game presumably because Drinkwitz didn’t trust him to make the right play down the stretch. Drinkwitz instead trusted redshirt freshman Brady Cook to finish out the game. And, in my opinion, he should trust Cook to start the game next week.
Bazelak finished 15-for-23 for 180 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. I wish him nothing but the best in whatever is next for him. But you can no longer convince me he’s Missouri’s best chance to win. He does nothing in the run game and he’s far too much of a liability in the passing game.
At least Cook and Macon add something in the running game. At least they give the Tigers the possibility of upside in the passing game. Maybe they’ll be worse. I’m ready to find out.
3) Tyler Badie: What a stud
The list of SEC running backs with at least four games of 200+ rushing yards in the last 20 years:
- Leonard Fournette & Trayveon Williams (5)
- Derrick Henry & Tyler Badie (4)
That’s the end of the list. Badie joins Fournette and Henry as the only players to do so in the SEC in a single season in the last two decades. At the end of this season we’re going to have some really interesting conversations about where Badie ranks among the best players we’ve watched in a Missouri uniform. If you’re looking for most important players to a singular offense, he’s right up there with Brad Smith. If you’re looking for most productive running backs, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a comparison.
Right now, I still think I would take Henry Josey over Badie. But that’s becoming a more and more difficult conversation to have by the week. If you put this version of Badie on the 2013 Tigers’ offense, man, I don’t know what that would look like. It would be a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
Badie finished Saturday’s game with 34 carries for 209 yards and a touchdown. He added another five receptions for 22 yards through the air. Saturday was Badie’s second game this season with at least 30 carries and five receptions in a single game. He’s the first SEC running back to do so in multiple games in the last 20 years.
So much for Badie not being able to carry the load.
5) A bowl game is very much in play
College football is a fickle beast. This Missouri football season felt like it was dead after that Tennessee loss. But here we are, with two games to play, feeling like Missouri has a legitimate shot to finish with at least six wins.
As of the time I’m writing, Dan Mullen is still the head coach at the University of Florida. I don’t know if that will be the case when you read this. The Gators just allowed 52 points and more than 500 yards of total offense to SAMFORD. Samford lost two weeks prior, 46-45 on the road against Virginia Military Institute. The Bulldogs are 4-6, and find themselves in fifth place in the Southern Conference.
In other words, Florida quit. Missouri should probably be favored against the Gators. They will have a legitimate shot against Arkansas, even if they’ll be a touchdown (or so) underdog. The season that once felt over could now result in six wins. Seven doesn’t feel impossible anymore.
In some ways, this is exciting. This was always going to be a rebuilding year and the “low” point should still result in a bowl game. It also begs the questions - where would this team be right now if it simply performed to an average level against the run early in the season? Eight or nine wins doesn’t feel like it should have been out of the question.
College football is a fickle beast.