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Strong defense, late offense leads Tigers over Gators

The Missouri defense led the team in regulation, and in overtime the offense finished the job as the Tigers secured bowl eligibility

NCAA Football: Florida at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

For four quarters, the Missouri defense was the story. They bent, but didn’t break, stopped Florida with their backs against the wall on multiple occasions, and carried a lackluster offense. But when overtime came, it was the Tiger offense that was called upon to get the Tigers bowl eligible.

Florida had already scored the first touchdown of overtime and knocked in their PAT, so when the Tyler Badie found the endzone for the Tigers, the question became whether to go for two or simply kick it for another overtime.

According to Eli Drinkwitz, it just made too much sense with the college overtime rules forcing you to go for two in the second overtime. “They always know if we are up second, we are going for two,” he said. “Why go back on offense and have to go for two again?”

Putting his faith in his offense, Drinkwitz sent Connor Bazelak back out to win him the game, and Bazelak, who has been heavily criticized recently, did just that by finding TE Daniel Parker, Jr. wide open in the endzone to send out his seniors with a victory on Senior Day

LB Chad Bailey, who led the Missouri defense all game to give his guys this chance, said, “It gave me chills.”

However, just to get that chance to win the game, the Tigers needed four quarters of grind-it-out, defensive football, and it wasn’t always pretty despite the end result.

After the Tigers won the coin toss and deferred, the Gators got the ball first and looked like they would methodically march down the field. However, on a crucial third down in Missouri territory, Florida QB Emory Jones botched a zone read exchange and was forced to fall on the ball leaving the Gators with no choice but to kick a 42-yard field goal.

Trailing 3-0, the Tigers took the field with regular starter Connor Bazelak under center despite plenty of conversation regarding his benching last game. For Bazelak, things did not get off to a good start as the Tigers were forced to punt from midfield, but Grant McKinniss did his job, flawlessly pinning the Gators on their own 2.

With the Gators’ backs against their own goal line, the Missouri defense almost took scoring into their own hands as Florida narrowly escaped a safety on first and second down before they were forced to punt from their own end zone.

Disaster struck for the Gators when Jeremy Crawshaw shanked the punt only 12 yards down the field. When the Tigers took over, they got the ball on the Florida 18, but the offense went backwards.

With the offense unable to muster anything, the Tigers settled for a 39-yard field goal from Harrison Mevis to tie the game at 3-3.

After exchanging field goals, the two teams exchanged three and outs, and for the first time since playing Vanderbilt in 2020, the Missouri Tigers didn’t allow a touchdown in the first quarter of a game.

However, the Tiger defense had another tall task ahead of them after a Grant McKinniss punt deflected off a Florida player’s helmet before going out of bounds and giving the Gators a short field from the Missouri 36.

Like many times in this game, the Missouri defense bent, but didn’t break against Florida’s powerful offense. After getting the ball down to the Tigers’ 2-yard-line, the Gators offense was stymied, and the Missouri defense forced another field goal from Florida kicker, Chris Howard.

Once more the Tigers found themselves down a field, and once more, they responded with one of their own. After a good return from Missouri RB Elijah Young, QB Connor Bazelak found Niko Hea for a 26-yard gain early in the drive, but the offense did no more. Harrison Mevis took it from there, splitting the uprights from 46 yards out for his second of three field goals on the day with 7 minutes to play in the first half.

Neither team found the endzone before halftime, but the Tigers put another field goal on the board before intermission thanks to a 50-yard pass from Bazelak to WR Tauskie Dove. He came down with the jump ball with a Florida defender all over him to get the Tigers in scoring position.

Mevis’ 31-yard field goal gave the Tigers their first lead at 9-6, and some interesting prevent defense ensured that the teams headed to the locker room with that same score.

When the two teams returned, the Tigers tried to extend their lead, but instantly got behind the chains after a bad snap on the first play and an intentional grounding foul. That three and out sent Grant McKinniss out for one of his seven punts of the day, and Florida got the ball back at midfield.

In need of some spark after having been mostly silenced by a stingy Missouri defense in the first half, the Gators found their answer when Emory Jones connected on a slant pattern to WR Trent Whittemore for 45 yards, who did most of the work after the catch with his legs. That play put the Gators at the Tigers’ 5-yard-line, and this time, the Gators were not denied in the endzone. RB Dameon Pierce punched it in for the game’s first TD, and the Gators regained the lead, 13-9 early in the third quarter.

After that touchdown, both offenses went back into hibernation for the quarter, and neither could get any points on the board. Despite the defense’s strong performance, Missouri fans still made their unhappiness with the offensive play known with a chorus of boos for QB Connor Bazelak.

After the game, Missouri RB Tyler Badie commended his quarterback for not listening to the boos and leading his team to victory. “Today just showed his grit and passion for the game,” Badie explained.

Right as the third quarter ended, Badie rattled off runs of 17 and 19 yards, and the Florida defense refocused on the Tigers’ number one offensive threat. Noticing this, Missouri’s star running back gave a suggestion to his coach to use him as a decoy and dial up a play the Tigers refer to as “Burn.”

When they called it, the Tigers used a screen to Badie to draw the Florida defenders to the backfield before leaking Niko Hea behind the defense and Connor Bazelak found him wide open. “I just had to run fast, that’s all,” Hea said about what he was thinking once he made the catch. And run fast he did. Hea ran all the way to endzone for a 41-yard touchdown, and the Tigers regained a 16-13 lead with under 12 minutes to play.

“The best way to help the team was being a decoy,” Badie said about what made him give his head coach the idea for the call. “I think I did a good job acting, waving my hands.”

With the Tigers now in the driver’s seat, the defense was asked to step up again like they had many times already in the game. Florida had other plans, however.

The Gators marched down the field into the Tiger red zone, and a big 3rd and 1 loomed. Dan Mullen dialed up a speed option, putting the ball in the hands of his quarterback, but Blaze Alldredge blew it up. Alldredge forced Jones to pitch to his running back, Pierce, and then Alldredge won the footrace to the sideline, forcing Pierce out of bounds before he could get the first down.

Alldredge’s head coach pointed to this play as one of the deciding moments of the game to hold the Gators to a field goal, saying it allowed the Tigers to play with “game control” down the stretch.

With the score knotted up at 16-16 with 8:30 left, the Tigers were just looking for one score, and with 1:06 to play they got that chance. After a pass interference call extended a Missouri drive, the Tigers were all of a sudden in field goal range. Their almost always reliable kicker Harrison Mevis trotted out to win the game. Except, he didn’t. For just the second time all year, Mevis didn’t put his kick between the uprights as he pushed it barely wide right.

After that uncharacteristic miss from Mevis, overtime seemed inevitable.

When the clock hit zeroes, it was a brand new ballgame for both sides. Missouri won the toss and that meant Florida would be on offense first. The Gators didn’t waste any time getting inside the Missouri 5, then Dan Mullen dialed up a “Philly Special” that allowed his quarterback to catch the go-ahead TD.

Trailing by 7, the Tigers handed it to Tyler Badie on both of their offensive plays in overtime, and on the second he found the endzone. After electing for the aforementioned two-point conversion, the Tigers were victorious and bowl-eligible.

After the game, Eli Drinkwitz summed up just what the victory meant to his team and his seniors on Senior Day. When talking about his 6th year senior center, “I promised Mike Maietti he’d go bowling if he came back,” Drinkwitz said as he teared up. “That was the only reason he came back, and we came through today.”