Like the saying goes, you never know what you’ve got til it’s gone.
The Missouri Tigers understand what that feeling is like.
Against the Florida Gators on Oct. 8, Mizzou learned they’d have to field a defense without the presence of senior linebacker and captain Chad Bailey, as well as junior defensive back Kris Abrams-Draine.
Florida gashed the new-look Tigers’ defense for 231 rushing yards, exposing the middle of the field and dominating Mizzou in an area where it had held three of five opponents to under 110 yards on the ground.
The dynamic running game, coupled with a couple key turnovers, led the Gators to a 24-17 victory and handed the Tigers their third consecutive one possession loss.
On Saturday, the veteran duo returned, looking to change the tide and respond against a reeling Vanderbilt program. The 17-14 victory, although small, gave the Mizzou program something its craved for almost a month—a win.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of comments about how ugly it was and all that,” Mizzou head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “All that don’t matter. It’s a win and we needed a win.”
A struggling Tigers’ offense once again put the pressure on Mizzou’s defense to step up and cause havoc against the Commodores. Bailey and Abrams-Draine provided that lethal punch, teaming up to compile 13 total tackles while making an impact all over the field.
As a captain and veteran linebacker, Bailey continues to serve as one of the vocal leaders for the Mizzou defensive front. From a play calling and leadership standpoint, the veteran has displayed an understanding of opponent defenses, which came in handy against Vanderbilt.
Facing a key 4th & 1 on the Mizzou 44-yard-line, Bailey, Abrams-Draine and the Tigers’ defense needed a stop. Once again, it was the vocal leader who spoke up and understood what needed to be done.
“We figured it was going to be inside zone,” Bailey said. “They wanted to rush on the inside, just to get them one yard, and we played stop. We stood them up and made a play.”
That turnover on downs with less than two minutes remaining sealed the victory for Mizzou, but it offered a stark contrast to a similar play against Florida.
Early in the third quarter, facing an opportunity to stop the Gators on a 4th & 2 try from the Tigers’ 35-yard-line, Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson converted the attempt with a 32-yard rush. The ensuing play resulted in a touchdown, breaking a 10-10 tie and sending Mizzou into a catch-up position.
The Tigers avoided a similar comeback situation Saturday, jumping out to a 17-0 first half lead. Bailey showcased his return with a team-leading six first half tackles, while Abrams-Draine provided constant pressure on Vanderbilt wide receiver Will Shepard, who entered as one of the SEC’s top yardage receivers with eight touchdowns and 497 yards.
Bailey, working over the middle of the field, made a quiet impact in the first quarter, recording a tackle on Vanderbilt running back Ray Davis’ rush attempt on an early 3rd & 28. The play that set up that long yardage down-and-distance was Abrams-Draine, who forced an offensive pass interference on Sheppard.
Had that call not been made, Vanderbilt would have had possession at the 10-yard-line with ample opportunities to score. Instead, the penalty and tight coverage pushed Vanderbilt out of field goal territory, forcing them to punt despite the favorable field possession after a Mizzou quarterback Brady Cook interception.
After quieting the Commodore offense throughout the remaining part of the first quarter, Abrams-Draine made his presence felt throughout the second quarter. The corner made two potential game-saving plays against Sheppard.
On 1st & 10 from the 50-yard-line, Vanderbilt quarterback AJ Swann found Sheppard down the sideline, but a diving deflection from Abrams-Draine prevented the catch, wowing the Mizzou faithful. One play later, Swann looked Sheppard’s way again, and Abrams-Draine flew in immediately for another pass breakup.
“It’s a good thing to have great DBs (defensive backs) like that playing outside,” Bailey said.
Those two plays summed up Will Sheppard’s afternoon. After entering with at least 35 receiving yards in each game, the junior receiver finished with three catches for 28 yards on 15 targets.
“Will Shepard ... had 15 targets and only three catches,” Drinkwitz said. “I mean, that’s unbelievable.”
Tasked with playing man-to-man coverage most of the day, Abrams-Draine displayed why he can be considered an All-SEC level talent and potential NFL Draft pick.
He added another highlight worthy play later in the second quarter. With Sheppard racing to the end zone, Swann placed a near-perfect pass down the sideline again. What looked like a would-be touchdown, instead, turned into another pass breakup.
If not for a phantom defensive pass interference call in the second half that gave Vanderbilt an opportunity to take the lead, Abrams-Draine day likely would have been considered perfect. Bailey, who notched a tackle for loss on Vanderbilt’s closing drive, gave the Tigers his best all-around performance of the season in his return.
Those near-perfect performances are exactly what the Mizzou program needed because without them, it’s likely the Tigers would be sitting at 2-5 with questions surrounding the program as a whole. Instead, the returning veterans helped to provide a triumphant victory in front of 60,618 fans on Homecoming and earned Mizzou its first SEC victory.