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Five Takeaways from Mizzou’s 29-27 victory against Arkansas

It wasn’t easy, but it was highly entertaining!

Arkansas v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Sometimes, football is fun. Other times, it’s exhausting. Today, it was both. We knew this game had the potential to include some fireworks. Arkansas’ defense is swiss cheese. Missouri’s offense has shown some real progress in recent weeks. The Tigers’ defense is all about creating havoc, at times at the expense of giving up explosive plays. Arkansas’ offense lives on explosives.

It all set up for a fun game with the potential of a dramatic finish. This one lived up to the hype. Let’s get to the takeaways.

1) That was the best version of this Missouri offense

Missouri’s offense is not constructed to put up 50 points against power five opponents. It’s not going to post 700-yard games. But it can be efficient, and it can score enough. The Tigers finished this game with 468 total yards on 7.2 yards per play. It was the first time Missouri finished with at least seven yards per play in a conference game since 2020 (also against Arkansas). How did they do it? Well, Brady Cook played arguably his best game in a Missouri uniform.

Let’s give credit where it’s due. Cook has taken his game to another level over the past five weeks. In that stretch, he’s completed 90 of 138 passes (65 percent) for 1,081 yards (7.8 yards per attempt), seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s also added 60 carries for 385 yards and four touchdowns. That’s an average of 293 total yards and two touchdowns per game. Not bad!

And he capped it off with his best performance yet, especially on the ground. He finished with 240 yards through the air and 140 yards on the ground. He’s the first Missouri player to accomplish that feat since Brad Smith did so in 2005. It wasn’t all Cook, of course. Dominic Lovett came up with some massive plays. Mekhi Miller once again came up big in the clutch. Luther Burden III found the end zone again, bringing his season touchdown total to eight. Cody Schrader did a heck of a job on the ground. And the offensive line had one of its better games on the season.

The whole unit seemed to really come together. Sure, it was against a leaky defense missing a couple starters. I don’t care. They got the job done. It’s time to give credit where it’s due.

2) Styles make fights, and that was an entertaining fight for Missouri’s defense

This one wasn’t hard to predict. Arkansas’ offense lives off big plays. Missouri’s defense is willing to trade big plays for havoc. That’s exactly what we saw in this game when Missouri’s defense was on the field. Arkansas had four pass plays of 15+ yards, and seven runs of a least 10 yards. The explosives were there. But so was the havoc. Missouri finished with 11 tackles for loss, two pass deflections and two forced fumbles. That’s good for a 26 percent havoc rate, which is above the threshold Missouri needs in order for this defense to work.

It’s impossible to know who will or will not play in the bowl game, but if this was our final opportunity to see Ty’Ron Hopper, Darius Robinson, Isaiah McGuire and Martez Manuel in a Missouri uniform, they ended on a high note. Those four players finished with a combined 25 tackles, five sacks and seven tackles for loss.

One other thing I wanted to make sure to mention, because I don’t think it will get enough attention, Raheim “Rocket” Sanders finished the game with 10 carries for just 47 yards. It was just the second time this season Sanders was held below 60 rushing yards (LSU). It’s no coincidence that Missouri held Arkansas to its second lowest total yardage output (318 yards) on the season, as a result.

3) Special Teams actually came through!

Jack Stonehouse had some excellent punts, including two that were downed inside the 20 and another at the end of the game that I’m still convinced bounced out of bounds (thank God that didn’t matter). Harrison Mevis was 3-for-3 from inside 40, and his lone miss was on a 55-yard attempt that had the leg, but missed just to the right. Zachary Lovett was able to block a punt that set up the Tigers to have a chance at a field goal midway through the fourth quarter.

Missouri’s special teams have been a disaster at times this season. Not today. They were (finally) a contributing factor in the win.

4) Mizzou’s young players came up clutch

Taking into account the opponent, Cook had his best game of the season. The same might be true for Lovett. Burden continued to flash his red zone playmaking ability. Miller came up with another catch in the clutch. Daylan Carnell had a huge interception. Johnny Walker, Jr. picked up a sack. These are the kinds of flashes you want to see down the stretch from the young players likely to play key roles in 2023.

Missouri suddenly has core of pass-catchers that can help insulate a quarterback. The secondary should return most of its production. The defensive line has a couple key contributors on the way out, so it was encouraging to see both Arden and Johnny Walker getting some reps in a big game.

5) Missouri’s season is a bit of a Rorschach Test

What are you supposed to make of this season? There will be plenty of time for that discussion. And, trust me, we’ll have it. But, first, let’s get into the two arguments, both of which are legitimate.

The argument in favor of progress:

  • Missouri lost big last year. They lost by multiple scores against Tennessee, Texas A&M, Georgia and Arkansas. They seemed to play worse as the season went along. They leaned so heavily on older players throughout that the young guys never really had an opportunity to show what they could do. Sure, they won six games, but nothing about that season felt sustainable. This year was different. They lost close the vast majority of the season. The lone exceptions were against Kansas State and Tennessee; both on the road, and both against legitimate top 10-15 opponents. They had a shot to beat the top-ranked team in the country. They probably should have won at Auburn and at home against Kentucky. The same could have been true at Florida if two wide receivers don’t get knocked off their routes, leading to two interceptions, one of which was a pick six. The offense is primarily built around young players, the defense finally has a scheme and a coach that we trust, and the progress feels more sustainable.

The case against progress:

  • The team still won six games. Penalties, turnovers and unforced errors remain a problem. Sure, they could have won another three or four games, but they didn’t. They also won one score games against Vanderbilt and Arkansas. That’s how it goes when you constantly play close games. The passing offense, while improved, still struggled to provide explosive plays. The defense might be losing its two best players in Ty’Ron Hopper and Isaiah McGuire. The coaching is still a real question mark despite Drinkwitz receiving an extension.

Which case do you subscribe to? It’s a Rorschach Test. Missouri will finish the season better in SP+. Personally, I think it’s pretty clear this is a better football team. There has been enough signs of progress from young players that I think it feels more “real” than it did after 2020 or 2021. But there are still legitimate questions to be answered. We have plenty of time to discuss how or if those questions will be answered in the offseason.

For now, the Tigers secured a bowl eligibility with a highly entertaining victory in a rivalry game. That’s cause for celebration. We’ll get to the rest later. Enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend. And, as always, thanks for reading.