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Defense, transfers power Mizzou to 52-24 victory over Louisiana Tech

A much-improved defense under the direction of Blake Baker led the Tigers to an opening day victory against the Bulldogs Thursday night.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the season in search of a new defensive identity, Mizzou showcased that reformed defense in a big way during Thursday night’s opening game against Louisiana Tech.

The Tigers pounced on La Tech junior quarterback Matthew Downing early, intercepting three passes in the first half en route to a 52-24 victory.

Mizzou’s defense held the Bulldogs to 348 total yards, including only 22 rushing yards, while the Tiger offense rattled off 553 yards (378 rushing and 225 receiving) of their own. On defense, transfers made their impact all over the field, while transfer backs Nathanial Peat and Cody Schrader combined for 142 rushing yards. The main takeaway from the game, however, was the revitalized defense.

“I can’t say enough about that effort that those guys had,” Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “Blake Baker did an unbelievable job.”

Mizzou’s turnover party nearly began when Downing’s second pass attempt landed in the hands of Clemson transfer defensive back Joseph Charleston, however, a pass interference call gave La Tech another opportunity.

After three quick completions, Mizzou got its revenge, as defensive lineman Isaiah McGuire tipped Downing’s sixth pass of the game into the awaiting grasp of junior defensive back Jaylon Carlies.

The first look at the Tigers offense featured a three-and-out, while Downing capitalized on a 44-yard punt return from Smoke Harris to set up redshirt sophomore kicker Jacob Barnes for a 33-yard field goal to open the scoring. Looking to bounce back, Mizzou turned to a face all Mizzou fans were waiting for.

Facing a 2nd and 1, freshman wide receiver Luther Burden made the most of his first touch, rattling off a 17-yard run to send 47,653 in attendance at Farout Field into a frenzy.

“[I] really appreciate the Mizzou family showing up and being loud,” Drinkwitz said.

The Tiger defense, led by Florida transfer Ty’Ron Hopper, came on shortly after and forced the Bulldogs to punt, setting up Mizzou with strong field position. The duo of Cook and Burden brought the Tigers within the La Tech five-yard line.

Schrader recorded Mizzou’s first touchdown of the season moments later, driving through the middle for his first score as a Tiger. The defense responded with its own score, as Oregon transfer defensive lineman Kristian Williams tipped a Downing pass into the hands of Charleston, who brought it back to the house for a 29-yard interception return touchdown.

“I saw the ball get tipped,” Charleston said. “I just kept going. I caught and after that, honestly, I left my body do the rest.”

Looking to rebound, Downing found Smoke Harris on a 23-yard gain, but threw his third interception of the half to Hopper, who continued his dominant Mizzou debut. Buffalo transfer tight end Tyler Stephens fumbled at the La Tech 4-yard line, but the Bulldogs went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, giving Missouri another drive with strong field position.

The transfer running backs took control on the following drive as Schrader and Peat combined for 31 rushing yards before Burden tallied his first collegiate touchdown with a five-yard carry, where he avoided three La Tech defenders and dove into the end zone to give Mizzou a 21-3 lead.

“I just wanted to the zone,” Burden said. “I did everything possible to get in there.”

Downing found tight end Griffin Herbert for a 75-yard score on the opening play of the next drive to give La tech a much-needed touchdown. The Tigers and Bulldogs traded scoreless drives, including a 50-yard field goal miss from Barnes, before Mizzou junior kicker Harrison Mevis ended the first half with a 31-yard make to give the Tigers a 24-10 lead at the half.

Mizzou cooled down to begin the second half, going three-and-out, while La Tech punted after failing to convert on a third and long. On the next drive, Cook found Banister and Stephens on back-to-back plays to set up Mizzou in La Tech territory. Then, Burden stepped into the wildcat formation on the next play, handing it off to Lovett for an 18-yard carry before the former notched his second touchdown of the night on a one-yard rush.

Mizzou’s defense continued its strong performance, as transfer defensive lineman Jayden Jernigan recorded his first sack on the following drive and the Tigers forced another punt. Cook followed that up by working down the field before a pass deflected off of Burden’s hands and into the arms of La Tech’s Maki Carabin for an interception.

A three-and-out followed by a Mizzou touchdown drive, which featured a 29-yard rush from Schrader and a 20-yard touchdown run from Cook, increased the lead to 38-10 at the end of the third quarter.

“All I had to beat was one guy, so I stepped up into the pocket and saw that hole open up,” Cook said. “I knew pretty quickly that there was a good amount of grass to attack.”

The Tigers defense lapsed once again to begin the fourth, as La Tech opened the quarter with backup quarterback Parker McNeil’s 64-yard touchdown pass to Cyrus Allen to cut the Bulldog deficit to 38-17.

From there, Mizzou kept it's foot on the gas pedal. Peat broke away for a 34-yard touchdown run down the sideline and Jack Abraham, the Tigers’ backup quarterback, led Mizzou down the field once again following an La Tech punt.

Running back BJ Harris capped off Abraham’s drive with three consecutive rushing attempts, including a two-yard touchdown run to essentially cap the evening for Mizzou’s offense and give the Tigers a 51-17 advantage.

McNeil worked the La Tech offense down the field one last time, connecting with Cyrus Allen for his second receiving touchdown of the game. The Tigers kneeled out the clock to close out a 52-24 victory and send them to a 1-0 record with a Sept. 10 meeting with Kansas State awaiting.

“We got some pieces, so now it’s our job to build and execute at a higher level than we did today,” Drinkwitz said.