Welcome back to “Five Plays”, where I’ll break down the previous week’s football game in, you guessed it, five plays. Over the past ten seasons, the average college football team has run around 70-73 plays per game, but most of them don’t matter as much as others. Oftentimes, there’s a select few that can tell the story of an entire game, and I’m here to break them down. To the film room!
One meme recap to describe Mizzou’s 38-21 victory over Vanderbilt:
These first few games of the season have felt like checkpoints that hadn’t been passed with previous iterations of Mizzou football. Heading into Nashville, they’d passed all of them. Beat Middle Tennessee State at Faurot? Check. Beat a ranked team at Faurot? Check. Start the season 4-0? Check.
The checkpoint on Saturday, however, was a daunting one. The demons of 2019 were still ever-present, especially because 2023 presented a nearly identical scenario. Mizzou had just gotten ranked, and the game after Vanderbilt was to be against a better opponent back in Columbia. The bright futures of the past were darkened with one deflating defeat, with the one to the Commodores in 2019 being the worst of them all. Also, it’d been a whole decade since the Tigers had exited September unscathed.
Once again, however, Mizzou proved they weren’t the same old Tigers. Sure, silly miscues popped up in spurts – they included a bad snap from Connor Tollison, a drop from Nathaniel Peat on what would’ve been a surefire touchdown and Mizzou’s defense-killing momentum that was just gained by the offense.
But the Tigers took care of business. Brady Cook had a record-setting day, a handful of wideouts had big games and the defense made plays when it mattered the most. Instead of tainting a promising run with a bad loss to Vanderbilt, Mizzou kept the Commodores at bay and are now 5-0 for the first time since 2013.
Here are five plays that defined the stupendously productive afternoon.
Play #1: Austin Firestone saves the day
While this wasn’t necessarily the most electric play of the game, it was arguably the most important.
By this point in the game, Vanderbilt was threatening. The wave of momentum that’d been with Mizzou for essentially the entire game was starting to shift toward the Commodores. Seals & Co. had a chance to make what was a blowout not too long before a one-possession game if they put together a nice touchdown drive. The eerie, suspenseful music was growing louder.
A couple of completions over the air signaled a continuation of what looked to be a defensive meltdown from Mizzou. Not only had they already let up to back-to-back touchdown drives, they only took up a combined 2:07 off the clock. The Tigers had been playing zone defense for almost all of them, either because a) they’d had struggled covering man-to-man over the past few weeks, or b) they greatly respected Vandy’s exceptional receiver group. Nevertheless, it’d gotten torched for big gains, as Will Sheppard and Junior Sherrill were able to run freely over the middle for huge gains.
“In a Cover 3 defense, you can’t allow someone to run through the middle of the field,” Drinkwitz said. “We’ve got to get those things cleaned up.”
However, the Tigers bounced back and forced a 4th & 4, which felt like it could be the game. Mizzou direly needed someone to step up.
Enter Austin Firestone.
All game long, the Tigers had been just a half second late on pressuring Ken Seals, who seemed to always get a pass off right before a white jersey smashed into him. But when the game was on the line, the Tigers finally got a sack when it mattered the most, and it was from a guy stepping up in the wake of another’s absence.
Darius Robinson didn’t make the trip to Nashville after suffering a calf injury against Memphis last week, so Firestone, Nyles Gaddy and Joe Moore saw increased playing time on Saturday.
And just like last week, a backup made a big-time play. Yay depth!
Play #2: It’s deja vu all over again
Through the sea of complex X’s and O’s that envelop football tactics, the smartest minds are the ones who don’t overthink. Oftentimes, when a player possesses an elite skill, the best coaches will do everything they can to maximize that skill.
Marquis Johnson is a perfect example. He is very fast, so fast that Drinkwitz compared his speed to lightning, which travels at 270,000 MPH. High praise! Since Johnson is usually the fastest player on the field, Moore has dialed up a play-action bomb to Johnson at least once in the past two games, and it’s worked multiple times.
So naturally, Moore called it again against Vanderbilt. You will not believe what happened when Johnson lined up one-on-one with a slower defensive back.
Are you kidding me with this throw, Brady? Hot damn. I need a cigarette and a sandwich. That was beautiful. pic.twitter.com/abnprFSJeq— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) September 30, 2023
Sometimes, it’s as simple as finding a mismatch and exploiting it.
“It’s so hard to overthrow him,” Cook said after the game. “I know if I throw it as far as I can, he’s going to run under it and catch it.”
After recording two passing touchdowns of 40 yards or more all of last season, Mizzou already has four through five games this season, and a lot of it is thanks to Johnson. Heck, even when he doesn’t get the ball, defenses have respected his speed to a point where him running deep has opened up receivers underneath.
Players who can impact the game without the ball in their hands are extremely valuable. Over these past few games, Johnson has proven to be just that.
Play #3: It’s deja vu all over again (again)
Luther Burden usually dices up defenses with the ball in his hands. This time, however, he diverted from his Deebo Samuel-style game and turned into a more traditional wide receiver. He didn’t have to do much other than run past his defender on a fade, because Cook delivered arguably the prettiest pass he’s ever thrown in a Mizzou jersey.
Luther Burden talent level: ridiculous— Oliver Hodgkinson (@ojhodgkinson) September 30, 2023
And then, moments after Firestone’s clutch fourth-down sack, Cook and Burden connected on the exact same play, but on the other side of the field.
(Yes, I know that was two plays, but they illustrate the same idea. Also, I make the rules around here.)
Burden had another big day, surpassing the century mark in the air once again. He now only sits behind Colorado State’s Troy Horton in receptions and leads the team conference country in receiving yards. He is a blessing that we must cherish for as long as he’s a Missouri Tiger.
But I think now’s the time to gush over Cook.
As Sam talked about in his Pourover, it feels like Cook has taken the step. For me, there isn’t a whole lot that constitutes “taking the step”; it’s more of a feeling rather than something that’s quantifiable. The main question I want to answer is “when the ball is in this player’s hands, does disaster feel unlikely?”
The answer has undoubtedly become yes. A chunk of it can be credited to Moore manufacturing easier opportunities over the air for Cook, and it’s crystal clear how that’s positively affected Cook’s confidence. Panic in the pocket has been sparse; with time to throw to open receivers, Cook has looked so much more sure of himself.
Even better, he’s taking risks and converting – when targeting a receiver 15+ yards down the field, Cook is 17/24 for 520 yards over the past three weeks. Not only that, Cook’s streak of avoiding a mistake throwing the ball reached historic heights, as he set the record for most completions without an interception in SEC history. The combination of timely risk-taking and smart decision-making has been a big part of what’s propelled the Tigers to new heights offensively.
“It allows the offensive coordinator to be aggressive in his play calling,” Drinkwitz said. “There was no fear of ‘can we put it in his hands?’. I think that’s the biggest thing is when a coordinator and a quarterback see the game the same way. They kind of know what the outcome is going to be based on what we know the defense is.”
Saturday was one of Mizzou’s most prolific offensive performances in recent memory. Here’s a list of more statistical milestones achieved by Mizzou on Saturday and the last time the they achieved it:
- 500 yards of total offense: Louisiana Tech on 9/1/2022
- Three straight games with 30+ points: Five straight from 9/7-10/12 in 2019
- Two 100+ yard receivers in the same game: Albert Okwuegbunam and Jalen Knox vs. Memphis on 10/20/2018
- Completion% >80%, 390+ yards and 4+ touchdowns on 40+ pass attempts: Idk (it’s sometime before 2000 because that’s the limit of Sports Reference’s game logs).
After watching LSU’s defense get torn to shreds by Ole Miss, next week’s contest against the Tigers from Baton Rouge very well may be another high-scoring outing from Mizzou.
Play #4: WHY’S (TYSON) CRYIN’? ‘CAUSE HE JUST GOT DUNKED ON!
For those who were not on YouTube in the early 2010’s, I’m terribly sorry. You missed out on some seriously amazing stuff. Here’s the video I’m referencing in the subhead:
As I documented last week, Theo Wease Island is a perilous place for defensive backs. There’s no food, water or shelter. Help is far away; no one’s coming to save you. Only the bleak sight of number one on Mizzou stares you down, piercing your soul like 1,000 arrows.
And then, when the time is right, he strikes. There’s nothing you can do to stop the inevitable. When the ball goes up, you’re going down.
TOUCHDOWN, Tigers! Brady Cook to Theo Wease Jr for the score! pic.twitter.com/Ojo3ai5SUL— Mizzou Football (@MizzouFootball) September 30, 2023
Sometimes, it’s as simple as finding a mismatch and exploiting it.
“Theo just gets open,” Drinkwitz said. “Brady just has so much confidence in him. He’s got really elite body control.”
It capped off Wease’s best half of his collegiate career, as he finished the first two quarters with seven catches, 97 yards and an epic moss of Vanderbilt DB Tyson Russell. Wease ended the day with 118 yards and a score, good for easily his best game in black and gold The Oklahoma transfer has been everything that was promised and then some; not only has Wease been a reliable security blanket in the red zone, he’s been able to create chunk gains after the catch, too.
Even best of all, it gave the Tigers momentum heading into halftime, which they’ve struggled to do for awhile. As Josh Matejka has noted in pretty much every “key to the game” article since 2022, Mizzou needed to finish their dang drives in order to stave off a potential repeat of 2019, where the Tigers did not finish their dang drives. This touchdown finished a dang drive.
Play #5: Choo choo, here comes the Schrad Train
In the box score, this run only went down as a nine-yard carry for Cody Schrader.
On the field, it was an emblem of hard-nosed, superior physicality from Mizzou.
When talent-rich football teams fall to not-as-talented teams, losing in the trenches is often to blame. For whatever, upsets happen when teams play down to their competition, and that includes Goliath falling to impose their physical will on David.
That was far from the case on Saturday. Despite a handful of mental mistakes, Mizzou’s offensive line dominated Vanderbilt’s defensive line. Cook didn’t get sacked once and had plenty of time to throw for most of the afternoon. While the ground game wasn’t world-beating, Schrader and Nathaniel Peat had lots of room to run, and Schrader continued to run like a wrecking ball.
Coincidentally, the black jersey who got trucked was CJ Taylor; if that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the one who jumped over Schrader and forced a sack fumble in last year’s matchup, which led to a Vandy touchdown. Obviously, Schrader had no malicious intent on the play; he and Taylor are now just even on shocking football feats. It was simply inadvertent revenge for last season.