It took all sixty minutes and a plethora of clutch plays and fortunate bounces, but Mizzou sent its seniors off with a 33-31 victory over Florida (5-6, 3-5) at Faurot Field on Saturday.
In the victory, the Tigers were led by a healthy mix of the present and future. Veterans Brady Cook and Cody Schrader combined for 479 yards of total offense and two scores, and Luther Burden III led the team with nine catches and 158 receiving yards.
Those players spearheading the offensive attack was nothing new, but some of the younger players on Mizzou’s roster also showed their future potential. Freshman tight end Brett Norfleet recorded three catches for 43 yards, which included a clean hurdle in the first quarter. On the other side of the ball, JUCO transfer and first-year linebacker Triston Newson, who stepped in for the injured Ty’Ron Hopper, tied for the team lead with nine tackles.
The cliché “I’d rather be lucky than good” flies around sports often and generally is used in a joking manner.
But, it is a cliché for a reason. Ask every national championship-winning coach, player or athletic director: Everybody needs at least a hint of luck to achieve their goals.
Well, Mizzou (9-2, 5-2) could consider itself somewhat fortunate on Saturday, although the Tigers certainly capitalized on Lady Luck’s good graces.
Facing a two-point deficit at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Florida found itself at Missouri’s 15-yard line with a chance to take back a lead it had only recently lost.
But the Gators, who were already without a handful of offensive linemen in this game, also had just watched starting quarterback Graham Mertz walk into the locker room following a big hit. Thus, redshirt-freshman Max Brown entered the game and was charged with leading the Florida offense despite having only thrown seven passes this season.
While Brown played admirably given the situation, he did make a game-changing mistake. On a 2nd-down play in the red zone, Brown mishandled a handoff and dropped the ball. Krisitian Williams swiftly jumped on the loose ball, and Missouri regained possession with a two-point lead.
Two plays later, Cook found Theo Wease Jr. for a 77-yard touchdown in which the former Oklahoma Sooner took a simple check down and showed off his wheels down the sideline for the first time this season. The Tigers led 30-21 with just over 13 minutes remaining and had the wind at their backs.
To Brown’s credit, he bounced back from the mistake. He led a 10-play, 75-yard drive that was capped off by a nine-yard touchdown run from Trevor Etienne, who really exploded in the second half. He finished with 119 total yards and two scores.
“We just weren’t playing good ball up front,” Senior defensive end Darius Robinson said. “They won more plays than we won, and instead of 3-4 yards it was 9-10 yards. It’s not the standard of our defense.”
Missouri was unable to mount a drive on the ensuing possession, and Florida took advantage. The Gators marched down the field and knocked home a 35-yard field goal to claim a 31-30 lead with 1:36 remaining in the game.
Cook had one more chance to lead a game-winning drive, but his offense found itself facing a 4th-and-17 on its own 33-yard line thanks to a false start, a negative yardage play and a pair of incompletions.
With Florida’s win probability peaking at 89.8% in this moment, these Tigers did what they had done all season. Cook dropped back and found a drifting Burden for a 27-yard completion after the star receiver settled into a soft spot in the zone.
With the tide of the game shifted, Cook found Mekhi Miller (who already had a clutch third-down catch on the drive) and Mookie Cooper for a pair of chunk yardage gains, setting up Harrison Mevis for a 30-yard field goal to potentially win the game.
As he has generally done throughout his career, Mevis delivered in a big moment when the team needed it most. He promptly began doing the Gator Chomp on the field.
“He’s [Mevis] money with the celebrations,” Cook said of the kicker. “He’s probably coming around somewhere right now.”
The rest of this game could be a separate story in and of itself.
With Senior Night comes plenty of energy and emotions, especially for a veteran-laden team such as Mizzou. As a result, some teams can press during the opening quarter and try to do too much in a game that seems to take on an added level of importance due to its sense of finality.
The Tigers appeared to fall into that trap early on. Mizzou ran the ball on its first five plays from scrimmage, which resulted in 32 yards and some positive momentum. Cook found Norfleet for a 16-yard completion that was highlighted by the aforementioned hurdle from the 6-foot-7 tight end, and the home team appeared set to reach the end zone and set the tone of this game.
“I can’t say enough about Brett. He’s a freshman, and he shows up to work everyday,” Cook said of Norfleet. “He’s playing against juniors, seniors in the SEC and he’s making plays. I mean, he hurdled a guy. I’m glad he’s just a freshman.”
Instead, the drive stalled and Mevis was forced to step on for a 22-yard field goal, a theme of the day. Florida quickly responded on its next drive thanks to a 61-yard completion from Mertz to Ricky Pearsall in which the speedy receiver broke away from Ennis Rakestraw Jr. and found some green grass to chew up. Mertz then found a streaking Eugene Wilson III on a crossing route in the end zone, putting the visiting Gators ahead 7-3 with 7:49 remaining in the opening quarter.
The two sides traded a pair of punts each, and the Tiger offense specifically could not find much success through the air due to Florida’s physicality on the perimeter. Cook completed six of his 13 passes in the first half, and the aerial attack that had lit up so many other SEC defenses this season appeared to hit a rut early on.
But, in storybook fashion, the hero of last weekend’s 36-7 victory over Tennessee stepped up and sparked the offensive attack. Schrader scampered untouched into the end zone from 42 yards out after his offensive line opened a hole that a semi-truck could have driven through on the left side. He finished with 123 rushing yards in the first half on a whopping 8.2 yards per carry, and while Schrader will get a lot of the credit, the offensive line really leaned on the Florida front seven as the opening half went on.
The Gators found moderate offensive success through attacking the Tiger defense on the edges with sweeps to the ever-elusive Wilson and Pearsall, but Blake Baker and Co. made the appropriate adjustments to that as the half progressed. Mertz led a promising four-minute drive late in the half, but he overthrew Wilson on a deep cross, who then tipped the ball into the waiting arms of JC Carlies. The interception was just Mertz’ third of the 2023 campaign.
The Tigers managed to translate that turnover into another Mevis field goal, putting momentum safely in the home team’s favor going into the break ahead 13-7.
Following a first half that resembled two boxers feeling each other out in a ring, the third quarter featured two prized offenses going punch-for-punch with each other.
The Gators opened up the second half with a 4-play, 75-yard drive that saw star tailback Trevor Etienne account for 68 of those yards, including a 37-yard touchdown reception from Mertz on a broken play.
Mizzou responded swiftly. Cook peppered the ball to Burden and Norfleet, with each of the targets racking up plenty of yards after the catch to keep the momentum rolling. In the end, Cook took care of the dirty work by plunging in from one-yard out to put Missouri back in front by a score of 20-14 with 8:53 remaining in the third quarter.
Alas, the Gators were not done with manufacturing chunk plays. This time, Florida only needed three plays to travel 82 yards, with Mertz finding tight end Hayden Hansen on a slip route for 38 yards before Pearsall took a jet sweep with a head of steam into the end zone from 39-yards out, barely brushing past KAD on the way.
As it has done all season, the Tiger offense responded. A balanced drive resulted another short Mevis field goal, and the home team took a slim 23-21 advantage into the final frame.
Next up for Mizzou is a Battle Line Rivalry presented by Shelter Insurance matchup with Arkansas (4-7, 1-6). The Razorbacks have played almost every team close this season, but they have been on the losing end of tight games more often than not. As of late, the wheels have appeared to come off for Sam Pittman and Co., and the Tigers can all but secure a New Year’s Six bowl berth with a win.