On a celebratory night, Mizzou ignited just that— a celebration.
Saturday night was a celebration of what had been an exceptional season. 27 seniors were honored on senior night, which included several program cornerstones. One of those cornerstones, Darius Robinson, replaced “Robinson” with “Mizzou” on his jersey name plate. Seeing a sold out Faurot Field under the lights with a “9” next to Mizzou’s name on the score ticker was reminiscent of wondrous years past.
The expected postgame festivities were delayed by a valiant fight from Florida, but the fact of the matter is, the festivities happened. Despite facing a fourth-and-17 with no timeouts with both the game and a NY6 bowl on the line, the Tigers found a way to win.
In a series that’s been a roller coaster ever since the two started playing each other annually in 2012 — thrillers, blowouts and everything in between — Mizzou came out on top and sent the seniors off in style.
1) Harrison Mevis does it again
Forget the inconsistencies. Forget the numbers that indicate a decline in performance compared to previous seasons. Harrison Mevis is a big time player that steps up in big games. Santana Moss would be proud!
It wasn’t just the last kick; Mevis went 4/4 on the night. Just like in the Georgia game last season, he salvaged points when the offense struggled to finish drives (more on that soon), And when his team needed him the most, he came through. Again.
For now, Mevis’ season won’t be remembered for his mistakes. It’ll be remembered for his successes because, at the end of the day, results are what matters most, and Mevis’ frozen veins have propelled Mizzou to several winning results during his time in Columbia.
2) The aerial attack took a little while to get off the ground, but they took flight when it mattered most
For so much of this season, the passing and rushing attacks have complemented each other. The danger of the run has opened up opportunities in the air, and vice versa.
Not including the jet sweep to Luther Burden that gained seven yards, Cook started 1/6. His only other completion was a play-action dump off to Brett Norfleet, who did most of the heavy lifting on the play.
What also exacerbated the struggles throwing the ball was the fact that a handful of incompletions happened on second-and-long. This put Mizzou in unfavorable third down situations; although Mizzou was excellent on third down (9/16, 56.3%, would be tops in the nation over a full season), it made life a little more difficult for Cook & Co.
Again, it was only a handful of plays (almost 60% of Cook’s passing yards came on four plays), but they swung the game. Burden had a pair of huge catches that saw him shake off would-be tacklers, one of which saw Burden make a Florida DB crumble when they collided at the catch point. Speaking of Burden, Theo Wease Jr. emulated his superstar teammate when he caught a play-action pass in the flat and beelined 77 yards to the house. Check out the blocks from Burden and Mookie Cooper!
Then came the big one. The memorable one. The one that kept the dream of 10 wins and a NY6 bowl alive. It didn’t end up mattering that Mizzou had struggled through the air over the past 59 minutes and 22 seconds. What mattered is that Burden found a soft spot in the defense, and Cook placed the ball right where it needed to be. Even amidst tall odds, they found a way to succeed.
Not only that, Cook found Cooper and Mekhi Miller for a combined 27 yards on two passing plays that set up Mevis for a much easier kick to win the game.
Mizzou sports fans just witnessed this with the men’s basketball team in their comeback victory over Minnesota. Yes, they’d played poorly for a large chunk of the game, but what ultimately mattered was how they finished. Sean East II had gotten shut out in the second half, but that won’t be remembered; what will be remembered was the and-one he converted with 10 seconds left that ended up being the game-winner.
Drinkwitz has mentioned countless times how Mizzou has continuously found ways to win this season. Saturday can certainly be added to that collection.
3) The defense allowed too many chunk gains, but made enough plays in the end
One of the many crushing losses tenured Mizzou fans probably remember was the 21-14 loss to Vanderbilt in 2019.
In that game, Mizzou’s defense held strong, allowing just 21 points. However, amidst their offense sputtering, the big plays they allowed proved to be the difference. Vandy registered four plays of 20+ yards and two plays of 30+ yards, including a 61-yard touchdown by Ke’Shawn Vaughn at the end of the first half.
While there was a lot more scoring against Florida, the same lesson applied: In close games, big plays become incredibly valuable, and it showed again on Saturday.
Florida registered eight plays of 25+ yards, several of which being either touchdowns or plays that led to touchdowns. Mizzou often got caught out of position defensively. It’s what plagued them against LSU, and the same issue resurfaced against Florida.
However, the Tigers didn’t let their leakages on defense define the evening. Even on the long Pearsall catch-and-run, Ennis Rakestraw, whose tumble in man coverage allowed Pearsall to break free in the first place, recovered and tracked down the speedster to save a touchdown. Not too long after, JC Carlies picked off Graham Mertz on a deflection, which eventually led to three points. Later in the game, when Florida was threatening to retake the lead, Kristian Williams recovered a botched handoff by Florida. Two plays later, Wease was flying.
Again, Mizzou hadn’t looked this porous defensively since the Kentucky game pre-fake punt. However, like Mevis, what mattered was the result. The result was a win, and the impact plays made by the defense had a lot to do with it.
4) Once again, Mizzou pounded the rock and found immense success
No, Eli Drinkwitz didn’t hit Dwayne Johnson with his car. Rather, it was Florida’s defense that got hit by Cody Schrader, who runs like a truck with a V8 engine.
Topping last week’s running nirvana against Tennessee was going to be nearly impossible, but Schrader still put together one heck of an encore with 148 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown. He also achieved another milestone, as he surpassed 5,000 career rushing yards in the first half.
Mizzou established their superiority on the ground immediately. Schrader had a few bruising runs on the opening drive, and Nathaniel Peat even had a 16-yard carry. Not only was Schrader yearning and churning early, but the offensive line was creating open running lanes, too.
Then, BANG. Schrader found a hole and was off to the races. Running nirvana was achieved once again. It was one of two runs of 30+ yards for Schrader on the evening.
It wasn’t just Schrader doing the heavy lifting on the ground. Once again, the offensive line played exceptionally, helping clear the way for Schrader to break loose. The unit that was tabbed as a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award (best offensive line in the country) earlier in the week looked deserving of it on Saturday.
5) Finishing drives was an issue...again
On the surface, it appears as if Mizzou is kicking butt once they get close to paydirt. Their 97.7% success rate in the red zone was tops in the nation heading into Saturday.
However, beneath that statistic lies another statistic that’s not very glistening. Red zone scores include not just touchdowns, but field goals as well. Out of the 16 teams with at least 40 red zone scores entering Saturday, Mizzou was tied with the fightin’ Barry Odom’s at UNLV for the greatest percentage of trips to end in a field goal (14/42, which is exactly a third).
A similar story was written on Saturday. The first drive that featured Schrader cruisin’ and bruisin’, Peat breaking a chunk run as well as Norfleet taking flight on a hurdle...stalled inside of UF’s 10-yard line. Field goal.
Towards the end of the half, Cody Schrader broke loose for a 34-yard run that put Mizzou inside of the Gators’ 30-yard line...only for it to stall once again. Field goal.
In the twilight of the third quarter, Burden made a Florida DB crumble after colliding with him en route to a 48-yard gain. A roughing the passer on Florida brought the ball inside of UF’s 10-yard line. However, a Javon Foster hold brought the Tigers back 10 yards. Two plays later, an ineligible receiver downfield penalty didn’t just bring back a touchdown from Norfleet, but also brought Mizzou back another five yards.
Then, as if the Wizard of Unluckiness couldn’t enact any more spells on the home team, a Burden touchdown off of a UF deflection was overturned because the ball hit the ground as Burden sprawled to make a diving catch. After all of that...field goal.
The final tally: four trips inside of Florida’s 30-yard line yielded three field goals and a touchdown. That’s been the story of Mizzou’s red zone adventures this season, and it nearly came back to bite them. Luckily for them, the Wizard of Unluckiness was nowhere to be found in the end.
6) (BONUS TAKEAWAY) The path to a NY6 bowl has become even clearer
The stage is set. The only thing that stands between Mizzou and a NY6 bowl is...Arkansas.
On one hand, Arkansas is objectively inferior, and this should be, on paper, an easy win for Mizzou. After all, they're just two weeks removed from a 48-10 shellacking at the hands of Auburn.
On the other hand, however, the trip down south may not be the cakewalk many think it might be. Their 4-7 record is a little misleading; the Razorbacks are 1-5 in one possession games, which have included valiant battles against Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss. It’s a rivalry game at home with a chance to spoil that rival going to a NY6 bowl. A victory would also be huge for Sam Pittman, whose seat is definitely beyond lukewarm.
Plenty of teams throughout college football history have had, on paper, clear paths to awesome bowl games and even the national title late in the season...and stumbled. They lost to a team they shouldn’t have, which illicited echoes of “could’ve”, “should’ve” and “would’ve”.
For me, it happened in 2017. My beloved Miami (FL) Hurricanes were 10-0 heading into Pittsburgh. The Panthers were 4-7 and were led by some freshman quarterback named Kenny Pickett, who was making just his second career start. Despite essentially everything favoring UM, Miami hurricane’d into an upset defeat behind their worst offensive outing of the season.
This isn’t to say that Mizzou's trip to Fayetteville on Black Friday is going to go dark — it’s simply an acknowledgment of a scenario that many teams in Mizzou’s current position have found themselves in before. Heck, it almost happened to Mizzou on Saturday night.
However, it’s right there for the Tigers. Mizzou has taken down far better teams than Arkansas this season. Even more importantly, Drinkwitz’s crew has possessed a mentality that only focuses on the present, which is especially important pertaining to the situation Mizzou finds themselves in now.
The game on Friday could certainly be considered a “sandwich” game; this victory could easily be dwelled upon, and a win over the Razorbacks would, in all likelihood, clinch a New Year’s Six bowl along with a 10-win season.
For most of the season, however, Mizzou has sandwiched the opposition, and that’s stemmed from focusing on what’s directly in front of them instead of behind or ahead of them. As long as the Tigers goes 1-0 next week (something they’ve done nine times already), the 2023 squad will etch their name deeper into Mizzou football lore.