College football schedules are fairly simple to figure out. You have your blockbuster, season-changing games that everybody circles on their calendars. Then, you have your swing games that generally make up the bulk of the slate and determine how successful your team’s season is.
Then, you have your tune-up games. The matchups that you are more than expected to win and serve as outings for one’s team to develop chemistry and try out different schemes/plays.
For Missouri, those games came at the very beginning of the 2023 season. Thus, a team with high expectations and a handful of question marks had a great opportunity to get into mid-season form by the time the schedule truly heated up.
The first two outings were a mixed bag. The Tigers won games against South Dakota and Middle Tennessee State by a combined score of 58-29, but the results were anything but pretty. Outside of the first half against the Coyotes, Mizzou has yet to truly look in control of a game thus far.
Against South Dakota, the rotation at QB appeared to disrupt the offense in the second half. Against MTSU, constant pressure in the face of Brady Cook prohibited his unit from finding consistent success.
There are six key areas that I focused my attention on when evaluating this 2023 Missouri roster over the offseason. Through two games, here’s my level of confidence (1 being complete lack of faith, 10 being blind faith) in each of those facets.
It was the talk of the town throughout the offseason, and through two games, one could argue that we have the same amount of answers as we did back then.
Through two games, Cook is 31/40 for 376 yards and three touchdowns. He’s also tacked on 12 rushing yards and two scores. Those numbers are respectable, and in that first half against South Dakota, Cook looked as poised and comfortable as I have seen him in a Missouri uniform.
Sam Horn took over in the second half of that game, throwing for 54 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He had few chances to truly make a statement in the QB competition, and Cook entered Week Two as the unquestioned starter according to Eliah Drinkwitz.
Against MTSU, Cook experienced immense pressure in his face throughout the game and was sacked four times. The Blue Raiders’ blitz-heavy style was too much for the Tigers to handle, and the junior quarterback struggled at times as a result. Much can be said about how the constant activity in the backfield prevented Cook from having his usual outing, but he still missed some throws that raised concerns.
All in all, I’m still comfortable with Cook at quarterback, and I do think that he has improved in many ways (decision-making, confidence, intermediate accuracy) compared to last season. But, this team will only go as far as Cook can take them, and it remains to be seen if he has already hit his ceiling. It will continue to be a game-by-game evaluation for Drinkwitz and Co.
Confidence Level: 7.5
This is where things get really interesting. After two games, I am at a crossroads in terms of my opinions on this offensive line.
Overall, I think they are an improved unit. The transfer portal additions of Cam’Ron Johnson and Marcellus Johnson have proven to be fruitful, and Connor Tollison has stepped up at center. The unit has been able to open up plenty of holes for Cody Schrader and Nathaniel Peat in the running game, as the Tigers have averaged 3.8 yards per carry and run for 323 yards in two outings. Of course, this was against defensive fronts that will pale in comparison to what the O-line will face from here on out, but the start to the season has been encouraging in the rushing department.
On the slip side, the pass protection has left much to be desired. The unit has allowed five sacks thus far this season, and MTSU diced up the front five with its variety of blitzes. On top of that, the O-line has committed seven penalties (four false starts, three holdings) thus far, which was an issue that plagued the unit last season.
The penalties are a rough sign for an offense that can ill-afford to be behind the sticks very often, and the pass protection still appears to be an issue despite the improvements in run blocking.
The biggest issue? This unit has yet to face a defensive front that remotely resembles what it will face the rest of the season, and struggles are already present.
Confidence Level: 4
On a far more positive note, D-Line Zou appears to be in good hands.
After losing Isaiah McGuire and DJ Coleman to the NFL and Arden Walker Jr. to the transfer portal, the defensive end room was left rather barren. To cope, Drinkwitz and Blake Baker brought in Nyles Gaddy (Jackson State), Austin Firestone (Northwestern), Joe Moore III (Arizona State) and Ben Straatman (Missouri S&T), and slid star defensive tackle Darius Robinson over to the edge.
On a loaded defense, the edge rushers were the only real question mark. By the end of game one, those question marks turned into exclamation points. Junior defensive end Johnny Walker Jr. stole the show against South Dakota, finishing with a team-high six tackles, one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. He was incredibly active and disruptive off the edge, and he followed that up with another solid performance against MTSU (three tackles, half a TFL). After biding his time behind the likes of McGuire and Coleman, Walker is ready to break out in 2023.
Against the Blue Raiders, D-Rob took over, recording seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. His transition to end has been seamless, as Robinson slimmed down and worked on his pass-rush technique throughout the offseason.
Walker and Robinson have cemented themselves as the starters at edge, but Gaddy has emerged as the reliable third option. He exploded for three tackles and two sacks against MTSU, and the Jackson State-Missouri pipeline appears to be alive and well after Coleman found great success in ‘22.
With that trio spearheading the pass rush to compliment a loaded D-tackle room, the defensive line looks to be a strength rather than a concern.
Confidence Level: 8
With Luther Burden leading the receiver room and the duo of Cody Schrader and Nathaniel Peat returning for another go-round, this was not necessarily a concern for me as much as I was intrigued to see how the touches were spread out.
Thus far, Kirby Moore has made it very apparent that Burden will touch the ball early and often in every matchup. He has 213 yards on 15 catches through two games, and while many of his touches have come through screens and pop passes, he has shown visual improvement in his ability to win 50/50 balls downfield. Burden recorded the most single-game receiving yards of his career against SD to open the season, and he broke that mark in the very next game.
Schrader and Peat have complemented each other well so far. Against SD, Schrader led the way with 138 yards and a touchdown on 7.7 yards per carry. Against MTSU, Peat took control, finishing with 51 rushing yards on eight carries and a 49-yard touchdown reception. The proclaimed “thunder-and-lightning” duo has lived up to its moniker behind an offensive line that is generating solid push, and both backs appear to be more well-rounded and comfortable in their second years as Tigers.
The only issue that still nags at me is that a secondary option at receiver has yet to emerge. Oklahoma transfer Theo Wease Jr. appeared to be the most likely candidate entering the season with his size and experience, but he only has four catches for 22 yards through two games. He did record his first touchdown in a Missouri uniform on Saturday:
HIGHLIGHT :— Colby Zak (@ColbyZak_News) September 10, 2023
Mizzou senior wide receiver Theo Wease Jr. got his first touchdown catch as a Tiger in spectacular fashion!
He went up and got it when Mizzou needed points on the board.@KOMUsports @BenArnetKOMU @_TheoWeaseJr pic.twitter.com/ZKgZUFMrnJ
Mekhi Miller and Mookie Cooper were other candidates to step up, but Miller only had 10 yards after a solid Week One showing, and Cooper has only touched the ball once. Ole Miss transfer Dannis Jackson, a true speedster, has yet to register on the stat sheet.
For this offense to have success, it can’t just be Burden-or-bust.
Confidence Level: 6.5
All things considered, I have not seen many visible differences between Moore’s offense and what Drinkwitz called on the field last season.
This attack still features plenty of screen passes and outside zone concepts, which do play to the team’s strengths. Cook is accurate in the short passing game, Burden is a player that can change the game on a simple screen and this O-line blocks better on the perimeter than between the tackles. Thus, the frequency with which those plays are called has remained largely the same.
The issues I do have revolve around the flare and creativity of the offense. While I am encouraged by the vertical shots to Burden, Wease and the rest of the receiving corps have yet to really have a shot downfield. On top of that, this offense has been extremely conservative when playing with a lead, opting to punt on a key 4th and short in the MTSU game and being risk-averse in general. Again, this reminds me all too much of last season.
At the end of the day, Moore is self-admittedly a similar offensive mind to Drinkwitz who learned from similar people, so this should have been expected. But, the honeymoon phase with the young OC is approaching its end, and it is time that he starts leaving his own fingerprints on this offense with some riskier play calls.
Full disclaimer: I also certainly acknowledge that the offensive staff has likely kept the playbook fairly vanilla in the first two games as the team finds its chemistry against inferior foes. Therefore, full judgments can not be made yet.
Confidence Level: 6
From what I have seen and heard, Harrison Mevis is not the true issue here. Yes, he has been streaky over the course of his career, but he’s still a guy that you would trust in a clutch scenario. The issues, as emphasized by Drinkwitz, reside more in the snap, hold and blocking process of the kicking game.
The unit is 1-for-3 on field goals and 7-for-8 on extra points. Regarding the field goal misses against South Dakota, in one instance the laces were facing Mevis when he kicked, and on the other the ball was tipped at the line. On the extra point miss against MTSU, the ball was again blocked. And, even on the makes, the opposing team is getting far too much push up front. The snaps have been iffy, and the team has rotated through holders as well.
For a Missouri team that has a razor-thin margin for error, missing out on points due to kicking miscues can not occur.
Confidence Level: 5