For Mizzou fans everywhere, Saturday was a breath of fresh air.
The 30-27 final result in favor of the home team was obviously the biggest reason, but the way this offense performed is encouraging for the long-term outlook of this team.
One of the most notable moves Missouri made this offseason was in hiring offensive coordinator Kirby Moore from Fresno State. Kirby, the brother of the Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, brought with him a fast-tempo, explosive offensive attack that targeted the perimeter and getting the ball in playmakers’ hands. His offense at Fresno, spearheaded by 9,000-yard passer Jake Haener, was among the best in the nation in 2022 and averaged just over 30 points per game.
Eliah Drinkwitz noted throughout the offseason that he and Moore have similar mindsets regarding offensive schemes and have worked under some of the same names, thus the marriage was supposed to be seamless.
In the first two weeks, there were plenty of seams. The Tiger offense played a picture-perfect first half against South Dakota, leading 28-3, but a change at QB derailed the team’s momentum. Against MTSU, the Blue Raiders’ blitzing style proved to disrupt the flow of the offense.
The numbers from both games (753 combined total yards, 58 points, 13-for-23 on third downs, 5.75 yards per play) were solid, but the unit as a whole was less than impressive.
Now, much can be said about a coaching staff wanting to keep its offensive playbook fairly vanilla against inferior foes to develop chemistry—for both coaches and players—to start the season. But, doubts still lingered entering the K-State game.
Those doubts were put to bed early against the Wildcats. After Colin Klein’s scripted first drive turned into seven points, Moore responded with his own planned possession.
The Tigers proceeded to tie the game, and it came in large part thanks to Brady Cook. The much-maligned quarterback ran the ball by-design on three plays and threw it three times, and the playbook seemed to open up for him in this game. Cook was looking down field early and often, and the 47-yard dime to an open Luther Burden in the first quarter may be the best throw of his career thus far.
Check out the first half highlights from #Mizzou's Brady Cook ⤵️— Nathalie Jones (@NathalieABC17) September 16, 2023
Two touchdowns and a couple nice passes‼️ Tiger offense has looked sharper than in the first two games of the year pic.twitter.com/qDYgJLBrph
The play calling as a whole just appeared to be more aggressive and creative. Burden got the ball in his hands plenty of times, but Moore also expertly used him as a distraction on multiple plays, including Cook’s touchdown run in the second quarter.
On top of that, you saw plenty more of the route combinations that got Nathaniel Peat so open on his score against MTSU last week, specifically with wheel routes. Brett Norfleet got involved in that regard, and the freshman tight end finished with two catches for 40 yards as he appears to be working his way up the depth chart.
Norfleet’s emergence as an athletic pass-catcher would be a major boost for this offense, and Mookie Cooper and Burden also got involved in some of those vertical wheel routes as well.
“I thought we were very aggressive in attacking,” Drinkwitz said of the offense. “I thought Kirby had some really good play-calls and designs.”
Here’s the highlights of the team’s second scoring drive in the first half, which includes Cooper and Norfleet’s catches, as well as Cook’s deceptive run.
Cook looked as comfortable as he has all year long in this game, testing the vaunted Kansas State defense downfield and hurting it with his legs whenever he could. With the running game only mustering 74 yards, a lot was put on his shoulders, and Cook stepped up to the plate.
“I’m so glad he played so well, that’s why he’s the starting quarterback,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s a really good football player.”
He spread the ball around more than he did in the first two outings, as nine players recorded a catch. Wease and Cooper’s performances (151 combined yards, 15.9 YPC) are a great sign for a team that was in desperate need of a reliable WR2 to Burden.
Cook spraining his knee before halftime and a controlling performance from the Wildcats in the third quarter prevented the Tiger offense from finding much success in the frame, but QB1 yet again showcased his improved accuracy with deep throws to Wease and freshman Marquis Johnson, setting up a Harrison Mevis field goal.
“Knee sprain in the second quarter, plays his butt off despite being limited running the ball,” Drinkwitz said of his QB. “He still came out and used his arm to throw the ball down the field.”
Johnson, who the coaching staff had said that they wanted to get more involved after the first two weeks, came up with a great contested catch.
On the 26-yard touchdown to Burden in the fourth quarter, the play was designed to be a pump fake to a double move off the screen action, but Cook diagnosed that the play wasn’t there. Instead, he checked it down to Burden while under duress, and the star receiver did the rest.
“He was just a distraction guy,” Cook said of Burden’s role on the play. “We got pressure off the edge, just a free-blitzer, so I was like ‘oh better dish this off to Luther,’ and he made an incredibly play.”
That was a high-level read that was made in milliseconds by Cook, who finished with a career-high 356 passing yards and two touchdowns on 23-for-35 passing.
Luther Burden is a damn cheat code man.— Mark Kim (@MarkJKim_) September 16, 2023
Give him the ball and let him work his magic. pic.twitter.com/ZVXnG1EBTY
In the end, there were still some missed opportunities. Cook read a K-State blitz perfectly on a 3rd-and-9 deep in Tiger territory, but he just overthrew a streaking Burden down the field. The offense drove inside the 10-yard line in the closing minutes of the third quarter, but they settled for a field goal at a critical point. And, of course, penalties played a factor, including on the final drive of regulation.
But, the offense’s final numbers against Kansas State were as follows: 430 total yards, 6.7 yards per play and 30 points.
The Wildcats allowed 256.5 yards per game, 3.9 yards per play and 13 points before Saturday.
At the end of the day, Tiger fans have to be happy with what they saw from Moore’s offense on Saturday, and he only figures to open things up as the team grows more comfortable with his system and him as a play-caller. This was precisely the creativity and aggressiveness that everyone thought Moore would bring to the Tiger offense this season, and the hire is actively paying off.
Now, it’s all about building off of that performance.