Missouri’s depth showed up in sizable proportions in its 27-20 victory over Memphis in the first ever edition of the Zou to the Lou series.
On the third offensive play from scrimmage for MU, the offensive staff called upon wide receiver Marquis Johnson, a true freshman with just one reception through three weeks of play.
That lone catch came last week against Kansas State. Johnson created separation on Wildcats defensive back Marques Sigle, hauling in the reception for a 42-yard gain which ultimately set up a Harrison Mevis field goal.
After the game, Mookie Cooper described Johnson as the fastest wide receiver on the roster.
“Marquis will be special for sure,” Cooper said. “He has a different type of speed. He’s the fastest in the wide receiver room for sure, I will say that he’s got me beat. But he’ll for sure be a problem in this league.”
That statement was put to test early in the game against Memphis.
Fast-forwarding back to the third play from the Tigers’ offense, Brady Cook, off of play-action, effortlessly launched the football 53 yards downfield, and running underneath it, making the catch was not Luther Burden III, Theo Wease, Mekhi Miller, nor Cooper, but No. 17 Johnson, the Dickinson, TX native.
Johnson completely burned his defender on a deep post and left him in the dust for a 76-yard score, putting Missouri’s offense on the scoreboard first early in the contest.
“We probably don’t throw him the ball enough,” Eli Drinkwitz said in the postgame. “That sucker is fast as lightning and he is making some tough catches, so we got to find ways to get him vertically down the field.”
Later in the game, on Burden’s 56-yard reception, it was the attention catered to the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Johnson that allowed Burden to come open underneath for a sizeable gain. The wide receiver provided a couple key blocks, allowing Burden to pick up a few extra yards before being brought down at the 19-yard line.
“I will tell you this; the big throw that was to Luther in the third quarter was because Marquis cleared that side out because they had so much respect for him,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s a really good player that we’ve got to get more involved in what we’re doing.”
“He’s a special player for us,” Burden added.
Johnson wasn’t the only underclassman who stepped up in what ended up being a battle of attrition for Missouri in its seven-point victory over Memphis. With freshman tight end Brett Norfleet recovering from a rib injury, it was up to another true freshman, Jordon Harris, to help fill in with veteran Tyler Stephens at the tight end position.
“I think the guy that showed up huge tonight was Jordon Harris,” Cody Schrader said after finishing with 123 yards and a score. “He’s a true freshman, hasn’t been playing football that long, and he had some big blocks— on my touchdown run, and on that last burst out of the game. He showed up huge tonight.”
Harris has yet to record a single catch for the Tigers in his short time with the team, but his impact has shown up in the running game, as well as being a vocal player on the field, a trait that is oftentimes rare in young players.
“(Memphis) ran an edge pressure. (Jordon’s) got to alert the pressure and execute a call,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s got to relay that information down to the rest of the offensive linemen and does it perfectly, and we execute versus a pressure which is something that is hard to do.”
Defensively, Ennis Rakestraw Jr. dressed but didn’t see any action on the field due to injury, meaning Missouri went an entire game without one of its premiere cornerbacks. This meant a lot of Drey Norwood in the first half. True freshman Marvin Burks Jr. also joined him in the secondary at time rotating within the secondary.
Before Memphis scored on fourth and goal off a touchdown pass, it was Burks who stopped Memphis on first and third down to put the opposing offense in a crucial fourth down.
Norwood was stout in the first half for MU. He came up big on a pair of third downs in pass coverage that took Memphis off the field with two pass breakups.
His biggest play came on another third down, but instead of showcasing his skills in pass coverage, Blake Baker brought the 6-foot, 186-pound cornerback on a blitz. He successfully wrapped up quarterback Seth Henigan with the help of another MU defensive lineman. Henigan fumbled, resulting in a 4th down. Unfortunately, that was the last play for Norwood as he caught the injury bug as well.
“He (Norwood) was playing a great game, some of his best ball,” Drinkwitz said. “I’m really proud of him. It looks like an ankle sprain. I don’t know if it’s high or low. We tried to get him back at halftime, but he just couldn’t put any weight on it. So, we’ll see, but he was playing at a high level I know that.”
With Norwood out, the next man up was Marcus Clarke, who, on his first play, nearly picked off Henigan on third down.
Clarke had an up and down night, but he didn’t leave The Dome at America’s Center without a pick. Early in the fourth quarter, with the MU clinging to a 24-17 lead, Memphis possessed the ball at the 12-yard line. On 4th and 5, Clarke picked off Henigan for his first interception in his collegiate career. This resulted in Missouri driving downfield for a 32-yard field goal for Harrison Mevis extending the lead to 10 points.
It proved crucial as both teams traded blows to end the game with Missouri ultimately coming out on top. The depth of the secondary experienced its growing pains throughout the contest, but “(Drey and Marcus) always compete,” Kris Abrams-Draine said.
“They get their confidence from practice, so when they got in, I never doubted them.”
With players who aren’t necessarily normal contributors filling in, Missouri was still able to come away with its first 4-0 start since the 2013 season. The Tigers now travel to Vanderbilt next Saturday to open up Southeastern Conference play.