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Mizzou edges MTSU in hard-fought 23-19 victory

The Tigers are 2-0 for the first time since 2018.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time under Eliah Drinkwitz, the Missouri Tigers are 2-0.

Mizzou narrowly took down Middle Tennessee State by a score of 23-19 at Faurot Field on Saturday night, and emphasis is on the “narrowly.”

On the first snap of the fourth quarter, Brady Cook sent Nathaniel Peat in motion out of the backfield, and no MTSU defender picked him up. Thus, it was an easy pitch-and-catch for a 49-yard score that extended the Mizzou lead to 23-10.

“Obviously, I was a little surprised being that wide open,” Peat said. “It’s in the air for a long time, so I definitely agree that they [wide-open receptions] are some of the hardest balls to catch.”

That play appeared to swing all of the momentum in Mizzou’s favor, but the Blue Raiders would not go down without a fight. Nick Vattiato (216 passing yards, 34 rushing yards, 2 TDs) led a methodical 11-play drive that resulted in a 13-yard touchdown pass to Justin Olson in response.

“He’s [Vattiato] a great player for Middle Tennessee,” Robinson said. “He’s smaller but he’s more athletic than you think he is and he’s able to move around.”

Then, disaster struck for the Tigers. Needing to chew up some clock, Cook was brought down in the backfield and fumbled the ball out of the end zone, resulting in a safety that cut the Mizzou lead to 23-19 with just over six minutes remaining in the game.

The Blue Raiders took advantage of the momentum shift, driving into Mizzou territory on the ensuing possession. However, the Tiger defense stood tall on a 4th-and-9, giving the ball back to its offense to run out the clock.

Offense came at a premium throughout this game. MTSU finished with 285 total yards, and Mizzou barely eclipsed the 300 mark with 316 yards. The teams combined for six sacks, 20 tackles for loss and each averaged less than five yards per play.

“I think we just need to clean up overall,” Cook said. “Less penalties, I need to be better and more accurate; just need to clean up a lot of things on tape.”

The Blue Raiders were relentless in their pursuit of the quarterback, often bringing six-to-seven rushers on multiple downs. The Mizzou O-line opened up plenty of holes in the running game, but was unable to consistently pick up those blitzing MTSU defenders, allowing four sacks on the night. Cook experienced mixed results against the rush, as he was able to find some of his hot reads but also got happy-feet in the pocket and missed open receivers at times.

“Four sacks is way too many, definitely disappointed by the pressure that we faced,” Drinkwitz said. “I didn’t feel like we were going to struggle as bad as we did with it.”

Blake Baker’s defense was right at home, flying all over the field and laying down some impressive hits, but this game prompted more questions about the Tigers’ offensive capabilities than anything else.

The struggles began in the first quarter, as Mizzou punted on its first two possessions before finding a rhythm on an 8-play, 34-yard drive that resulted in a Harrison Mevis field goal from 38 yards out. Peat and Cody Schrader were important parts of the drive, and the duo combined for 80 rushing yards in the first half.

“We played really good defense in the first quarter and gave our offense plenty of chances to try to start fast...and we were only up 3-0,” Drinkwitz said.

That kick at the 5:21 mark broke the scoreless draw, but the Blue Raiders quickly responded. After being stuffed on its first couple of possessions, MTSU manufactured a 14-play drive that took up just over seven minutes of game time. Baker’s defense was flocking to the ball throughout the opening half and shutting down anything the Blue Raiders tried to do on the perimeter, but Rick Stockstill made some adjustments on the scoring drive. Vattiato began to take matters into his own hands, keeping the ball on multiple read options and scrambling for some chunk yardage.

A handful of penalties helped MTSU down the field, and it claimed a 7-3 lead at the 8:14 mark of the second quarter, stunning the home crowd of 57,645 (the largest since 2019) into silence.

Every punch needs a counterpunch, and on their lone drive of the second quarter, the Tigers responded with a lengthy touchdown drive of their own. Kirby Moore drew up some designed runs for Cook, and a 19-yard blitz-beater to Luther Burden sparked the offense as well. Cook sneaked the ball past the goal line to close out the second straight scoring drive of 7+ minutes in the game.

MTSU came out swinging in the second half, ripping off multiple chunk plays to drive down the field on its opening drive. However, the Mizzou defense bowed up in the red zone, forcing the Blue Raiders to settle for a 10-10 tie.

Halftime adjustments also appeared to greatly benefit the Missouri offense. Cook found Burden open on a deep route, and the former 5-star recruit made a leaping grab to pick up 44 yards. From there, Cook found Theo Wease in the end zone for his first career touchdown as a Tiger, although the ensuing Mevis PAT was blocked to make it 16-10 in favor of the home team.

“I saw man coverage, so my eyes got extremely big,” Wease said of his TD catch. “It was just a routine play; we work third downs all week and we worked that one on Wednesday.”

The Tigers will host No. 15 Kansas State (2-0) next Saturday, September 16 at 11:00 a.m. CST. The Wildcats took down Mizzou by a score of 40-12 last season in Manhattan and have begun the year with two convincing victories over SEMO and Troy.