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Five Takeaways from Mizzou’s 23-19 win against Middle Tennessee State

The Tigers won, but it sure didn’t feel that way.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Middle Tennessee at Missouri

I would consider myself a relatively optimistic Mizzou fan. I try to see the good in things despite the team finding a way to kick me in the groin at every turn. I came into this season truly believing the team had a chance to win eight games. I found many of the criticisms of Brady Cook to go a step too far. I thought (and still think) this defense can be quite good. I thought Eli Drinkwitz learned some lessons from a year ago. Drink would (hopefully) handle situations differently now that he has someone else to call the plays.

So, yeah, I was optimistic.

And then we watched Mizzou take the field against Middle Tennessee State. Everything that could go wrong, for the most part, did go wrong. The offense was erratic. The defense — which was mostly good! — gave up way too many third down conversions, and a few too many yards after first contact for my liking. The kicker missed another kick; this time it was an extra point. The coach went into a shell (again!) on fourth downs.

It all resulted in a 23-19 win that felt a whole lot like a loss. Enough of the preamble. Let’s get to the takeaways, shall we?

1) This offense hasn’t taken the step it needs to take in order to compete for anything meaningful in the SEC

As I said before, I think some of the criticism lofted toward Cook has been unfair. But he was wildly erratic against MTSU. He missed on multiple deep balls. He seemed unsure of what he was seeing defensively in the first half. He took sacks when he shouldn’t, and even his running was a bit off, changing directions instead of getting north and south in order to pick up the first down on multiple occasions.

Cook wasn’t the only issue, though. Brett Norfleet dropped an easy pass. Mookie Cooper played nearly the entire game and you wouldn’t know it unless you watched because he finished with zero receptions. Nathaniel Peat had nine offensive touches for 100 yards in the first half... and then didn’t carry the ball a single time in the second half. I had to look that one up multiple times to make sure it wasn’t a misprint. It wasn’t. How does that happen!?

The offensive line was shaky. The play-calling, specifically in short-yardage situations, left a whole lot to be desired.

Whoever you want to criticize for this offensive performance, it’s justified. Be critical of the coach. Be critical of the quarterback. Be critical of the line. Be critical of the receivers. It’s all fair game. This offense was supposed to take a step forward, and it looked like it took a step in the opposite direction against Middle Tennessee State. I understand Missouri isn’t Alabama, but the Crimson Tide just put up 56 points against this MTSU team last week. ‘Bama rushed for more than 200 yards in the game. Jalen Milroe averaged more than 10 yards per attempt. This wasn’t exactly the 1985 Bears defense the Tigers were lining up against.

That same offensive performance will get the Tigers wiped off the field next week against Kansas State. It certainly won’t be good enough to compete with the likes of LSU, Georgia or Tennessee. Probably not Arkansas, either. The ceiling for this team with this offense would be seven wins. Even that seems like it would be lofty. Improvements are necessary. And they’d better happen fast.

2) Eli Drinkwitz MUST be more aggressive on fourth down, or it will lose him games in the future

A brief sampling of Missouri’s 4th down decisions in the game:

  • 4th & 3 from midfield in a scoreless game with 10:40 to play in the 1st quarter. PUNT.
  • 4th & 2 from the Missouri 41 up 3-0 with 0:31 to play in the 1st quarter. PUNT.
  • 4th & 1 from the MTSU 44 up 23-10 with 10:27 to play in the 4th quarter. PUNT.

I’m sorry, that’s unacceptable. It’s cowardly decision-making. Drinkwitz hired an offensive coordinator for a reason. The hope was it would help him focus more on in-game decision making to give his team the best chance to succeed based on significant moments of the game. Well, this decision-making looked a whole lot like in years past. This has been a recurring theme in the Drinkwitz era. He puts more faith in his defense to get stops than he does in his offense to pick up a couple yards. It’s maddening. But at least in the past he had the excuse that the offensive line was porous and, frankly, the defense was the better bet.

The offensive line was fine when it came to run blocking against Middle Tennessee. The pass blocking wasn’t great, but the running backs picked up 135 yards on 31 carries. That’s more than fine. Their rushing success rate was more than 50 percent. That’s quite good. At some point you have to trust your guys to go pick up the necessary yards.

I judge decisions by the process, not the results. However, if you are someone that judged by the results, tonight certainly did Drinkwitz no favors. MTSU drove the length of the field after two of Drinkwitz’s three questionable punt decisions despite the Tigers pinning them deep on both drives. So, yeah, not great.

3) Missouri is extremely lucky it has a good defense

The defense was far from perfect. The defensive ends did a terrible job of containing the edge on quarterback runs. The tackling was below-average. I’m pretty sure Justin Olson won every 50-50 ball in which he was targeted. That being said, the Raiders had a 20 percent offensive success rate. That’s very bad. They averaged 2.4 yards per carry. The defense came up with four sacks, 12 tackles for loss, five pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. The havoc rate we’ve come to know and love from Blake Baker’s defense was there. They just had a few too many breakdowns to go along with it. Overall, if it wasn’t for the defense standing strong the vast majority of the game, Missouri probably loses.

4) My confidence in Harrison Mevis is at an all-time low

It was good to see Mevis put the ball through the uprights on his lone field goal attempt on the night, but he also missed an extra point. The snap wasn’t ideal. The hold wasn’t great. But the extra point is supposed to be automatic, especially with Mevis. The whole kicking operation looks sloppy right now. That includes the blocking up front, too. Missouri needs to play more aggressive on fourth down, both in terms of punting and also kicking field goals. But we’ve spent enough time on that.

More importantly, Mevis can’t be trusted. Not the way he once was. I still have love for our Thiccer Kicker, but the trust factor is easy to lose and hard to rebuild as a kicker. He’s lost it.

5) That was exactly the type of game Missouri couldn’t afford to have

Missouri fans are a fickle bunch. It’s earned. The team has rarely given fans a reason to truly believe good things will happen. Sure, we can point to a season here or there. A game here or there. But the truth is our identity as Mizzou fans is to point to the bad things that have happened over the years. And, well, there’s plenty to point to.

For that reason, it takes a lot for Mizzou fans to truly buy in. And I got the impression many (not all, but many) had done exactly that. The Kansas State game is sold out. Fans wanted so badly to have a reason to believe. The only thing that couldn’t happen against Middle Tennessee is exactly what took place. I wrote about this on Friday. It’s a trend that’s built over the past eight years. Missouri seemingly finds a way to crush the will of its fans before it gets to October.

We can go ahead and extend that streak through 2023. This game did exactly that. Fans that were on the fence about buying into the Tigers will absolutely not do so after this game. Next week can change that. College football is a week-to-week sport. Texas can struggle against Rice and then beat up on Alabama. Weird stuff happens.

But, for today, Missouri took the wind out of its fans’ sails. That was the one thing it had to guard against, and it couldn’t do it.

The Tigers beat Middle Tennessee, but it sure felt like a loss.