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Five plays that defined Mizzou’s 14-3 victory over Ohio State

It wasn’t pretty, but the Tigers did enough to once again walk out of AT&T Stadium with a Cotton Bowl victory. Here are five plays that defined the celebratory evening.

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

Welcome back to “Five Plays”, where I’ll break down the previous week’s football game in, you guessed it, five plays. Over the past ten seasons, the average college football team has run around 70-73 plays per game, but most of them don’t matter as much as others. Oftentimes, there’s a select few that can tell the story of an entire game, and I’m here to break them down. To the film room!

One meme recap to describe Mizzou’s 14-3 win over Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl:

Above is a picture of Michael Scott (Steve Carell’s character in the NBC phenomenon The Office) holding back tears. In this scene, Michael is saying goodbye to Jim Halpert (John Krasinski’s character) before he moves away to Colorado. The two had been through a lot together; out of the 201 aired episodes of The Office, Scott was Halpert’s boss for most of them, and both played prominent roles in the show. Like many characters in the show, their relationship wasn’t always perfect, but the tears were forged by years of experiencing the highs and lows of life together.

While you see an image of Scott as the “meme”, it was almost just a black square. No actual people or things; just pure, desolate darkness encompassed in a finite frame.

Now, you might be asking yourself: Why? Why would I, with an opportunity to extrapolate any image from the Internet that I felt reasonably described the game, choose to put basically nothing as the defining image? Well, as Friday night’s game progressed, there was...nothing. Whenever either team tried to do something, most of the time, nothing happened, and it was especially odd for the usually high-flying Tigers.

Throughout this season, there’s been so much light within Mizzou football, not just with the fireworks they ignited on the field, but with all of the joyous storylines that surrounded the program. For much of Friday night, it looked like Mizzou’s flashlights died, like they didn’t have an answer. Despite Mizzou’s defense putting together arguably their best and most complete performance of the season, the offense couldn’t break through the steel wall that was OSU’s defense. At the end of the third quarter, the score was 3-0 Buckeyes. There didn’t seem to be a way through.

But of course, they found a way.

Mizzou’s done it so many times this season. Kansas State. Kentucky. Florida. In all three of those games, darkness was ever-present, and every single time, the Tigers found a way to overcome it. Their third trip to the Cotton Bowl didn’t come anywhere close to the high-scoring barnburners from the first two. This time around was gross. Ugly. Big Ten West-ian. But through injury and other peril, the Tigers never stopped fighting.

The celebration was forged through years of ups and downs. Several outgoing players have been in Columbia since 2020, and despite experiencing a lot of losing and turnover within the program, stuck around. Their reward? A Cotton Bowl victory over one of college football’s premier programs, and serving as the foundation for future success.

Just like Mizzou in the first half, let’s start slow, because the delightful moments in the second half were a little extra joyous because of how clunky the first half was.

Play #1: Heeeeere’s Johnny! (with an ill-timed penalty)

This technically isn’t a play — rather, this was a moment that happened during a dead ball. But its impact was too large not to feature — besides, the first half was the antithesis of the Fourth of July. There weren’t a lot of strong candidates to be featured here.

All game long, Ohio State’s offense was hamstrung. Even prior to Devin Brown injuring his ankle, the second-stringer looked flustered. The pressure Mizzou generated was clearly making him uncomfortable. Then, he injured his ankle, third-stringer Lincoln Kienholz subbed in, and the Buckeyes turned into the weather on offense: predictable.

The only issue was that Mizzou’s offense was in a similar boat — and this was despite all of their starters playing, which wasn’t the case for the Buckeyes. Most of the first half saw Brady Cook & Co. fail to register not just any explosive plays, but even consecutive positive plays. Several traits that made the Tigers so proficient on offense were nowhere to be found. They couldn’t establish the run on early downs, couldn’t take the top off the defense and, to be quite honest, couldn’t really do anything. Mookie’s Cooper 17-yard sideline catch towards the end of the half was only passing play that put a dent in OSU’s defense. Most EPA metrics read single-digit percentiles.

The need for an OSU turnover heightened with every stalled offensive drive by Mizzou. With just over 90 seconds left in the half, the Tigers almost got it. After a penalty on the punt return pushed the Buckeyes inside their own 10-yard line, two runs by TreVeon Henderson went backwards, with Henderson barely escaping the end zone on the second carry. With the aversion of a safety likely at the top of Ryan Day’s mind, he called a QB sneak that gained a yard (which gave me, a Giants fan, intense flashbacks to Jake Fromm two seasons ago). Mizzou was set to get the ball back with probably good field position.

And then a flag was thrown.

On Johnny Walker Jr.

For unsportsmanlike conduct.

(insert deflating balloon)

The flag freed Ohio State from the dungeon of their own one-yard line and nixed a golden opportunity for Mizzou’s offense to generate some momentum at the end of the half.

Here’s the penalty:

It’s clear why the referees threw the flag. After Walker Jr. and OSU’s Gee Scott Jr. get entangled after the whistle, Walker Jr. gives him a small shove, grazes his facemask and points at him. The officials deemed that mean enough to throw a flag.

Whether you thought that was deserving of a penalty isn’t the point; the fact of the matter is that discipline (or a lack thereof) cost Mizzou when they absolutely couldn’t afford a silly mental mistake. It was a trait that was present within past Mizzou squads that had largely disappeared this season.

The next quarter saw more of the same, until...

Play #2: Marquis to the rescue

Here’s an experience that’s probably relatable: have you ever tried to open a jar and it won’t budge in the slightest? That was Mizzou against Ohio State’s defense. The Tigers tried to get the Buckeyes to budge defensively, and they never would.

Then, Marquis Johnson came in with the can opener.

The play-action doesn’t fool OSU’s safeties, but their attention is on everything that’s happening in front of them, which was an issue considering that Johnson was running full speed behind them. The outside cornerback, Denzel Burke (#10), was guarding the boundary, so when Johnson cut towards the middle of the field on Burke’s inside, Burke was already way behind. Couple that with Sonny Styles (#6) realizing too late that Burke needed help, and Johnson’s running free deep downfield. Ohio State’s four-man rush was stonewalled (a rare occurrence on Friday night), and Cook delivered a good enough ball for Johnson to haul it in. Lid lifted. Energy restored. Vibes arisen.

In a way, Johnson has been a get-out-of-jail free card for Mizzou’s offense this season. Need a big passing play? Get Johnson one-on-one, and good things usually happen. He set an explosive tone against Kansas State, then did the same against Memphis and Vanderbilt over the next two weeks. Most memorably of all, he was on the receiving end of the fake punt that catalyzed Mizzou’s comeback against Kentucky. Johnson’s impact is actually very comparable to a lightning bolt; infrequent, but wildly impactful when it strikes.

Even better, Mizzou finished off the drive. A few plays later, Schrader bowling balled his way into the end zone, and energy was finally radiating from the black and gold. Schrader ended his collegiate career in fitting fashion — bruising and bashing his way to success. This time, he racked up 128 rushing yards on 29 carries and a touchdown.

In a way, this game was a microcosm of not just Schrader’s career, but Mizzou’s 2023 season. They were down. They were struggling. But they kept going, and they were rewarded.

Play #3: Luther Burden III completes the St. Louis trifecta

As hope slowly began burgeoning for Mizzou, they had a chance to go up two scores in the fourth quarter, but had once again dug themselves into a hole.

Facing a 2nd-and-16, they needed Ohio State’s defense to mess up, something they hadn’t done much of all night.

And they did.

The hard count got not one, but both OSU defensive ends to jump offsides, gifting Mizzou the freedom to take a deep shot. Per usual, Brady Cook visited Theo Wease Island, and while Wease didn’t have to take flight to catch the ball, he hauled in a beautiful throw by Cook for a 31-yard gain. Then, on the next play, Schrader got hit out of bounds by Josh Proctor to make it back-to-back bad penalties by the Buckeyes.

At this point, the energy from Mizzou’s side of AT&T Stadium was becoming more and more palpable. The game felt like it was slipping away from Ohio State, in large part because one touchdown felt like two with the way both offenses had struggled all night.

It didn’t take long for the Tigers to capitalize.

Here, Mizzou actually looked like themselves: a play-action fake into a bullet for a touchdown. Everything that the Tigers probably wanted to happen on this play happened. The fake handoff sunk Cody Simon (#30), which opened up the middle of the field. Despite an Andruw Jones-ian dive from Styles and the referee being in the way, Cook’s rifle was perfectly placed between the two, and the STL-made engines of Mizzou’s offense (Cook, Schrader, Burden) all had touchdowns. Not only that, they became the first trio to have a 3,000-yard passer, 1,500-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in the same season.

(Nelly voice) St. Louis y’all, uh, uh, uh-ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh, uh, can you feel that?!

Play #4: Dynamite Daylan seals the deal

In a game that saw Mizzou’s offense fail to look like themselves for a lot of it, Blake Baker’s unit put together arguably their most complete and dominant performance of the entire season. While Walker Jr. and Darius Robinson led the defensive line and Triston Newson led the linebackers, it was Carnell who made the most impact plays amongst Mizzou’s secondary.

The sophomore was fully himself from start to finish. He only registered three tackles, but he also led the team with three quarterback hurries. Like many games past, he was flying all over the place all night long, which included a huge hit on Carnell Tate. Daylan’s best work, however, came when it mattered the most.

A decade ago, Michael Sam and Shane Ray tag-teamed for a game-sealing scoop-n-score to clinch the 2013 Cotton Bowl. While Carnell and Joe Moore III’s efforts weren’t quite as electric, it still put an emphatic stamp on a postseason victory.

Here, Carnell flies. Not literally, although that would’ve been pretty gnarly if he did. But leaving Carnell unblocked on a blitz is essentially asking for a negative play. He didn’t even hit Keinholz that hard, but the speed he was traveling at combined with his perfect hit placement jarred the ball loose, and Moore was in the right place at the right time.

After the game, JC Carlies fielded questions from the media. The most common word he used throughout? Focus. Despite the defense having to bail out the offense time and time again, they remained focused, and it led to plays like this.

From then on, the game was pretty much a wrap. But there’s one final moment I’d like to highlight.

Play #5: The final kneel down

To recap, the final edition of “Five Plays” has featured not one, but two moments where the ball either didn’t move or barely moved. Kinda weird, right? Well, Friday night was kinda weird, and I thought this column should reflect as such.

What wasn’t weird, however, were the emotions as Cook took the final snap of the night. Wease immediately ran to the sideline with boundless excitement. Nathaniel Peat started dancing. Cooper, Tyler Stephens and Cam’Ron Johnson waved their arms, telling the Mizzou crowd to make their final in-game cheer a loud one. The sideline poured onto the field in celebration. And Cook? He skipped away happily, took his helmet off, ruffled his hair and roared.

It was joy. It was victory. It was liberation. Mizzou had officially completed an epic turnaround, and the engines behind it got a deserved moment to soak it all in.

Welp, there you have it. It’s over. 11-2. A top-10 AP and College Football Playoff ranking. Future pros and program legends all over the roster, with the senior class going out on top as Cotton Bowl champions. The 2023 season is now just a memory; goodbye are the moments, players and storylines that made this season one of the best in program history. Thankfully for the Missouri faithful, it’s a collective memory that’ll be looked back upon fondly.

As Rock M’s Nate Edwards said, the 2023 squad has officially entered the pantheon of all-time great Mizzou teams. Not only that, they could easily catalyze many years worth of success in Columbia, as the College Football Playoff appears to be a reasonable expectation in 2024. They had something to prove, they stood on business, and business is booming for Drinkwitz’s squad.

But why stop now?