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A Fan’s Notes: On Breakthroughs

Notes, thoughts, and observations, usually from halfway across the country, but this time from the seats of AT&T Stadium as the Mizzou Tigers win the 2023 Cotton Bowl.

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

I have a confession to make. I thought the Missouri Tigers were going to lose the 2023 Cotton Bowl to Ohio State. As the game drew closer, and as word of Ohio State players opting out never arrived, I became more and more pessimistic. The Buckeyes would have an overwhelming talent edge and actually seemed to care about the game. Practice reports suggested quarterback Devin Brown was something of a hybrid between Tom Brady, Cam Newton, CJ Stroud, and Sammy Baugh. The big, bad Buckeyes were heading to Dallas to put the Tigers in their place.

After all, it is not bad to bet on the talent advantage when it comes to college football. Despite stories (both ways) of guys like Cody Schrader or, say, Tate Martell, stars do matter. Blue chip teams dominate non-blue chip teams. Missouri has always had a ceiling when it comes to squaring off against blueboods on the gridiron.

You know the record against former conference rivals Nebraska, Oklahoma, or Texas. You are already familiar with how it tends to go against new conference mates Alabama or Georgia. Our Tigers were 1-10-1 against Ohio State headed into this postseason matchup.

Blue chip programs are the iron wall that the Missouri Tigers bash against and shatter. My pessimism was well-earned.

For three quarters, it played out that way – on one half of the field. While Blake Baker’s defensive charges stood on their head, their counterparts on offense were overwhelmed by Ohio State. Cody Schrader was able to scrounge up a yard or two here or there, weaving his way behind Mizzou’s fabled zone blocking. Brady Cook was able to move the chains once or twice with some tough running. But everything else was miserable.

Finally, the breakthrough happened. Marquis Johnson wiggled free downfield, running free thanks to the gravity caused by Luther Burden’s underneath route that distracted both safeties. Cook hit him for a big gain, and about an hour later, the party was on in Dallas.

Everything changed on that breakthrough moment on the throw to the youngster Johnson. Missouri football needed that breakthrough play that night, and the game itself was a breakthrough moment for the program to earn a win against the kind of outfit that usually stifles the Tigers. For Eli Drinkwitz to break through and earn his first career bowl win as a head coach, and for the school to win their first New Year’s Six bowl game. For Eli’s program to break through with the win total that underscores the improvements that have been brewing for years in recruiting, development, and culture.

I doubted on Friday night, and I was wrong. It can be hard to see the breakthrough before it happens. But here it is, and it is time for Eli and his program to build on it. Gary Pinkel won a pair of Cotton Bowls, but his program was built on identifying diamonds in the rough, developing them, and peaking in cycles. Drinkwitz has elevated the talent acquisition at Missouri, and next season will trout out the best roster Missouri has ever had in the recruiting rankings era.

With Pinkel’s approach, breakthroughs were followed by downturns. With Drink’s abilities in talent acquisition, his breakthrough season and bowl win might resemble Marquis Johnson’s breakthrough catch – the first strike that changed everything, the one that began a new era.

Some other notes from Dallas…..

–I have enjoyed writing these “Fan’s Notes” Monday morning recaps all season. I pitched it is a counterpoint to the typical beat reporter “notebook” pieces, with collected thoughts or interview nuggets or sideline observations that did not deserve a full piece. But my notes came from my laptop halfway across the country in New York City, not from the press box or locker room. But this time, I get to share some thoughts from the game, as I was in attendance for the first time this season.

–There was another big breakthrough moment not just for Marquis Johnson, or for Eli Drinkwitz, or for the program at large, but for me personally and my crew. M friends and I have been traveling to Mizzou road games since 2013, and we just saw our first win together since the 2014 season. Maybe my string of a decade of losses was another factor in my pre-game pessimism.

–I was directly in line with the throw and catch on the Burden touchdown, and I sank into my seat thinking it was intercepted. The dive from the Ohio State player as the ball slipped through his hands made it look like a pick. I immediately looked at Cook, who was doing a “palms up” gesture, which in the moment I interpreted as bewilderment, not as a Jordan-esque shrug celebration. Then I realized everyone to my left was celebrating, and everyone to my right in red was deathly still.

–A world of props for Blake Baker, who called a whale of a game. Yes, Ohio State was down to their third-string quarterback and without all-galaxy receiver Marvin Harrison, Jr. Baker still called a masterful game, bottling up TreVeyon Henderson and confusing both Buckeye quarterbacks with pressures.

His secret weapon was nickel Daylan Carnell, who created four quarterback pressures after totalling only 14 previously all season. Carnell rushed the passer five times according to PFF charting, and earned a pressure on four of them – a great performance by the player, and great usage by the playcaller.

–Also props to the offensive line for pulling together for the final quarter. The first three were nightmarish for the line, with multiple Connor Tollison snap miscommunications, untimely false starts, and a poor pass blocking performance. But they had done enough in run blocking to build on, and when the money quarter arrived, they played some of their best ball of the season. Xavier Delgado in particular ended his long – and not always heralded – Missouri career with a great day of run blocking.