The initial conference slate has ended for the Missouri Tigers, meaning we are now 50% of the way through the regular season. The first three conference games of the season were each dramatic and encouraging in their own ways, but the consistency factor in all of them was Mizzou losing a close game. While the record is not pretty at 2-4, there are plenty of positives take from the past three games.
Points Per Game: 25.2
Points Allowed: 24.7
Total Yards Per Game: 374.2
Passing Yards: 207.7
Rushing Yards: 166.5
Total Yards Allowed Per Game: 329.8
Passing Yards Allowed: 191.5
Rushing Yards Allowed: 138.3
Turnovers Forced: 9 (5 INTS, 4 FR)
Leading Passer: Brady Cook (64.7% completion, 1,212 yards, 5 TDs, 6 INTs)
Leading Rusher: Nathaniel Peat (76 carries, 379 yards, 2 TDs, 5.0 YPC)
Leading Receiver: Dominic Lovett (31 catches, 499 yards, 2 TDs)
- Overall Defense
After three weeks, I only had the run defense in this category. That has changed. (editor’s note: thank god)
Bluntly put, Mizzou’s defense has kept them in these last couple of games. They shut down Auburn for three quarters, dominated Georgia in the trenches, and contained Florida’s Anthony Richardson (except for that one play). The defense creates havoc and the great energy and effort this team plays with is easy to see. Blake Baker’s aggressive scheme has been working perfectly for guys like Jaylon Carlies, Ty’Ron Hopper, and Joseph Charleston.
What did change over the past couple of weeks was the pass defense. After struggling to prevent big plays in non-conference play, this defense took on one of the more efficient passing attacks in the nation (UGA) and forced them to play their worst game of the season. Kris Abrams-Draine is earning himself some money and flying up draft boards, and the tackling in the secondary has been superb.
2. The Kicking Game
Feels weird to say this is a strength after how the Auburn game went, but Harrison Mevis has redeemed himself, just like we knew he would. His 5/5 performance against Georgia was as clutch as it was impressive, and included a 49 and 52-yarder. Mevis appears to have his confidence back, and with that, he becomes a weapon for this team.
Jack Stonehouse has also really seemed to settle into the punting duties in recent weeks. He still has a habit of occasionally out-kicking his coverage - which lead to a disastrous return for an easy three points against Florida - but his ability to knock it deep is exactly the type of weapon this defense (and team) needs in a field position battle.
If there’s something you can say about this team, it’s that they are a resilient bunch. After going down 14-0 to Auburn, this team stormed back to tie things up and nearly win the game. Then, right after that heartbreaking loss, they stunned the nation by taking Georgia deep into the fourth quarter. Then, after losing another heartbreaker, they went into Gainesville and staged two rallies from double-digit deficits.
Of course, these all resulted in losses, and there isn’t a spot for moral victories in the win column. Still, this team could have rolled over and died so many times this season, and instead they have come back to fight harder. As a fan of the program, you truly have to respect that and be proud of the way they are representing this university. Let’s hope whatever motivational sway Drinkwitz has over this team can maintain for the rest of the year...and, oh yeah, eventually win some games.
- Offensive Line
This still remains a weakness from the first time I completed this exercise at the season’s 25% mark. Auburn was all over Brady Cook in their game. A false start on the one-yard line and a hands-to-the-face call on a third down conversion may have cost the Tigers the game against Georgia. Offensive line mistakes are killing this team right now, and while the musical chairs on the line seems to have finally stopped, it’s worth questioning why it took four games and a season-ending injury to figure out their “best” lineup.
2. Brady Cook’s Downfield Accuracy
Brady Cook has caught the “overthrow bug” that so many young quarterbacks get nationwide, and it has really hurt him this season. It’s not just the vertical routes that he misses either, it’s the crossing routes and slants that he zips over a receiver's head that are even more head-scratching.
While kicking may have cost them the Auburn game, or the O-line cost them the Georgia game, it is safe to say that the two interceptions Cook tossed against Florida cost them that game. And those both were off some inaccurate throws that were either poor reads or a blatant miss.
3. Offensive Play-Calling
Frankly, this has improved since Week 3, but still has not been stellar. In the second half of the Auburn and Georgia games, Mizzou appeared to be playing not to lose rather than win. And, while you do have to change the game plan a bit when you are in the lead, the Tigers are not a good enough team to truly hold on to a late lead with the ground-and-pound approach. Drinkwitz needs to stay more aggressive late in games, because at times it seems like he is so afraid of the mistakes Cook or the O-line will make that he refrains from making some key play calls.
Surprise Player Thus Far: Kris Abrams-Draine
Stats: 14 total tackles, 6 pass breakups
Through the first three weeks, this was Ty’Ron Hopper. Now, I’d like to highlight a different defender.
Even while missing the Florida game, Kris Abrams-Draine has jumped off the screen. So far this year he’s logged six pass breakups and it’s all thanks to his great speed and instincts. There is some definite buzz about him playing his way into an NFL Draft pick which is an incredible win for Drinkwitz, this team, and for Abrams-Draine. Remember when he was a wide receiver during his freshman year?
Questions Still to Be Answered
- Will Brady Cook take steps forward as a passer, or will it be worth giving another QB a shot at some point?
- What set of five offensive linemen will prove to be the starters on this team?
- Will Luther Burden be able to get healthy and replicate the production he had in Week One?
What To Expect and What Can Be Considered a Success
So, the Tigers now sit at 2-4 and 0-3 in SEC play. By no means is this what anybody expected or hoped for, but I am more encouraged by weeks 4-6 than weeks 1-3.
To start, I think this program got an absolute steal in defensive coordinator Blake Baker. He has the makings to be a great one, as his defensive style has perfectly suited his personnel. On top of that, he has shown an ability to make the necessary adjustments over the course of a game to fix issues. This defense is currently a Top 35 unit and rising up the ranks every week. His system has also helped guys like Hopper and Abrams-Draine get more looks from the NFL, something that can certainly be sold to recruits.
As for the rest of the team, there really isn’t much we’ve learned more about. Brady Cook has continued to be inconsistent, running the ball well but being a roll of the dice whenever he drops back to pass. The O-line has hurt this team in a variety of ways, and significant improvement doesn’t appear to be on the horizon this season.
There are positives if you squint hard enough, though! Schrader and Peat have begun to find their groove, and while the offensive line is hardly consistent, both have demonstrated an ability to generate big plays if they’re given an actual hole to hit. The continued production of Dominic Lovett as one of the SEC’s best receivers and the emergence (maybe?) of Mekhi Miller as another weapon also inspires happy thoughts for the rest of the year.
Maybe this year will just be one of those years that will be characterized by close losses and “what ifs”. There’s not any game on the schedule that I think the Tigers will get blown out in (good!), but I also just can’t see them winning any more than three games down the stretch without a noticeable positive development (bad!). People will look back on this season and think the Tigers could have gone 8-4 just as easily as they went 5-7. Such is life as a middle tier P5 college football team, and so far, Mizzou has been on the wrong side of Lady Luck this season.
However, close losses and near-misses tend to occur right before rebuilding programs have a breakthrough season. Whether the breakthrough is next year or the year after is unclear, but the close-games luck and ability to stay in games to the finish will surely turn in to Missouri’s favor eventually. Right?