MO State HS Sports

Four Things: Tigers raise floor, keep focus on shattering the ceiling with win in Lexington

Mizzou came back from an early 14-point deficit for a decisive 38-21 win over Kentucky in Lexington. Here were Brenden’s four biggest takeaways from a potentially season-defining result:

The defense finally brought its best

In 2022, Missouri had a top-25 defensive unit in Blake Baker’s first year at the helm as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. With a ton of returning talent, expectations were high. Through the first six games of the season, though, we hadn’t necessarily seen the same level of play, particularly in key areas like takeaways and getting off the field on third down.

The LSU game, in particular, was a nightmare for the unit as the slippery Jayden Daniels ran wild. Knowing the talent that still exists within this group, though, I anticipated a different showing at Kentucky–the Tiger defense simply would not allow another performance like it did against LSU.

Well, they didn’t. After a slow start out of the gates had the Tigers down 14-0, the defense clamped down to help Missouri to a 38-7 advantage over the remainder of the game. The Tigers held Kentucky below 50% on third-down conversions and denied the Cats on their lone fourth-down attempt. Missouri also claimed victory in the turnover battle, registering three key takeaways in the victory.

If the defense uses this performance as the blueprint moving forward, Missouri could find itself with elite units on both sides of the ball.

Drink goes bold

I’ve often lamented Eli Drinkwitz’s tendency to play things conservatively with his decision-making. But calling for a fake punt with the Tigers down 14-0 was as bold as it gets. Punter Luke Bauer dropped a dime to Marquis Johnson, who Missouri Waltzed into the end zone to silence the Kroger Field crowd. It changed the course of the game.

I don’t think I’m being dramatic when I say this was a potentially season-changing and program-altering play. Punting the ball away to Kentucky in that moment could have easily led to a three-score deficit and the hopes of a dream season unraveling over a two-week period.

While Drinwkitz stated after the game that Missouri’s special teams unit knew the fake was on any time they were in opponent territory with Kentucky in ‘punt safe’ defense, the fact that the head coach gave the green light in that spot speaks to his incredible feel for the moment.

Drink doesn’t always go bold, but we’ve seen a few examples of it in 2023. This was Drink’s finest moment of the season, to date.

Mevis will have us holding our breath all year

Before Marquis Johnson’s tide-turning touchdown grab from the punter, Harrison Mevis held the undisputed ‘Moment of the Season’ with his 61-yard walk-off field goal to beat K-State.

But Saturday, Mevis missed his sixth field goal of the campaign, a low-liner from mid-range that just never had a chance. Curiously, he’s now 0-for-3 on the season between 40 and 49 yards. Overall, Mevis sits at 11-for-17 on FGs for a career-low 64%.

While his leg is a weapon that can allow Missouri to steal points in situations where most other college teams couldn’t dream of it, the reality is that Mevis’ consistency on the more standard kicks has been suspect. And at this point, it probably just is what it is.

This team is showing it can hang with anyone on its schedule–and that means anyone

While a 6-6 or 7-5 season would have seemed like the most plausible outcome following a loss in Lexington, we knew a win would keep the ceiling outcome in play for a truly special year in Columbia. In a game that would serve as a turning point of the season, one way or another, Missouri bounced back from a brutal start to improve to 6-1.

After the win, Eli Drinwkitz was asked on the field in a postgame TV interview about his team earning bowl eligibility by mid-October. His response made it clear he and the Tigers aspire for more than just a standard bowl invite: “Why stop now? Let’s keep going. MIZ.”

Looking ahead, Missouri has South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Arkansas remaining on its schedule. The only game I’d normally consider a longshot would be Georgia, but the Bulldogs had more trouble with Vanderbilt than anyone could’ve expected on Saturday. They haven’t reached their typical apex so far this season. And now they’ve lost star tight end Brock Bowers to an ankle injury. What I’m saying is… you never know, folks.

First things first, the Tigers have to be intentional in handling their business for the homecoming game against South Carolina this weekend. But should they pass that test? The two-week prep period for the de facto SEC East Championship Game will commence.