MO State HS Sports

Knee-Jerk Reactions: Arkansas 34, Mizzou 17

By: Andy Humphrey

It was frustrating to watch, but it’s also important to keep in perspective.

Mizzou has had plenty of success in the Battle Line Rivalry game over the last few years. They’ve featured some close contests and some surprising victories from the Tigers. But 2021 was different. Arkansas proved to be the superior team for most of the game Saturday as they worked to a 34-17 victory over Mizzou in Fayetteville. This was the Tigers’ toughest test they’ve had since they played top-ranked Georgia earlier this month. That’s not saying a whole lot, but it turned out that oddsmakers got this one fairly right by pegging Mizzou as a little more than a two-touchdown underdog.

You can’t be all that demoralized with Mizzou’s performance considering the opponent. That said, more things went wrong than right on Saturday, so let’s get into it with the Knee-Jerk Reactions:

The offense had a lot more issues than just the quarterback

This was a unit that seemed stuck in neutral the whole day. Everyone naturally gravitated to the play of Connor Bazelak, which wasn’t good (10/26, 65 yards, and an interception). It definitely contributed to the offense’s struggles. But a lot of other factors did, too. The offensive line struggled in pass protection, allowing seven quarterback hits. There were several occasions where receivers fell down on routes. The play-calling from Eli Drinkwitz left a lot to be desired, and a decision to punt on 4th and 1 near midfield early in the game screamed a passive approach to this one. It’s easy to blame one guy for the lack of production, but I think it’s a little unfair watching how this game played out.

Unpopular opinion time: I really don’t have a problem with Drinkwitz playing Bazelak for (mostly) the entire game. Keep in mind, everyone calling for Bazelak’s head were hurling the exact same hot takes about halfway through the third quarter of the Florida game. And then, things changed. Say what you will about which quarterback you *think* is better, but Bazelak earned the right to play the entire Arkansas game with the way he finished against Florida. And when he struggled on Saturday, he deserved the same chance to try and improve mid-game the same way he did the last week. I know you’ll say “but he’s clearly not playing well!” That was true, but you don’t have any idea that either Brady Cook or Tyler Macon would’ve been better.

That said, all three QBs should get a chance to play in the bowl game

Bazelak’s play so far has been enough to allow him to be the starter all season. But it hasn’t been enough to prove he should be the starter *next* season. I know I just advocated for Bazelak in the words above, but the bowl game has a clearly different feeling to it than an end-of-season game against a conference rival. You probably won’t have your full team for the bowl game because of opt-outs, injuries, etc. I’m not gonna go as far to call it an exhibition, but it’s very close to one. Whether Mizzou wins or loses that game is not going to change how you feel about this season as a whole. So it’s a perfect time for Drinkwitz to play all three of Bazelak, Cook and Macon to see what they can do against another FBS defense. It’s important to learn as much information about the quarterbacks in your room now before the room gets more crowded next year with the entrance of Sam Horn.

It’s definitely hard to say that all three quarterbacks will stay with Mizzou’s program throughout the offseason, but Drinkwitz needs to try as hard as possible to make that happen. Somebody is going to transfer, and you want to make sure it’s not the most talented quarterback you have right now. I have no idea who that is, but I, and probably Drinkwitz, need to see more from Cook and Macon to make that determination. The hope is that a heated competition during the spring and fall results in the starter being made better for it, and therefore producing more when the 2022 season rolls around. Bottom line: everyone needs an equal chance to win this job. Playing all three quarterbacks you have in the bowl game gets you as close to that goal as you can hope.

Yet another Tyler Badie Appreciation Post

Man, I sure hope that wasn’t the last time we see Tyler Badie in a Mizzou uniform. I would completely understand and support him if he decides to sit out the bowl game, but selfishly, I just want to see him go out a winner. Badie was Mizzou’s only bright spot on the offense, carrying the ball 41(!) times for 219 yards, and also broke Mizzou’s single-season rushing yards record on the Tigers’ final drive of the game. Whatever concerns there were about the senior running back being able to handle such a heavy workload were squashed in about Week 8 or 9 of the season. There have been times this season where I’ve thought too many plays go to Badie, and that Mizzou should try to develop another playmaker on offense. Saturday was not one of those times. There was exactly one player capable of getting past Arkansas’ defense, and it was #1.

If I were in Badie’s shoes, I would probably stay away from a bowl game. That said, maybe he thinks another dominant performance against a non-conference opponent on a national stage would help that NFL draft stock a little bit more. I’m not quite sure that Badie is going to hear his name called during next year’s draft (and I’ve taken some heat on the Big Show for suggesting this!), but I know for sure that he will be on an NFL roster next year. Too many teams can benefit from his skill set as a change-of-pace back that can catch passes out of the backfield. Drafted or not, the guy has a bright football future ahead of him.

The defense did all it could

Probably the most disappointing part about seeing the struggles Mizzou’s offense went through was that the defense played like a unit ready to pull off an upset. Blaze Alldredge kept making plays. The front seven had three sacks. Darius Robinson forced a fumble. Mizzou actually outgained the Razorbacks by 20 yards, mainly because the defense did a good job of handling the quarterback run with KJ Jefferson. And when Mizzou was trailing by four at halftime, and Arkansas was starting with the ball in the second half, Mizzou forced a three-and-out to give the offense a chance to take the lead. Of course, that didn’t happen. And eventually, Arkansas found its groove and broke the dam open in the second half with 258 yards of offense and 24 points.

Despite the loss, it’s amazing to see the transformation this defense has gone through this season. And it’s all happened without any sort of scheme changed or altered alignment. The players who weren’t making the plays early in the season are just simply making them now. That’s why a lot of credit should go to the coaching staff, the most of which to Steve Wilks, for spear-heading this turnaround. Ever since the Georgia game, we’ve seen Mizzou’s unit hold each of its opponents under its rushing-yards-per-game average. You certainly wish this improvement came much earlier in the season, but this at least gives you hope that Wilks can have this unit ready to tackle 2022 right from the jump.

Mizzou should be relieved that it took advantage of the Florida game

Not a lot in the Arkansas game changed my mind about what Mizzou’s team is. It looked like a group that could rally in front of a Senior Day crowd and hang with a more-talented Florida team that was being led by a coach that was on the verge of losing his job. It didn’t look like a team capable of taking their stop-and-start offense on the road and sustaining enough to keep pace with a more-accomplished passing attack and more versatile run game in Arkansas. Give Mizzou credit for finding enough to grab that sixth win when it could. Because this game in Fayetteville was always going to be a harder challenge. A win there would’ve been icing on the cake, because Mizzou already got the win it needed.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not to say that Mizzou shouldn’t have tried to win this game. And I think they genuinely tried Saturday. Obviously, 7-5 looks better than 6-6. But the goal for this team at around their 3-4 mark was to find a way to salvage hope for the next year. I think a win against either Florida or Arkansas to get you to a bowl game would’ve done exactly that. And they already accomplished that. So we should be careful to not ding Mizzou unreasonably for losing a game by 17 to a team that Vegas said would win by 15. I think we can do that and also acknowledge the fact that Mizzou has a long way to go. Maybe the bowl game will help get Mizzou a little bit closer to where they want to be.

My zero-insight, best-guess prediction: I think Mizzou will be in the Music City Bowl. Not sure who against, but that’s where I think they’ll land.