MO State HS Sports

Knee-Jerk Reactions: Army 24, Mizzou 22

By: Andy Humphrey

Well, yeah, that obviously stunk.

I guess if you learn anything from Wednesday, it’s this: you should probably follow Mizzou women’s basketball much more than you already do, because that was the only team that provided a victory in a loaded day of Mizzou athletics. Other than that, there wasn’t much fulfillment. Mizzou football made a valiant effort against Army in the Armed Forces Bowl in Ft. Worth, but ultimately lost on a last-second field goal by a score of 24-22. And Mizzou men’s hoops… yeah, we can table that discussion for later… or never, if you’d prefer.

Mizzou’s football finale featured plenty of ups and downs, as a bowl game typically would. Much was made about who wasn’t playing in the game, and for good reason. But the ones who did gave fans a glimpse of what could be coming on the horizon in 2022. The quarterback picture got painted a little bit more heading into a pivotal offseason, the defense continued to give hope that was completely unexpected just two months ago, and we all marveled again at how valuable the Thiccer really is to this program. But when you lose the way Mizzou did, a lot of those warm-fuzzy feelings disappear into the cold winter night.

Now, let’s get on to the final Knee-Jerk Reactions of 2021:

Brady Cook took full advantage in his first start

A lot of Mizzou fans tired of seeing this offense be run by Connor Bazelak were definitely eager to see what the redshirt freshman could do in his first full game. I was cautiously optimistic myself, but didn’t want to heap all kinds of expectations on Cook in an end-of-season game against a service academy. Boy, did he exceed those expectations, though. A 27-of-34 night for 238 yards and a late go-ahead touchdown pass, along with nine carries, 53 yards and a rushing score had Mizzou faithful feeling much better about the quarterback¬† situation heading into ’22. The only mistake that ended up looming large was a misfire to a wide-open Dawson Downing that would’ve put Mizzou up three, but instead allowed the game-ending field goal by Army to win the game, as opposed to tie it. In a game where the Tigers were without their top offensive weapon, Cook ran the offense effectively.

This was a solid performance, but let’s also remember: it’s just one data point of many that Eli Drinkwitz will use to decide who the starting quarterback is next fall. This obviously gives Cook a leg up for now, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s his job to lose. That being said, from what we saw Wednesday night, it’s hard not to give Cook another chance at being a starter going forward as long as another quarterback doesn’t jump off the page in the spring/fall camp periods. The next few months will be interesting to see whether any of Cook, Bazelak or Macon decide to transfer, before Sam Horn enters the fold in the fall. But at least for now, we have a much better idea of what this offense can look like under Cook.

The offense desperately needs a go-to pass-catcher for ’22

The veterans in the receiving corps stepped up in this game when they were needed the most for Mizzou. Barrett Banister was again a conversion machine, Keke Chism caught the go-ahead TD, and Dawson Downing served as a reliable option in the flat. Those three guys combined for 148 receiving yards on the night. Everyone else (Elijah Young, JJ Hester, Tauskie Dove and Dominic Lovett) combined for 90. So that means guys that will be on the team next year accounted for less that 38 percent of Cook’s passing yards. This is still a fairly young wide receiver room, but someone has to emerge as a regular option in order to help out whomever is throwing the passes next season for the Tigers.

It’s possible that the betting favorite to be that go-to guy in ’22 is a guy not even on the team yet. I fully believe Luther Burden will get every chance to be a starter in the offense once he steps foot on campus. But again, let’s not start cashing checks too early. The simple fact is that if Mizzou’s offense is to take that next step this year, someone from the current group will have to carry a much larger load than he did in 2021. The fact that a running back (Tyler Badie) led the team in receptions this year should tell you a little bit about how Drinkwitz felt about what he had at wide receiver. That position group needs to see vast improvement in ’22 for Mizzou to maintain a positive trajectory.

The depleted defensive group did as well as it could

It’s not easy facing this style of offense, especially with the limited resources Mizzou’s defense had for this game. Its leading tackler, Martez Manuel, was out with an injury, and defensive linemen Akial Byers and Kobie Whiteside were both out, too. Akayleb Evans had already opted out to play in the Senior Bowl. During the game, several guys came off the field for injury, forcing walk-ons to take the field in the secondary and even force linebacker Devin Nicholson to play some corner. And after all of that, the Tigers held Army to 211 rushing yards – about 75 yards underneath their average for the season – and registered six tackles for loss. With the downsized personnel, I don’t know what more you can ask for.

What burned the defense was allowing Army to convert 5-of-5 fourth down tries and eat up tons of second half clock to put Mizzou in a precarious situation late in the game. It was far from a perfect night. But even after the two long drives Army put together to take a five point lead in the fourth quarter, Mizzou’s defense responded by forcing back-to-back three-and-outs to give the offense a final chance to drive down the field and take the lead themselves. That’s hard to do against an offense that is tailormade to run out the clock at the end of games. Give Steve Wilks a ton of credit for getting this unit prepared for a difficult task.

I don’t blame Tyler Badie one ounce for skipping this game

I don’t care if it was the coaching staff’s decision or Badie’s or his family’s or whomever; it was the right decision to sit out. And it was clearly evidenced by the number of players that had to be helped off the field because of injury in just this game alone. JC Carlies, Shawn Robinson, Allie Green, and Jalani Williams (and I may be forgetting some others) all suffered injuries Wednesday night. Thankfully, most weren’t severe enough to keep them out of the game for good, but the point still stands. Sure, Badie’s workload might’ve been tamped down to about 10-15 carries instead of his usual 30, but it only takes one to seriously injure yourself. And in a lower-level bowl game in a half-empty stadium in the middle of the week right before Christmas, the risk is typically not worth it.

You can say “finish what you started!” or “don’t quit on your team!” all you want. But it’s much easier to say that when it isn’t your body that you’re putting on the line every single day. And one unfortunate moment could ruin your chance at potentially making a more-than-decent living in the NFL one day. That’s the decision Badie had to make. It’s a high-pressure decision, and Drinkwitz said this week that he didn’t want it to weigh so heavily on the senior running back, so he made the decision himself, per his words. Sure, Mizzou probably would’ve won if Badie had played the game. But for a guy in Badie’s position, he had a lot more to think about than a glorified exhibition game in Fort Worth. Which brings me to this…

The whole season shouldn’t be judged on this one game

It’s *really* easy to now look at Mizzou’s overall record of 6-7 and call the season a failure. It’s also *really* lazy. I’m not going to say it was a success, either. But this particular game should hold little to no impact on how you feel about the 2021 Missouri football team. The Tigers were starting a different guy at quarterback. They didn’t have their star running back who just set the school’s single-season rushing record. We’ve already talked about how shorthanded the defense was. Yes, it was a tough loss. But it’s much more fair to judge this as a 6-6 season instead of a 6-7 one. Would you have called Drinkwitz’s first year a failure if Mizzou actually got the chance to play its bowl game against Iowa and finished 5-6? Of course not. Because at the end of the day, there are really only eight to ten bowl games (including the playoff games) that really matter, and the rest are just ways for the schools and bowls and television stations to make money. This one Mizzou just played in was one of five bowl games in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area alone(!) and it was maybe the third- or fourth-most important one out of the five. Let’s not fall victim to recency bias here.

The season, as a whole, was a bit disappointing, but was somewhat salvaged by some key wins down the stretch and a surprising turnaround by a defense that looked completely lost midway through the schedule. In year two of a head coach’s tenure, you can accept that. And it doesn’t hurt that recruiting momentum continues to rise day-by-day and year-by-year. But now’s the point where 6-6 is no longer acceptable. Next year has to include a winning regular season record and a much more solid showing in some key SEC matchups (Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, etc.). It’s great to be excited about the higher level of talent Drinkwitz is bringing into the program these days. Once the fall of 2022 rolls around, it’ll be time for that talent to produce the expected results.