By: Andy Humphrey
Yes, I’m getting tired of seeing these reruns, too.
Not sure why every Mizzou/Kentucky game has to be decided by one score, and has to end nearly the same excruciating way every time, but that’s kinda what happened in Lexington again Saturday, as the Wildcats outlasted the Tigers 35-28 in the first SEC game of 2021. This season’s version of the game that tends to decide who finishes third in the SEC East the last few years had some mood swings, and it gave the Tigers every chance to come away with an impressive road win. Connor Bazelak and Tyler Badie really did empty the chamber to try and will the Tigers back from a deficit that they faced nearly all night long. But in the end, Mizzou couldn’t find enough stops to hold down the UK attack.
I think Mizzou fans can understandably feel irked by still not being able to take care of what’s been a thorn in their side for the last seven years. Especially considering the number of opportunities Mizzou had to tie the game, which they did once in the fourth quarter. But whoever came out the loser in this one was going to feel more bruised than they would in other losses. During the press conference, Eli Drinkwitz seemed notably more upset than usual that he wasn’t the victor Saturday. But I don’t think Mizzou could’ve put forth much more effort than they did, and Drinkwitz definitely noted that.
But effort alone won’t win you the game every time. So let’s dive into why it went down the way it did in the Knee-Jerk Reactions.
Run defense is still a huge problem
It’s hard to believe that one player on the field could be this important, but the loss of Nick Bolton is still felt, a lot. Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez had a monster night, carrying it 27 times for 207 yards – an average of 7.7 yards per carry – and three touchdowns. It’s honestly a shock that they didn’t give him the ball more than 27 times. A lot was made about the rejuvenated passing game for UK after Will Levis’ performance against UL Monroe last week. But the reality is this team will always try to establish the run first, and keep going to it if it works. It worked a lot.
That’s an issue now for the Tigers. That’s two games in a row where they looked totally lost trying to close gaps in the rushing attack. Whether it’s missed tackles, poor positioning, or a hitch in the scheme, something needs to be figured out. Bolton covered up a lot of those mistakes in prior years, but Missouri doesn’t have that show-stopper right now. And until they find that guy, or figure out a more consistent way to hold opposing rushing attacks at bay, the Tigers are in trouble because now there’s a healthy amount of film showing them getting absolutely gashed.
J.C. Carlies was the best defensive player on the field for Mizzou
Mizzou doesn’t have a chance without the plays the sophomore safety made Saturday night. He showed flashes of what he can bring to the table at that position during the Central Michigan game. In Lexington, he followed it up with another interception off a deflected pass, as well as a timely forced fumble right as Rodriguez was barreling toward the end zone in the second quarter. The Tigers used that fumble recovery to drive down the field and score a late touchdown to cut it to a seven-point game right before halftime. Quite literally, Mizzou could’ve been looking at a four- or five-touchdown deficit at the half without the plays Carlies made on the back end of the defense.
Carlies obviously isn’t going to solve your run defense woes because of where he plays, but it’s refreshing to know that Mizzou isn’t losing very much production after losing Tyree Gillespie and Josh Bledsoe to the NFL this year. I’d caution fans to not all of a sudden start expecting the world out of Carlies now that he’s had a couple of good games. But in my estimation, he’s earned the right to play nearly every snap he possibly can in Mizzou’s defensive unit.
Bazelak can handle the big moments
If you’re really out here trying to say Mizzou has a quarterback problem after this game, you’re off your rocker. No, Bazelak still wasn’t hitting the deep ball, mainly because he didn’t attempt it very much. And that was smart. Because Kentucky’s defense gave Mizzou’s offense nothing but the underneath routes, and Bazelak took them, to a tune of a 34/52 completion night for 294 yards and four touchdowns. There was a costly interception at the start of the second half (which Drinkwitz blamed on the play call, after the game), resulting in a quick UK touchdown to go up two scores.
There was plenty more pressure on Bazelak coming into this game, I think more so than any other game he’s played in a Mizzou uniform. When you consider the factors of the first game with a large crowd, the opponent, and the added responsibility that Bazelak is given this year to drive the offense, he was going to have a lot of weight on his shoulders. And when you see him quite literally trying to complete throws on one leg by the end of the game, you knew he was leaving it all out there. The improvement on third down completions and the continued patience he showed against this UK defense is all promising going forward. The hope now is that he stays healthy and upright.
I expected more aggression on fourth down
A lot was made about a few chances where Mizzou maybe could’ve gone for it. Mizzou had a 4th and 5 at midfield midway through the second quarter, a 4th and 4 at the UK 46 with about six minutes left in the third quarter, and a 4th and 4 with about eight minutes left in the final quarter. Eli Drinkwitz chose to punt on all three plays. I won’t say it was the absolute wrong decision to do so, but I was a bit surprised to see the offensive-minded head coach not decide to roll the dice in at least one of those situations.
I get that you don’t want to open the door for UK’s defense to inject more life into an already-lit sellout crowd, but that’s what playing on the road in the SEC is about sometimes. You have to take risks, especially against a team that is a slight favorite against you. It’s also easier to find success on those fourth-down plays if you gained yardage on the preceding third-down, and that was the case in two of those fourth-down situations for Mizzou. I think Drinkwitz will probably look back at those and maybe have a different view on whether to punt or go for the first in those spots. Not sure it would’ve made a difference in the outcome, but I think it would’ve inched Mizzou even closer.
It’s a tough loss, but it’s not the end of the world
I know, it’s frustrating to think that Mizzou can’t seem to consistently beat a program that hasn’t been a power for a very long time. But this loss in no way should douse your hopes for a winning season in CoMo in 2021. Yes, it’s a game that Mizzou could’ve won. But it’s not necessarily a game that Mizzou should’ve won. Because Mark Stoops has brought Kentucky to a point where they are as talented, if not more talented, than Mizzou. The rosters are very comparable. And in the end, it shouldn’t be a complete disgrace that the Tigers lost by a single touchdown to an SEC opponent in front of a lively crowd in the second week of the season.
Are there still major concerns? Yes! As there are with countless other FBS football programs across the country in mid-September. Mizzou is no different. The reality is head coaches don’t earn their money by dominating in the first month of the season. And this team still has time to work out the kinks they need to work out. I get being bummed by not finishing off a potential game-tying drive and stealing a win against a division foe. But if the Tigers are able to make the adjustments they need before the other big games on the schedule come around, the results might be different. To paraphrase what Drinkwitz said postgame, now is not the time to panic.