It may have given Missouri fans some not-so-fun flashbacks, but it did not end poorly for the Tigers in the other Columbia Saturday night.
You could argue the Tigers won the game with their start alone, as they put two early touchdowns on the board in the first half. But the second half opened the door for South Carolina to climb back into the game. Eventually, Missouri found enough timely plays to douse the comeback hopes for the Gamecocks and seal a 17-10 road win.
That fast start proved that the Tigers were ready to play, after being off the field for three weeks. But the second half proved there’s a reason why most FBS teams would like to have near a full compliment of scholarship players at their disposal. Missouri, according to Eli Drinkwitz during postgame, had just 52 to work with on Saturday. The SEC recommends you have 53. The fact that Missouri had guys who had not been part of the fold for much of the first five games playing meaningful snaps toward the end might have contributed to a less decisive finish. Either way, you give tons of credit to the coaching staff for keeping the group focused enough to secure the team’s first road win of 2020.
With all that in mind, here are my Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Tigers’ latest win:
Nick Bolton was the best overall player on the field
It’s no surprise at this point. Bolton again made immediate impacts in the first half, not allowing running back Kevin Harris to get going for the Gamecocks. A couple of big tackles in the backfield helped bring SC’s offense to a standstill early. When the night was over, Bolton led both defenses with 14 total tackles.
Even though it may not always come with sacks or backfield tackles, Bolton keeps proving why he is one of the most valuable players on defense in the country. He is on pace to get to around the same number of total tackles he had last season (107) despite playing two fewer games. He didn’t get the same kind of big plays in the second half, but I probably attribute that to South Carolina deciding to avoid his area of the field at all costs. Even then, he kept making tackles and nearly had a game-sealing interception in the red zone. Bolton deserves every postseason accolade that is coming his way.
The depleted defense got the job done
This unit seemed to have its back against the wall all week. We already knew the defensive line would have some guys out for COVID quarantines, but didn’t really know the full extent of who all was out until the guys took the field Saturday. When you consider that defensive coordinator Ryan Walters couldn’t make the trip, two true freshmen had to start at cornerback, and the Tigers’ best pass-rusher, Trajan Jeffcoat, had to miss due to injury, you’ll absolutely take allowing only 10 points on the road, no matter the opponent.
The Tigers still got a little lucky. If one of either wide receiver Shi Smith or quarterback Luke Doty plays the entire game, I’m not sure the outcome would be the same. But Missouri can’t control that. All they can do is make the right plays when they matter most, and they did exactly that. Give a lot of credit to defensive backs coach David Gibbs for stepping in for Walters on the play-calling duties. He dialed up corner and safety blitzes at timely moments, leading to a sack-and-a-half for Martez Manuel and the first career sack for Ennis Rakestraw. Pair that with Devin Nicholson making the clinching interception on the final drive, and you have a solid day’s work in some difficult circumstances.
Considering the opponent, Missouri’s offense probably wishes it had a better night
I’d characterize Connor Bazelak’s night as “alright.” He seemed to have a good connection with Keke Chism, and had an excellent throw to Tauskie Dove for the early touchdown. Eli Drinkwitz gave him good chances to make safe throws that could lead to solid yardage, including a 28-yard wheel route to Tyler Badie that set up Missouri’s second touchdown. But, as Drinkwitz pointed out postgame, he did underthrow a ball on a red zone interception, and missed a couple of reads that could have led to bigger plays.
It could be a product of the offensive line not being able to hold solid all night long. That’s a depleted group, too, and the easiest fix to the offensive lag could be just getting guys like Larry Borom and Xavier Delgado back in the fold. If Bazelak gets better protection, he probably improves his accuracy. But a lot was made of how awful South Carolina’s defense had played to date, and I was certainly expecting a higher output from Missouri’s group. That certainly did not happen.
Despite the struggles, a special night for Larry Rountree
I’m sure it felt special to Rountree to finally get the record for most all-time rushing yards by a Missouri running back, while doing not far away from his home state of North Carolina. The way he has been able to do it is equally impressive, given that he has not always been the first-string running back during his time in Columbia. The perseverance that guy has shown in his Tiger career surely paid off with a well-deserved record.
Sure, 21 carries for 58 yards, a one-yard touchdown and a long run of 11 doesn’t look all that impressive on paper, but I saw a South Carolina defense that gave a lot of respect to the veteran back. They seemed to have a game-plan that they would not let Rountree be the one to beat them, despite his struggles throughout the game. The Gamecocks still bit on most play-action fakes, and it led to some of Bazelak’s best positive plays of the night. Just Rountree’s shear presence on the field made an impact in that respect.
A road win with just 52 scholarship players should not be taken lightly
In normal circumstances, you look at the box score from this game and ask a lot of questions on both sides of the ball for Missouri. You look at just 301 yards of total offense against a team that just gave up 513 yards through the air the following week, fired its defensive-minded head coach and suffered an onslaught of opt-outs in the last week. You allowed a backup quarterback to come in to the second half and almost single-handedly bring his offense to life and give his team a chance to tie the game. Sure, against a different opponent, it’s probably not a victory.
But that shouldn’t matter. In fact, no sluggish performance in 2020 should really matter, especially for Missouri. They went through a COVID postponement, were off for three weeks, and barely had enough guys to take the field Saturday. I mean, they literally had wideouts cross-training as defensive backs this week to make sure they had depth there. That alone should tell you how desperate they were to even get a game in. Then when it’s over, you come away with a road victory in a place you haven’t won in since 2014 against a team that you’ve had all kinds of bad juju against over the years? That has to feel good. Sure, you will have to perform better the following week against Arkansas, but enjoy this one, first.