Week 2 of Mizzou’s football season provided another chance for the Tigers to assert dominance against a less-talented team at home.
Instead, Mizzou came extra close to hosting a 2016-like party for Middle Tennessee State.
Not much looked comfortable during Mizzou’s 23-19 victory over MTSU Saturday night. The offense, after having a solid first half over South Dakota a week earlier, failed to achieve the same start against the Blue Raiders. For the first three quarters, MTSU never trailed by more than a score and even led for about seven minutes of game clock. It wasn’t until late in the fourth when the Tigers finally went up by double-digits. But a late surge by the Blue Raiders and mental mistakes on Mizzou’s side left the game up in the air for the final few minutes. And were it not for a very questionable defensive pass interference call on MTSU on a 3rd and 21 play for Mizzou, we might be talking about the worst loss of the Eli Drinkwitz era in Columbia.
But MTSU ended up falling short, and Mizzou is 2-0 by the skin of their teeth.
Let’s get to the Knee-Jerk Reactions for a Mizzou win that some may characterize as a loss:
The offense hasn’t evolved
I don’t think we should’ve expected this offense to look wildly different under Kirby Moore. But after two weeks, it doesn’t look improved. At all. Per usual, Brady Cook showed some good and some bad. The highest high was a 44-yard completion over the middle to Luther Burden in the third quarter. The lowest low was a fumble through the end zone that gave MTSU a safety and a chance at a go-ahead scoring drive with six minutes left in the game. In between, he was as expected; he mostly made the throws he was asked to make, he had a few opportunities to affect the game with his legs, and that’s about it. Nothing exciting, but also nothing overly destructive.
There are several fans out there thinking Cook is the biggest problem. He’s not. It’s clearly the offensive line. They let Cook get sacked four times and struggled to give him a clean pocket all night. Run blocking has typically been a strength of the unit under Drinkwitz, but even that took a hit. Taking out the sack yardage, Mizzou averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, and allowed seven tackles for loss to MTSU’s defense. Add in a few untimely penalties, and you get a performance that is flatly not good enough against a Group of Five team. Drinkwitz acknowledged it as such during the postgame presser, and indicated that we might see some personnel changes in the five up front.
Maybe this offense’s lack of consistency is why Drinkwitz was so reluctant to go for a few 4th-and-short situations near midfield? (I still think those were generally the wrong calls anyway.) Who knows? What we do know is that this offense isn’t giving very much hope that things will look better against Kansas State next Saturday. An average of 29 points per game against South Dakota and MTSU is much less than fans were hoping for.
Is it time to worry about the defense?
It may sound silly that we’re even discussing this. But for a unit under Blake Baker that has done so well closing out slim leads, there were moments Saturday night that made me wonder if we were going to see this defense fail to do so against MTSU. Yes, the defense created four sacks and 12 tackles for loss. There were some great individual performances from Daylan Carnell, Darius Robinson and Chuck Hicks. But they also gave up three long scoring drives, lost contain several times on Blue Raider quarterback Nick Vattiato, allowed MTSU to go 9-for-18 on third down conversions, and didn’t force a turnover. Because the offense wasn’t holding up its end of the bargain, those leaky moments on defense were a little louder Saturday night.
Ultimately, I don’t think it’s even close to panic time here. Yes, those scoring drives were tough to watch, but on the other seven of MTSU’s 10 possessions on the night, they generated just 47 total yards of offense, averaging out to less than seven yards per drive. They also appeared to still be missing linebacker Chad Bailey, although the fact that he suited up indicates that he might be closer to a full return next week. There’s still tons of proven talent on this side of the ball, and it’s alright to afford them a less-than-stellar night for now. Down the road, however, performances like this might not hold up against the rest of Mizzou’s schedule.
Luther Burden’s season is off to an excellent start
One thing you can count on in Mizzou’s offense: Luther Burden will find a way to make eye-popping plays. The 44-yard connection with Cook in the third quarter was the main highlight of his night, but there were several others, too. He recorded the first triple-digit-yard receiving game of his college career by catching eight balls for 117 yards. A lot of those yards came after the catch, and some even came after contact. He’s now got more than 200 yards receiving through the first two games, and that’s an average much more like the one Mizzou fans were imagining when he first committed to Mizzou two years ago.
It’s great to finally see the former five-star prospect gain a much healthier target share in this offense, both for his benefit and his team’s. But I’m interested to see how it can open up other options. Burden was targeted 10 times, but no other Mizzou pass-catcher was targeted more than twice. The next step for this Mizzou’s offense needs to be using Burden’s added attention from opposing defenses to give another layer to what they can do with their other weapons. For now, though, I’m just fine with seeing Burden turn into the playmaker we all expected he could be.
The kicking struggles continued
Those hoping for Harrison Mevis to have a blemish-free game following his rough opener were left disappointed. While Mevis did hit his only field goal attempt of the night from 38 yards away, he later missed on a PAT, the first missed extra point of his career. Of course, it would’ve been his second had a South Dakota penalty not eliminated an earlier miss last week. But now that we’ve officially seen Mevis not be automatic on extra points, it might be time to officially worry about the future.
Context is key here, though. The hold was a bad one, and Mizzou allowed some pressure up the middle to make it even more difficult. Drinkwitz decided to change up the long snapper on place kicks in response to Mevis’ struggles last week. Maybe that was the reason, maybe it wasn’t. Bottom line, Mevis will always take the arrows for the kicking game struggles, fair or not. That part of the game has to get fixed soon, or else Mizzou might lose its advantage in field goal-margin games.
I like this tweeter’s suggestion
No gif but how about we never schedule Middle Tennessee ever again.
— Bryce Osman (@BEOtheCEO57) September 10, 2023
Honestly, Bryce isn’t wrong. Now that we’ve seen the Blue Raiders come into Faurot Field twice in the last seven years, pull off one upset and nearly pull off another, what’s the point of putting them on the schedule anymore? Most years, you aren’t going to gain anything from beating them. And whether it’s for natural or supernatural reasons, Mizzou fans will probably never look forward to seeing MTSU play at their stadium anymore. So you might as well look elsewhere to a different G5 program if you’re trying to find another opponent to complete future non-conference schedules. Luckily for Mizzou, none of their future schedules include the Blue Raiders right now, and the likelihood of the SEC going to a nine-game conference schedule in the future will limit those non-con games anyway.
There is relief in the fact that Mizzou avoided major disaster Saturday night. But not much relief. Mizzou flat out did not play well. There are several things to fix. If you asked me now, I can’t see this team beating Kansas State next week, and I’m not so sure a win over Memphis in St. Louis the following week won’t be a struggle either. Mizzou’s schedule gave the team lots of margin for error to get to a 2-0 start. Now, the real teams are showing up. Mizzou’s got a little less than a week to be ready for them.