By: Andy Humphrey
Not sure if we can consider it a classic game, but it certainly featured a classic finish.
Everyone ready to take in Florida/Mizzou on Saturday was probably expecting an offensive clinic. It made me wonder if Mizzou was capable of winning a shootout, since they had already lost similar games to Kentucky (35-28) and Boston College (41-34). It probably played more into Mizzou’s favor that the game was much muddier than that. A field goal fest through the first half and sluggish rushing starts from both sides left us with a game that no one really saw coming. And in the end, Mizzou delivered the final punch by going for two in overtime after a touchdown from Tyler Badie to earn a 24-23 victory and guarantee a spot in a bowl game.
Looking back, it’s pretty stunning how Mizzou pulled this off. It’s been a while since the offense has featured the comeback gene, but the Tigers made sure that the fourth quarter was theirs. Badie got his usual 30 touches, but stayed fairly quiet until he finally put together some explosive runs in the late third- and early fourth-quarters. It’s incredible how much better he’s gotten throughout the course of games this year. Mizzou needed him to show up when it mattered, and he came up with the exact right plays to put Mizzou in a good position late in the game, and also in the end zone in OT.
But there were plenty of other factors to this win, too. I outline it here in the Knee-Jerk Reactions:
Connor Bazelak had a rough three quarters. But the fourth mattered most.
The tone from Eli Drinkwitz in the leadup to this game suggested that the quarterback competition was as heated as it’s been this season. The leash he gave Bazelak in this game suggested the opposite. There were many calls by people outside the Mizzou sideline that wanted Bazelak out of this game, as he completed just 11 of 19 passes for 107 yards through the first three quarters. His limited mobility and missed reads led to fans pleading for Brady Cook to get a chance. Then the fourth quarter happened. Bazelak went 4-of-7 for 58 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown pass to Niko Hea, set up by a nice play design from Drinkwitz and pump fake by the quarterback.
Whether there was competition for the starting quarterback job or not, it became clear throughout the game that the only two things that could take Bazelak out were an interception or injury. Could Mizzou’s offense have been more effective with a more mobile quarterback in the game? Sure! But it never happened, and maybe it’s a good thing that it didn’t. Because even though Brady Cook would’ve provided more of an opportunity to use the QB run or move the pocket to hit receivers in space, Cook probably still doesn’t know this offense as well as Bazelak does. You would’ve had to limit the playbook to allow for Cook to operate well. It never really started well for Bazelak, but give him a ton of credit for shaking off those woes and finishing the game strong.
The defense got the job done against Emory Jones
I think we can now clearly declare this Mizzou defense as improved. They’ve faced three very different offenses in the last three weeks and showed great progress in stopping the run compared to the first eight games. Mizzou hasn’t dealt well with the quarterback run this year, and there were a lot of questions into how they would handle Emory Jones’ running abilities, in addition to the pass. Yet again, they made sure that the ground plays weren’t the ones beating them this week. Jones was held to 2.6 yards per carry, and was sacked a couple of times, too. Mizzou managed to do that while also holding all three Florida running backs in check (21 carries, 48 yards combined from Wright, Davis and Pierce).
Jones did find a few explosive plays through the air, connecting on 20 of 32 passes for 261 yards. But you’ll take that all day if you’re the Tigers. It was a solid enough effort on third down (Mizzou gave up 5-of-18 conversions), and Steve Wilks did a masterful job of blitzing at the right time. That’s what keeps you in games. We’ve seen this defense get demoralized by huge opposing runs time and again this year. They’ve finally put their foot down and said “no more.” There was still a worry that the type of talented skill players Florida brings to the table would be enough to put up major points. Those worries quickly went away after seeing the performances Saturday.
It’s staggering how far the linebacker play has come
Mizzou had a real linebacker problem early in the season. Drinkwitz was just consistently playing Blaze Alldredge and Devin Nicholson without much of a rotation of other guys in and out. He essentially said that they were the only guys he thought were capable of playing at that level at that time. And the results *still* were horrific. Fast-forward to now, and that unit has held up its end of the bargain, and then some. Alldredge fell out of the starting rotation after Chad Bailey started impressing in October, then Alldredge worked his way back into more snaps during the Georgia game. Now, that tandem of Bailey and Alldredge is driving Mizzou’s increased effort in run-stopping. The two combined for 17 total tackles and five tackles for loss against the Gators Saturday.
Alldredge’s performance definitely came at timely moments for Mizzou’s defense. He provided a couple of quarterback hits on Jones that led to incompletions, and had numerous pressures on top of that. But the biggest play on defense all night was probably Alldredge’s tackle out-of-bounds on Dameon Pierce on 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter, forcing Florida to tie the game with a field goal instead of keeping the drive alive for a touchdown. That one play from Alldredge likely saved Mizzou four points. It’s been an up-and-down year for the grad transfer from Rice, but he’s got a chance now to end his year on an upswing after a performance like that.
Drinkwitz didn’t coach his best, but at least he outcoached Dan Mullen
There are real quips to be had about Drinkwitz’s play-calling in the early part of the game. It was a little frustrating to watch Mizzou’s offense try the edges time and again while seeing Florida’s defenders stay home and take advantage of Bazelak’s immobility. He’ll maybe look back at the first half and find plenty of things to correct on his own end. But make no mistake: the decisions late and the all-time guts to go for two in overtime paid off massively for Mizzou’s second-year coach. He clearly was coaching to win, instead of coaching to avoid losing. And the same can’t be said for the guy on the other side.
Dan Mullen went for a few fourth downs, but also passed on some short situations that could’ve given his offense a jolt. Florida punted inside of Mizzou’s 45-yard line *twice*. There were a few instances where they lined up to go for fourth down, then had a pre-snap penalty that led to a punt. The Gators ended up with nine total penalties for 80 yards. And when Mizzou missed a go-ahead field goal with just over a minute left, Mullen decided to sit on the football and play for overtime instead of trying to get 30-40 yards for a game-winning kick. I’m not trying to detract from Mizzou’s win at all; they fully deserve it. But I think we also saw exactly why Mullen’s seat as Florida’s head coach is as hot as ever. And that collection of moments didn’t help his case at all.
This meant a lot more than just getting bowl eligible
Mizzou’s win last year against LSU was important for Drinkwitz because it gave fans an early glimpse of what could be coming in the future. Drinkwitz then needed to follow that up with a win to help keep that belief alive. This win against Florida could be exactly that. Sure, Florida’s program is in turmoil right now, but they still have a clear talent edge over Mizzou. It’s still a game that the Tigers weren’t supposed to win, according to the oddsmakers. But almost all of the “swing” games on Mizzou’s schedule haven’t gone their way this year, and that belief from the fanbase was starting to wane. This was one of Mizzou’s last chances in 2021 to give fans something to be hopeful about. And it delivered.
With this win, you’ve basically avoided having this season be a step back from 2020. I’m not sure if many fans would’ve been happy with 6-6 at the start of the season, but you’re at least giving yourself a chance at a winning record with a bowl game. The path to six wins looked really bleak about three to four weeks ago. But the transformation on defense and the perseverance by the offense have gotten them into this spot. Arkansas will be a tough test next week, especially considering how well they hung with Alabama on Saturday. But the Tigers can breathe easy, knowing that a potential win over the Razorbacks can be treated as icing on the cake rather than a necessity.