MO State HS Sports

Knee-Jerk Reactions: Mizzou 33, Florida 31

Hey, winning ugly is still winning.

Mizzou football’s bid for a New Year’s Six bowl looked dead in the water for a significant amount of time late in the game. The defense had cooled from past weeks. The offense had trouble turning on the jets. And a 10-win regular season hinged on a highly-unlikely fourth-down conversion chance with under a minute left.

But several game-changing plays later, Mizzou found itself well into Thiccer Kicker range. And as Harrison Mevis’ kick sailed through the uprights, the fifth-straight sellout crowd at Faurot Field let out sighs of relief disguised as loud cheers.

Everything leading up to that point looked like a recipe for a Mizzou letdown loss to the Florida Gators. Even after the game-winning kick, the officials felt it necessary to put a second back on the clock following Florida’s failed lateral play at the end.

But all of that matters less now. Because the Tigers somehow wiggled out of the burning house with a 33-31 win, moving them one step closer to finishing the regular season with 10 wins.

With that, let’s dive into the Knee-Jerk Reactions:

Brady Cook saved his best plays for last

For the first 59 minutes of the game, I thought the Tigers’ starting quarterback was just ok. Cook hit some big plays to his receivers at times and had a short touchdown run, but there were several plays where I thought he was trying to do too much. He looked to take the top off the defense several times earlier in the game, instead of looking underneath to safer, more open throws to keep the chains moving.

But when his team needed him most, Cook stepped up.

After throwing two deep incompletions, Mizzou was facing 4th and 17 with less than a minute left, down one. I haven’t looked, but I imagine their win probability at that time was maybe a single percentage point. But Cook stayed calm and fired a strike to Luther Burden to get across midfield for the first down, as unlikely as it was.

Then he kept it up. Two plays later, he found Mekhi Miller to get deeper into field goal range. Then, while toeing the line of maybe being too aggressive without any timeouts, he connected with Mookie Cooper near the sideline to get even closer with eight seconds left, turning a 40+ yard FG attempt into a 31-yard chip shot. Three completions of 27, 11, and 16 yards that all started facing 4th and 17. It was the definition of a rabbit out of a hat.

Cook will probably tell you himself that he didn’t play his best. He’s probably right. But what matters is how he finished the game, and he helped Mizzou escape a burning house.

Mizzou’s defense had some rough moments

The Tigers were missing their two starting linebackers for this game, but the way Triston Newson and Chuck Hicks helped neutralize Tennessee’s rushing attack the week before seemed to lessen the worry. But it was clear that they missed those two Saturday night.

The Gator offense racked up 500 total yards, with the majority coming on the ground (261). They averaged 6.5 yards per rush. It was hard to keep track of the number of missed tackles Mizzou had near the line of scrimmage, turning 1-2 yard gains into chunk plays. Add in some coverage issues, some leak outs by backup quarterback Max Brown – who relieved Graham Mertz after an apparent collarbone injury – and Florida turned it into a shootout.

It’s not the first time Florida has played in a game like that, but the breakdowns Mizzou experienced are troubling for the final stretch of the season. We’ve seen improvement from this unit over the last few games against some tough competition, but it was demoralizing to see the Gators win the explosive play battle the way that they did. In the end, they got the win and that’s all that matters. But this was a clear step back. We’ll see if Hopper is able to come back from his ankle injury next week.

Luther Burden came up huge

It’s hard to envision Mizzou keeping pace with Florida’s scoring without the star wideout’s contributions. After four straight games of being held under 100 yards receiving, Burden broke out for nine catches for 158 yards, with 113 of those coming after the catch, and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for his season. Florida probably rues the chances they had to bring Burden to the ground, but he was relentless breaking tackles himself. It seemed that when Mizzou needed a big play to get out of a tough situation, like the 4th-and-17 late, Luther showed up.

It had been a while since we saw the coaching staff dial up Burden with the amount of volume he had. Guys like Theo Wease and Cody Schrader carried that load over the last few games and did well. But clearly, the coaching staff saw that Florida’s defenders couldn’t deal with Burden well enough, and they didn’t shy away from feeding him. Most games, it makes sense to spread it out and get multiple weapons involved. But sometimes you have to ride your horses, and Saturday night, that was Burden.

The Tigers’ red zone efficiency kept it close

It wasn’t that Mizzou had much trouble moving the football. Cody Schrader again shredding the opposing rushing attack (23 carries, 148 yards) and the team still racked up 11 plays of 15+ yards. But when they got into good scoring position, they left some points on the field. The Tigers did score on all five of their red zone trips, but only got one touchdown from them. Granted, one of those was the final drive where they only needed a field goal to win, so it’s essentially a 1-for-4 mark on getting touchdowns instead of field goals in regular situations. Flipping even one of those three missed opportunities would’ve kept this from being a true nail-biter.

A multitude of issues contributed to this. Brett Norfleet’s catch in the end zone was nullified by a receiver covering him up in the formation, deeming Norfleet ineligible. Cook was dropped for a five-yard loss on 3rd-and-1 in the second quarter. It was generally sloppy as Mizzou tried to finish drives. And on the other end, Florida settled for only one field goal on the night. I think Mizzou was fine with playing a shootout game, but they would’ve preferred to get better execution near the end zone to avoid having to sweat it out in the final minute.

Mizzou escaped what would’ve been a crushing loss

Fans will bemoan how Mizzou didn’t play up to the standard it had set earlier in the season. We laid out a few reasons why above. But there is still a lot more positive to take away from this game than negative.

Why? Because last year, Mizzou loses this type of game. They had several miscues, they failed to step on the throat when they had a chance, and ultimately allowed a team with a worse record to get in great position for a road win. That 4th-and-17 pass probably falls incomplete a year ago. But not this year. Mizzou has proven that even when they played below expectations, they can do whatever it takes to stay alive and find a way to win against an SEC opponent. That shows the growth that Eli Drinkwitz’s program proved in games prior to Saturday. The mental toughness of this team has leveled up in a major way. Right now, we’re talking about how Mizzou almost lost it, but down the road, it’ll always be a Mizzou win.

There’s a lot to address on a short week before heading to Arkansas. We’ll see if the Tigers show those improvements to reach 10 regular season wins.