Note to Mizzou: you’re not required to win ugly against FCS teams.
In fact, that should never be the expectation. But maybe it should’ve been this year, as Mizzou slowly chugged their way to a 34-17 victory over Abilene Christian in the two teams’ first-ever football meeting against each other on Saturday. For most of the game, the visiting Wildcats were within a couple of scores of the Tigers, trailing by 11 at the end of the first quarter and 14 at halftime. Teams in Mizzou’s position are expected to put away lesser opponents much quicker than the Tigers did. Instead, Abilene Christian hung around, scoring a touchdown late in the third quarter to make it 24-10. Ultimately, the day didn’t end in complete heartbreak for Mizzou fans. But a little more room between the Tigers and Wildcats on the scoreboard would’ve helped build some morale after a bad loss at Kansas State the prior week.
In the end, the Tigers made the plays they needed to win, and they should at least get credit for that. But the entire vibe during the game made it difficult to have optimism. The offense went 5-of-15 on third down conversions. The defense allowed 308 yards of total offense to ACU. The whole team committed nine penalties for 85 yards lost. Even Harrison Mevis was off, missing two field goals in a game for the first time in his college career. It just seemed… off. They got the win, but that’s what they should’ve done. The way they got to that win was more consequential to evaluating Mizzou’s season so far.
Not a whole lot to take away, but we’ll try our best in the Knee-Jerk Reactions.
The offensive line is bad
It’s officially a major problem, if it wasn’t already following the Kansas State game. When you face an FCS team, you expect to have an easy time establishing the run game, but that wasn’t accomplished for most of Mizzou’s day. There were three runs of 20+ yards in the game from the Tigers; Nate Peat had a 27-yard run, Cody Schrader had a 20-yarder, and Brady Cook had a 29-yard keeper. Take those plays away, and Mizzou rushed it 40 times for 119 yards, an average of just over three yards per carry. That’s… not good.
There were also penalty issues. Mizzou was flagged for six holding penalties, all but one coming on the linemen. And while the Tigers did generally well in pass protection, they allowed a sack-fumble near their goal line that created Abilene Christian’s first touchdown in the third quarter. When you already had questions about the line play going into this game, it’s now worse that you’re asking even more afterward. I don’t know what the cause is, whether it’s youth, inexperience, overall talent or something else. And I’m not sure what the fix is either, because nobody’s magically getting more talented and if you switch up starters then you’d likely be putting even more inexperienced players out there. Mizzou’s got what it’s got, and Eli Drinkwitz needs to figure out how to make it work, and quick.
Luther Burden was a factor
Earlier in the week, Drinkwitz mentioned the need to balance between getting Burden the ball more and also limiting his snap counts in his true freshman year. But it was clear that the head coach was leaning toward more touches for Burden Saturday. On Mizzou’s very first touch of the game, Burden fielded a punt and took it 78 yards to the end zone. On offense, he hauled in six receptions for 58 yards, and also ran it three times for eight yards. Between returns, receiving and rushing, Burden had 177 all-purpose yards in the game.
It’s a no-brainer now that Burden needs to be Mizzou’s first-string punt returner. Drinkwitz had mentioned that he was looking for competition at that spot after the first two games, and Burden’s clearly won that. That leaves the question of how much more we’ll see him when Mizzou’s offense is out there. I think for the Tigers to have any chance in their conference schedule, he needs to see a similar usage to what he had Saturday. What that looks like down the road remains to be seen, but he has to be featured in some way, or else Mizzou won’t reach the full potential of its offense.
We learned nothing about Mizzou’s quarterback situation
Brady Cook played well enough. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns. When he was called upon to make passes downfield, he held his own. His completion percentage was 67% on passes between five and 14 yards, and 50% on passes longer than 15 yards. You can work with that. It’s not earth-shattering, but enough to keep a Power-Five offense effective. What may have disappointed fans, however, was that Mizzou didn’t build up a strong-enough lead to see any other quarterbacks lead a drive. Jack Abraham came in and handed off a few times on the final drive of the game, but no one else but Cook threw a pass.
Let’s make something clear: Cook hasn’t lost the starting job. He’s the guy. For now. Games like Abilene Christian are chances for Power-Five teams to build a big lead and then play some younger guys and see what they’ve got. Mizzou didn’t accomplish that Saturday. Cook played the whole game because he essentially had to. That said, you could make the argument that even in a two-score game, it would’ve been worthwhile to see either Sam Horn or Tyler Macon lead the offense, and just see what they’ve got. Because if they aren’t ready to play a second half against an FCS team, will they ever be ready at all? This game basically solidified that Drinkwitz is likely to stick with Brady Cook for a while. That could be the right move, but not until Mizzou sees him perform well against someone else in the Power-Five. Next week will be telling.
We need to talk about Mizzou’s most productive receiver
He’s not their most talented receiver. That’s Luther Burden. But no other receiver on Mizzou’s offense has done more than Dominic Lovett. The sophomore from East St. Louis had seven catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. He connected with Cook on the Tigers’ longest play of the game for a 78-yard score, and was Mizzou’s best chance at a chunk play throughout the game.
The upside of Lovett, Burden and others in Mizzou’s wide receiver room is the reason why fans have waited long to see this team throw downfield more, as opposed to the short screens to the sideline. Games like Saturday showed that opening up the playbook like that can lead to success for this team. Yes, it’s Abilene Christian. Yes, there were breakdowns in coverage. But we saw the Tigers throw downfield more than we’ve seen all season. If we’re going to see more of it, you can bet that Lovett will be a big part of it. One thing the offense has gotten right is positioning him to see more production, and it’s paid off.
It could’ve been a lot better, and a lot worse
At the very least, Abilene Christian should not have been in this game for as long as it was. Mizzou took care of business a lot better more than two weeks ago against Louisiana Tech, and that’s an FBS team, not FCS. There were fans booing as the team ran into the locker room at halftime, and even more boos moments before that when Drinkwitz bailed on a fourth-and-one play at midfield and decided to punt instead. The Tigers’ offense got started late, and relied mainly on a few explosive plays. The defense played fine overall, but experienced some tackling issues early that kept hope alive for the Wildcats. The goal for these mismatch-type games is to kill the will of your opponent as early as possible. Mizzou failed to reach that goal. And that’s disheartening.
It’s certainly better than a loss, though. Mizzou didn’t suffer the fate of other heavy favorites that have already picked up puzzling losses early this season. But that’s the bare minimum. Other than that, I’m not sure that you can take away many positives from a 17-point win at home over a program that just entered Division I a few years ago. Translate that same game to the rest of your schedule, and you’re probably looking at a 3- to 4-win season. Far from exciting. Mizzou did not get better Saturday. It’s possible that they could get better next week at Auburn. Is it likely? Eh, I guess we’ll find out soon.