MO State HS Sports

Knee-Jerk Reactions: Mizzou 34, Memphis 27

It wasn’t all that pretty, but Mizzou’s first game in the Lou since 2010 ended in success.

While their wasn’t much late drama in Mizzou’s 34-27 win over Memphis at the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, not much about the victory felt convincing. That might be a weird thing to say in a game where Mizzou’s offense went off for 542 total yards and averaged 8.9 yards per play. But it might make more sense when factoring in the unit’s 0-for-8 third down conversion rate. The defense grabbed three sacks, seven tackles for loss and two interceptions, yet allowed Memphis to score on three of its four last possessions to keep it close. It wasn’t exactly one step forward, one step back, but it felt that way at times.

Overall, Mizzou’s talent on both sides of the ball won the day, and earned them their best start to a season since 2013. That part, you can’t complain about too much.

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

Luther Burden. ‘Nuff said.

We’ve run out of superlatives. It’s becoming more and more clear that Luther Burden is one of the best receivers in college football, let alone the SEC. The St. Louis native caught another 10 passes for 177 yards, with 129 of those coming after the catch. He had five receptions for 15 yards or more and made several Memphis defenders miss in the open field along the way. Whenever he touches the football, good things are happening for Mizzou’s offense.

And that impact was felt even more when he came off the field with cramping, as described by Eli Drinkwitz in the postgame. Burden briefly went into the locker room for a check-up in the second half, and while he was out, Mizzou’s offense seemed to stall. Between Burden’s last target before the injury and his next target when he came back on the field, Brady Cook went 1-of-5 throwing the football and Mizzou had a couple of empty possessions. It’s not to say Burden was the only reason Mizzou’s offense dropped off. But he sure seemed to be the biggest reason. The health of Burden and Cook are paramount to the Tigers’ offensive success going forward. So far, that connection is working brilliantly through four games.

Cook deserves a ton of credit for being out there through his own injury and having yet another great passing game (18-of-25, 341 yards, two touchdowns). But it’s clear that Burden’s play-making ability is the main tool for Mizzou’s offense.

The rushing attack came alive

We talk a lot of Mizzou’s explosiveness in the passing game, and for good reason. But that was paired with a great rushing effort on Saturday, too. After a rough time against Kansas State’s tight run defense last week, Mizzou averaged 6.2 yards per carry (sack-adjusted), totaling 201 yards on the ground against Memphis. The St. Louis native Cody Schrader reached 123 yards on 14 carries. Both he and Nate Peat found the end zone. It’s fun to see the Tigers rattle off big passing plays downfield. But pairing that with the rushing attack they got Saturday turned it into the Tigers’ most balanced offensive game of 2023.

It’s also fair to credit the offensive line for this effort. That unit has taken some heat in prior games for its pass protection issues, and even in this game they allowed a couple of sacks. But there hasn’t been much question about this group’s ability to pave paths for Schrader, Peat and Cook to impact the game on the ground. They were also missing Marcellus Johnson at right guard for this game. All things considered, the offensive line deserves some recognition for creating solid running opportunities for Mizzou.

The start to the game was too sluggish from Mizzou

It was a gutsy call by Eli Drinkwitz to open the game with an onside kick attempt, and Harrison Mevis executed it perfectly. The problem? Marquis Johnson was called offside and Mizzou’s surprise recovery was wiped away. That started off a series of errors that allowed Memphis to not only hang in the game, but end the first quarter with a lead. Brady Cook found Johnson for a 76-yard touchdown that got the crowd into it early, but aside from that, they ran just seven more plays for eight total yards, possessed for just over four minutes, and fumbled away the football deep in their own end. Add in two more costly penalties on offense and two fourth down conversions allowed on defense, and you get a less-than-inspiring start from the black and gold Tigers in a semi-home game.

In the end, they overcame it and all’s well that ends well. But the games get tougher from here on out. Those same starts to a game won’t fly against the likes of LSU, Florida, Tennessee, etc. Heck, even a similar start at Vanderbilt next week could put the Tigers in a rough spot. Memphis wasn’t talented enough to bury Mizzou early for how slow they started. But the rest of Mizzou’s schedule does have that ability. Luckily, it didn’t hurt Mizzou Saturday night in St. Louis.

Is the defense alright?

There’s a little more to worry about for Blake Baker’s unit. Memphis racked up 399 yards of total offense against Mizzou, and while they had higher yardage totals against Bethune-Cookman and Navy earlier in the season, one would assume that number would shrink considerably lower when facing an SEC defense. Several missed tackles allowed for Memphis to amass 208 yards after the catch and keep several drives alive. One notable missed tackle allowed their second touchdown to take place. And while Mizzou had a slightly better third-down conversion rate allowed (7-of-18), they let up fourth down conversions on three out of four chances. That doesn’t sound like situational improvement from this unit.

Granted, there were some injuries throughout the game that might have contributed to this. Darius Robinson left the game early in the first quarter with a leg injury and never returned. At corner, Mizzou was without Ennis Rakestraw and also lost Dreyden Norwood during the game. At one point, safety JC Carlies had to move to cornerback to supplement the losses there. So they obviously weren’t at full strength. But it doesn’t excuse a defense that came into the season loaded with talent, and so far has had issues with tackling and getting off the field on third down. It’s still not time to panic, but those issues are holding the defense back from becoming one of the top units in the SEC.

Mizzou avoided the letdown, for now

There was some fear that a win over a top-15 team could produce a hangover that blurred Mizzou’s vision for its next game. But the black and gold Tigers checked the box. It would’ve been nice to have a more convincing victory over a Group of Five team – especially considering the total offense disparity – but a 4-0 start is a 4-0 start no matter the margins of victory. Mizzou ultimately took care of a motivated Memphis group to keep the juice from the Kansas State win alive.

But it doesn’t mean that it will last through next week. While Vanderbilt is not much of a threat on paper, you don’t have to go back many years to see games where Mizzou struggled to get a victory in Nashville. Even last year’s game in Columbia was a nail-biter right to the end. Mizzou fans have a tendency to view this annual game as an easy conference victory. But Vanderbilt could see it in a similar sense. This may be their best chance at a conference win all season. The Tigers will get the Commodores’ best shot. Mizzou avoided the first “trap game” after Kansas State, and could very easily be ranked in the AP Top 25 this week. That’s all well and good. But they now need to prove those voters right, and not look ahead to LSU the following week.