MO State HS Sports

Knee-Jerk Reactions: Mizzou 34, South Carolina 12

I’m not sure you could dream up Mizzou homecoming any better.

An excellent weather day, a late-enough kickoff to allow time for the parade and tailgating, a sold-out football stadium, and a decisive win for a team setting its sights on higher goals.

Saturday provided all of that, as Mizzou improved to 7-1 and 3-1 in the SEC with a 34-12 victory over South Carolina. No looking ahead to the bye week or the ensuing road game against top-ranked Georgia. That danger quickly went away with the Tigers scoring on four straight possessions in the first half, asserting dominance on both lines of scrimmage, and letting the defense close out the win. And so, the potential “special” season carries on.

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

Mizzou’s defense is alive and well

Blake Baker’s unit had drawn criticism in the first half of the season. Not because they had played poorly, but because they played below expectations, something that both fans and the players had acknowledged. But lately, this defense has played like the wrecking crew that everyone was hoping to see. They followed up their four-sack performance against Kentucky with six sacks of South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler. Four of those sacks came on third down, where SC was held to just 3-of-13 on third down conversions. The Gamecocks also managed just 69 team rushing yards and 2.4 yards per rush. And probably most important, Mizzou held SC out of the end zone all day, and now have allowed just one touchdown in their last seven quarters.

It’s clear that they look different. The pass rush is more productive. Rush lanes are being occupied. Coverages downfield have been better. Most everything seems to be clicking the way it was expected to. Granted, Mizzou maybe hasn’t faced the most consistent offenses in Kentucky and South Carolina recently. But it’s almost natural for college football to be inconsistent. A defense only allowing one touchdown in over 105 minutes of gameplay is no small task. And to see individual players like Darius Robinson, Ty’Ron Hopper, Kris Abrams-Draine, Chuck Hicks and others step up their game over that time is a promising sign for this defense.

Cody Schrader is that dude

Mizzou gave carries to only one running back Saturday. It’s fair to hope for a little more variety. Eli Drinkwitz indicated in the postgame that they wanted to use true freshman Jamel Roberts on Saturday, which would’ve been nice. But honestly, with the way Schrader has run the ball so far this season, he deserves every chance to lead Mizzou’s backfield, even as the lone guy. The St. Louis native carried it 26 times for a season-high 159 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. It was his fourth 100+ yard game of the season and his second multi-score game. He’s also likely to finish this weekend leading the SEC in rushing yards with 807.

When he first got to Mizzou as a walk-on transfer, he wasn’t expected at all to make the kind of impact he’s made. Looking back, it makes a whole lot of sense why Eli Drinkwitz said before the 2022 season that people should get to know his name. The guy has surpassed expectations at every turn. Every time he’s drawn doubts from outsiders, he’s shattered them. Mizzou’s transformation in the pass game has changed the offense, for sure. But the team’s run game is also in a much better spot this year with Schrader running the way that he is, and it’s just as important of an aspect to this offense as Brady Cook and the receivers.

The offensive line deserves its flowers

The front five has taken a lot of heat in the past. Whether it’s penalties, botched snaps, missed blocks, etc., we’re quick to point out when they do something wrong. It’s only fair to highlight a game where they did almost everything right. Brady Cook wasn’t sacked a single time. Mizzou had just two negative-yardage plays all game. There was one penalty on the offensive line, a false start on Connor Tollison. Pave the run lanes, protect the quarterback, avoid costly penalties; Mizzou’s offensive line did all three against South Carolina.

It was vitally important for this offense to get better line play heading into 2023. Yes, a lot of other things needed to improve, too. We’ve seen excellent steps forward from the quarterback, running back, wide receivers, tight ends, etc. But none of that happens without a good foundation. It was looking a little dicey for the group after the first two games, but since conference play started Mizzou has kept a solid five of Foster-Delgado-Tollison-Cam’Ron Johnson-Membou and kept the offense churning forward. You don’t hear about their improvements too much. But it’s kind of a “no news is good news” situation. To me, the offensive line improvements have been the most underrated part of this team’s turnaround. And they played excellent Saturday.

The second half was a little sloppy

No, there’s not a lot to complain about in a 22-point win against an SEC opponent. It could’ve been an even bigger margin, however. After scoring on four of five possessions in the first half, Mizzou’s offense went a little dead in the second half. It featured two three-and-outs, a dropped punt snap by Luke Bauer creating a turnover on downs, and just 124 total yards compared to 294 in the first half. Once South Carolina added a couple more field goals, the Tigers seemed content with backing down on the vertical passes and just letting Schrader carry the load to bleed out clock. With how Schrader was running Saturday, that’s understandable. But it also limited Mizzou’s explosiveness compared to the first half.

I’m not sure if there’s one thing to point to that caused this lull. It seemed like a variety of little things – dropped snaps, slight overthrows, etc. – that just held Mizzou back from that big play. Cook did hit a long pass to Luther Burden in the fourth quarter to set up the Tigers’ final touchdown drive, so it wasn’t completely lost. But if Mizzou’s defense had been letting up touchdowns instead of field goals in the second half, Mizzou would’ve had to sweat out this game a lot more. The fast start helped them to a solid win. But with the tougher games looming on Mizzou’s schedule, it’ll take more than just fast starts to compile more wins.

The games get massive from here on out

It’s pretty evident that Mizzou is ready for the bye week. Players and coaches have talked a lot about how they’ve gone non-stop since late July, from preseason camp to eight straight weeks with a game. That takes a toll. It’s an old cliche teams use by saying that their bye week always comes at a great time. In Mizzou’s case, it holds true. Guys like Cody Schrader, Ennis Rakestraw, Chad Bailey and others can heal up closer to 100 percent. And it doesn’t hurt to have two weeks to prepare before potentially one of the biggest games we’ve seen Mizzou play in a while.

Mizzou is 7-1, but we’re still a very long way from telling the full story of this 2023 season. The back half of the schedule was always going to be the tougher half. Georgia is still Georgia, despite some closer wins than expected. Tennessee just fell short in a hard-fought game against Alabama. Florida, while inconsistent at times, still has just one more loss than Mizzou. And Arkansas has struggled, but might find some late-season juice for a rivalry game in their building. Every one of these games just got bigger. Mizzou could shock the country and pass each one of these tests. They could also fall flat on their face and limp to a middle-tier bowl game. A few other scenarios in between are possible, too. The Tigers’ season has been a massive success so far. But their fate is far from sealed. The final four games will do just that. Buckle up.