MO State HS Sports

Knee-Jerk Reactions: Mizzou 38, Vanderbilt 21

You like offense? You sure got it Saturday.

The life of the ‘over’ better was probably an uncomfortable one during the first half of Mizzou’s road game against Vanderbilt. Both talented offenses took a little while to find their groove, and Vanderbilt was working with a backup quarterback. But the second half provided more relief on that front, as Mizzou’s passing attack exploded, helping the team to a 532-yard performance all-around and a 38-21 victory.

It may have been too much offense allowed by the Tigers for their fans’ liking, as Vanderbilt hung within a couple of possessions most of the game, and completed eight plays of 15 yards or more. It certainly wasn’t the cleanest game from the Tigers in their first road test. But fans also know the troubles Mizzou has experienced in Nashville before. So it’s fair to be satisfied by a game that didn’t seem to be in much question past the third quarter.

What all satisfied, and what didn’t? Let’s find out in the Knee-Jerk Reactions:

There is no more denying Brady Cook’s abilities

From much-maligned to the star of the show. Mizzou’s starting quarterback for the past one-and-a-half seasons is showing exactly what the coaching staff always saw in him. On Saturday, Cook set a career-high with 395 yards on an 80 percent completion rate, delivered four touchdown throws, and set the SEC record for the most consecutive pass attempts without an interception, at 347 and counting. He’s keeping his composure in times of trouble and hitting home runs downfield. All while nursing a knee injury he suffered against Kansas State two weeks ago. The upward trend he’s shown is astounding.

I’m still floored by how quickly things have changed with him. Whether it was a mindset change by the offensive staff, the addition of more weapons, or both, it’s clear that the coaching staff is much more willing to let him air it out with more freedom recently. We now see exactly why Eli Drinkwitz, the coaching staff, and the players have been behind Brady Cook from the start. He really is THAT good. Before this season, I thought he could be a solid SEC starter that can play well enough to win eight games, but not much more. And at the time, that was the Cook optimist take! Now? It’s a huge undersell. He’s a Top 3 QB in this league right now, and Mizzou is reaping the benefits of not wavering in support behind #12, despite the numerous calls for a change outside the program. Those calls sound like a distant whisper now.

The Tigers have a lethal WR duo

As good as Cook has been, he can’t put up those eye-popping numbers without guys like Luther Burden and Theo Wease Jr. The two wideouts combined for 21 catches, 258 yards and three of the four touchdown receptions from Cook. Burden has made the video game numbers a regular occurrence now. But we hadn’t seen any other pass-catchers fill up the stat sheet for Mizzou in the past two games. On Saturday, Wease stepped up. He nearly doubled his receiving total from the first four games with his 118 yards, and came just a few yards shy of the career-high he set at Oklahoma. Most of his work was done in the first half, but it was crucial to keeping Mizzou’s offense at a good pace.

Of course, Burden should be the primary option that Mizzou uses on offense going forward, for good reason. But in order for him to keep up his production, it’s important to have more guys in the wide receiver room that opposing offenses need to account for. Once more guys get involved and cash in on their chances, it can open up even more favorable spots for Burden. That’s why Wease’s early production was so key. Right as he racked up nine first-half catches, he drew more attention from the Vandy defense. That allowed Mizzou to look back to Burden, who then caught his two touchdowns in the second half. With Burden’s epic emergence, and Wease’s added production from the transfer portal, the Tigers are developing a tandem to be feared across the SEC.

Third downs got better on both sides

The main area for improvement during Mizzou’s undefeated start were the late-series situations on both sides of the ball. On Saturday, the Tigers flipped the script. Offensively, Mizzou went 6-for-11 on third down conversions, after going 0-for-8 last week against Memphis. Not surprisingly, Burden and Wease caught passes on five of those six conversions, and the three touchdowns they caught all came on third down plays too. Defensively, Mizzou held the Commodores to a 20 percent conversion rate on third down, improving upon last week’s 7-for-18 allowed. Some costly penalties on the Vanderbilt side helped those efforts, but the Tigers stayed in the Commodores way nonetheless.

It seemed a little surprising that Mizzou’s offense hadn’t put together third down numbers to be proud of heading into Saturday. I think this number is a little more indicative of this unit’s strength, and settling that rate somewhere between 40-50 percent would be preferred. There were more worries on whether the defense would turn around in this category going forward. Games like this one show that they’re capable of getting off the field much more often than they had previously. It doesn’t mean everything is fixed on the defense, as there were still some rough tackling moments for some players. But a positive day on third down is a welcome sign heading into a huge game against LSU’s high-powered offense.

Penalties kept this from being a larger victory

Mizzou is 5-0. They’ve looked great getting there. I’m not using this section to say you shouldn’t be happy about it. But with the Tigers’ hot start, it’s fair to raise the standard they’re held to, especially on mental mistakes. And the penalty numbers they had against Vanderbilt don’t meet that standard. The Tigers were flagged nine times for 75 lost yards. Five of them were committed by the offensive line. Cam’Ron Johnson committed a false start and a hold. Connor Tollison had another false start, and also snapped a ball early to Cook on a fourth down, leading to an incomplete pass. On defense, the Tigers had a pass interference and a roughing the passer call that were both a little careless, and helped Vanderbilt to get in more favorable spots on offense.

Sure, it might sound nitpicky after a 17-point win on the road. But Mizzou’s start has shown you what could be possible down the road against the rest of the SEC. If you’re projecting this team out for 8-9 wins this season, those penalty numbers can’t happen. Teams like LSU, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, etc. will bury you if you give them free yards of field position. The fact that the offensive line had the majority of those penalties is troubling. I think they’ve done much better protecting Brady Cook and giving him clean pockets recently (no sacks allowed vs. Vanderbilt Saturday). But they’ve yet to put it all together, and the miscues need to be cleaned up quick.

Mizzou has a chance to make another big statement

After all the possibilities the first five games could’ve brought, Mizzou has passed every test. They deserve major credit for that. But now, the runway is past. The games get significantly tougher starting next Saturday. Mizzou has sold out the stadium for the second-straight game, and even though it’s an 11 a.m. kickoff, fans should be extra-amped for a Top 25 matchup at Faurot. And Mizzou has yet another chance to land a signature win against a quality opponent. Nothing about it will be easy.

As I type this Saturday evening, LSU is locked into a tight shootout with Ole Miss in Oxford. Should they hang on to win, they’ll likely keep whatever playoff hopes they have alive and be extra motivated. If they don’t, they’ll be extra mad and ready to take out frustration on whoever is next on their schedule. I don’t see a scenario in which LSU overlooks Mizzou. It’s hard to do that when they both have a number next to their name. Mizzou has put together good efforts so far, but probably still hasn’t played their best game. They need it next week if they want 5-0 to turn into 6-0. It’s a hard enough test that taking down the Bayou Bengals shouldn’t be the expectation. But if it happens? Oh man. The ceiling for Mizzou could be raised even higher.