COLUMBIA -- The tough tests keep coming for the Missouri Tigers.
After dropping a 30-21 game against the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs last week, the No. 16 Tigers return to Faurot Field to take on No. 14 Tennessee, looking for their first win against the Volunteers since Nov. 17, 2018. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. (KRCG).
“I think there’s a stat out there the first time since ’79 two top-16 teams playing at Faurot Field,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “I think that is really awesome. So we got a heck of a challenge.”
The Volunteers enter off back-to-back wins and having won five of their last six with the lone loss coming 34-20 to Alabama on Oct. 21.
Tennessee then beat Kentucky 33-27 and thrashed UConn 59-3 last weekend.
The Volunteers had success across the board against the Huskies, gaining 375 passing yards and 275 rushing yards, while holding UConn to 221 and 35, respectively.
Senior quarterback Joe Milton (6-foot 5-inch, 235 pounds) was able to take the second half off after completing 11-of-14 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns. The strong day brought him to 168-of-257 passing (65.4 percent) this season for 2,016 yards and 15 touchdowns, while throwing four interceptions but none since Sept. 30.
But the strength of the Volunteer offense has been the rushing attack.
Tennessee has the best rushing offense among Power-5 teams, averaging 227.8 yards per game, surpassing 228 in every game except a 100-yard performance against Florida and a 133-yard showing against Alabama.
“I think (Tennessee head coach) Josh (Heupel), much like good offensive coordinators do, always starts with trying to figure out how to run the football and then if they try to take the run away,” Drinkwitz said. “Then he has answers vertically down the field throwing the ball.”
The Volunteer offense has figured out how to run with multiple backs, led by junior Jaylen Wright (5-11, 210) with 110 carries for 826 yards and three touchdowns, while senior Jabari Small (5-11, 213) has rushed 82 times for 415 yards and two scores. Sophomore Dylan Sampson (5-11, 190) leads the team in finding the end zone with seven scores of 71 carries and 405 yards, while Milton has added 59 attempts for 265 ground yards and five touchdowns.
“They’ve got a pretty dynamic trio of running backs that makes them kind of so good and hard to stop,” Drinkwitz said. “They’re really good at running back and they’ve got really good depth and all three of them are tough runners.”
But when the Volunteers want to go away from those backs, they have multiple targets requiring attention from the defense.
Sophomore receiver Squirrel White (5-10, 165) leads the Volunteers with 45 catches for 556 yards and two touchdowns, while senior receiver Ramel Keyton (6-3, 197) has a team-high four receiving scores with 412 yards on 24 catches. Senior receiver Bru McCoy has 17 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown, while four more Volunteers have at least 100 receiving yards, while senior tight end McCallan Castles (6-5, 252) adds three touchdowns.
That Volunteer offense will go against a Missouri defense having a lot of success in recent weeks.
After allowing two touchdowns in the first quarter against Kentucky on Oct. 14, the Tigers allowed only one score through the next seven quarters before holding Georgia, which was averaging 40.5 per game coming in, to 30.
“I thought other than the first quarter of Kentucky and really the game against LSU, we’ve been pretty stout against the run, but you know we kind of, we either pressure or create movement or are willing to match up and play man to man on the outside,” Drinkwitz said. “This game’s going to present a different challenge because if you leave yourself uncovered, they’re going to attack you vertically down the field and you got to hold up continually one-on-one.”
While the Tigers have played the run well, Tennessee has played it better than any other team in the SEC.
The Volunteers allow only 2.9 rushing yards per attempt for 97.3 per game and have allowed only nine rushing touchdowns.
The Tennessee defense will try to slow down a Missouri rushing attack averaging 148.1 rushing yards per contest, led by Cody Schrader with 182 attempts for 919 yards and 10 scores, including at least one touchdown in each of the past six games.
Along with that rushing attack, Brady Cook is up to 2,471 yards passing on 183-of-271 (67.53 percent) passing with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, two coming last week and two against LSU.
“Brady’s mentally tough, he’s physically tough, we’ve been in this situation before,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s handled a lot of adversity in the past, I think this is just another step.”
Cook is currently fourth in the SEC in passing yards, while Schrader worked his way into first in rushing yards. Luther Burden is third in the league with 958 receiving yards to go with seven touchdowns, topping his freshman season total of six in four fewer games.
As the Tigers look to end a streak of four consecutive losses to Tennessee and rebound from the loss to Georgia, which knocked them out of the top 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Drinkwitz said he’s not worried about the regular season’s final three games.
“Winston Churchill said failure is never fatal, something like that,” Drinkwitz said. “As long as you learn from it, keep moving forward, it’s not really losses, they’re just lessons.”
Notes: Tennessee leads the all-time series 6-5 after winning four consecutive games. The teams never played before Missouri joined the SEC. … Missouri is first in the country in red zone scoring percentage after going 3-for-3 against Georgia, giving the Tigers 33 consecutive conversions in the red zone. Missouri is 37-of-38 in the red zone this season. … Darius Robinson had a sack on Georgia’s first possession last week, giving him one in five consecutive games. … Harrison Mevis became Missouri’s all-time leading scorer with his second field goal against Georgia, bringing his career total to 364, passing Jeff Wolfert’s previous program high of 362.