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Despite 2-0 start to season, Missouri has a lot of work to do

by Kyle McAreavy | September 11, 2023 at 12:25 a.m.
Missouri quarterback Brady Cook looks for running room during the second quarter of Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee at Faurot Field in Columbia. (Associated Press)

COLUMBIA -- The Missouri Tigers have a lot to fix.

From giving up four sacks, including a strip sack that turned into a fumble in the fourth quarter ...

“I didn’t anticipate that going into the game,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “I knew they were a big pressure team, but didn’t feel like we were going to struggle as bad as we did with it.”

... to getting stopped in short-yardage run situations ...

“Obviously we weren’t good enough, especially in short yardage,” Drinkwitz said. “On that third and one we weren’t able to convert it and another third and one we false state. Obviously those penalties and lack of execution is poor and it’s got to improve.”

... to not capitalizing on chances to start quick and build a lead against a team Missouri entered as a three-score favorite against. 

“Gave the offense plenty of chances to really try to start fast and we were only up 3-0, that was really disappointing,” Drinkwitz said.

But the Tigers were able to escape with a 23-19 win Saturday night against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders at Faurot Field and started the season 2-0 for the first time since 2018.

“There’s just so much to work on,” Drinkwitz said. “Lack of explosive plays offensively, the short yardage debacles, the missed extra point that was tipped, poor protection. And defensively we have things we’ve got to work on.”

The Tigers attempted to open the offense up with more deep shots early, but missed on the initial opportunities. First with an underthrown ball that led Luther Burden back into coverage where the defense was able to break it up, and second that was rushed because of pressure just a bit past Burden, who was past his coverage.

“We started off the game and had the perfect look for a play that we prepped all week and he was there, we just didn’t finish the play,” Drinkwitz said. “I though Brady could have thrown it out there a little bit further, but we really don’t ever want to overthrow Luther. Missed that opportunity there.”

Missouri was able to get on the board on its third drive, handing the ball to Nathaniel Peat five consecutive times for a combined 45 yards, but two consecutive Tiger penalties pushed them back and halted the drive, leading to a Harrison Mevis 39-yard field goal.

MTSU responded with the first of multiple extended drives, this one lasting 7:17 as the Blue Raiders used 14 plays to go 86 yards. The Blue Raiders marched down the field mostly with a combo of read options and receiver screens, then finished the drive the same way when Nicholas Vattiato found Kalani Norris on a screen to the left, which Norris was able to work 3 yards out of for a touchdown to put MTSU up 7-3.

“We weren’t setting edges well enough whether it was in the zone read game or on scrambles and it was still a little bit leaky there late,” Drinkwitz said.

Missouri responded with a long drive of its own, using 16 to go 71 yards.

Missouri was almost stopped on a third-and-11 from its own 43, but Cook connected with Burden on a 19-yard pass, one of Burden’s eight catches for 117 yards to mark his first time passing 100 receiving yards in college.

Missouri threw an incomplete pass on third-and-8 three plays later, but an illegal substitution got the Tigers another chance, with Cook keeping a 5-yard run to get another first. It looked like another Cook keeper ended the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run around the left edge, but after review, Cook was called down less than a yard from the goal line. On the next play, Cook kept a quarterback sneak and put Missouri in front 10-7 as the teams went in to halftime.

“The competitor in me focuses on what needs to get better, but we are 2-0 with a chance to go 3-0. That’s big,” Cook said.

MTSU opened the third quarter with a 14-play, 68-yard drive that including converting on fourth-and-7, when Vattiato completed a 14-yard pass to Justin Olson, who finished with four catches for 51 yards, and a third-and-12, when Vattiato completed a 17-yard pass to Jaiden Credle.

But a Daylan Carnell sack, one of his team-high eight tackles, pushed the Blue Raiders back on their next third down and forced a 25-yard field goal, tying the game at 10.

“We’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” Missouri defensive lineman Darius Robinson said.

The Tigers responded with a much quicker drive, going 80 yards on eight plays after one of the deep shots hit between Cook and Burden, with Burden going on a deep post for 44 yards and holding on through contact.

Three plays later, Cook connected with Theo Wease for his first touchdown as a Tiger, going up for a jump ball on the goal line and beating his defender to come down with it.

“That was the exact look we worked Wednesday,” Wease said. “Brady gave me a good ball and I executed.”

Missouri kept its momentum when it started the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass from Cook to Peat, who motioned out wide and ran a wheel with nobody following him for a wide-open 49-yard touchdown pass.

“Just happiness,” Cook said of what went through his head when he saw no one going with Peat. “That’s one of the toughest ones to throw, you’re so open. I took the route and put a little air under it so he could adjust to it however he wanted to and let him make a play.”

Then the momentum switched.

MTSU put together an 11-play, 84-yard drive that involved converting two third downs and a fourth down with goal to go.

On third-and-5 from the MTSU 37, Vattiato scrambled up the middle for 17 yards. On third-and-6 from the Missouri 42, Vattiato found Elijah Metcalf for a 37-yard pass.

Then on fourth-and-goal from the 8, Missouri knocked down the pass and seemed to force a turnover on downs, but a false start was called, giving MTSU another shot, this time from the 13.

Vattiato used the most of it, finding Olson over the middle for a touchdown to bring the Blue Raiders within 23-17.

On the second play of the ensuing Missouri drive, Sam Brumfield made his way into the backfield for a strip sack and the ball traveled out the side of the end zone for a safety to bring MTSU within 23-19 and get possession back for the Blue Raiders.

But the Tigers were able to get the fourth-down stop they needed, then got a helpful defensive pass interference call on third-and-21 to give Missouri the set of downs it needed to run out the clock.

“To go out there and finish the game with the ball in our hands was a real positive,” Drinkwitz said.

Missouri (2-0) will face its toughest test of the young season when it hosts No. 15 Kansas State (2-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday (SEC Network).


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