COLUMBIA, Mo. — To pull off the kind of upset Missouri did Saturday against LSU, a 45-41 walkoff on a fourth-down stand from the 1-yard line, requires such a level of team and individual effort which makes it impossible to point to just one play, one player or even one set of downs.
At kickoff, moved up 10 hours and north some 600 miles, Missouri fielded a defensive line that played snaps with three ends because of unavailabilities at tackle, and a wide receiver corps outside of Jalen Knox and Barrett Banister that had combined for seven career receptions for 96 yards and no touchdowns.
None of it mattered. The Tigers upheld their responsibilities, executed the playcalls and simply wanted it more.
"It's not about the talent, it's about how you function as a unit, and our unit decided to function at a high level today," Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said Saturday.
But as important as the Tigers' final four defensive plays were in securing the win, their first four offensive plays were equally as crucial to set the tone for the offensive shootout. Missouri came out firing, pulling out a pair of flea-flickers and a fake punt in the first quarter, but after just one of those plays was successful, and as the Tigers settled in, it was clear they had LSU by a step at nearly every position, without the trick plays.
"I think it gave us the confidence that we can move the ball whenever we want on these guys," quarterback Connor Bazelak said. "Just gave everyone confidence. And we got out to a lead early. We always talk about starting fast, that's what we did."
Missouri opened the game in the I formation with Bazelak under center, backup QB Shawn Robinson in at fullback and Larry Rountree III behind him at halfback, motioned Bazelak right and Robinson left pre-snap and went wildcat to Rountree for a 3-yard gain. A Rountree run out of Pistol went for five yards, then on third-and-2 Bazelak hit Tyler Badie out of shotgun on a flat route, with a well-executed rub from Dove to open him up.
On the next play, handoff to Rountree turned into a flea-flicker from Bazelak to Dove for a 58-yard score. It was all scripted.
"We had noticed that their corner-safety combination, if you try to 'Push Crack' (downfield block on the corner/safety by a wide receiver), both had bad eyes, and as soon as the ball was handed off both were both going to drive down," Drinkwitz said. "Felt like we wanted to set it up with the first two plays, establishing the run, and then got a first-down completion on that third down, Tyler Badie comes in, makes a great catch for us and sets it up for us. Great job by the offensive staff, great execution."
Sometimes, it can all hinge on an instance of chance.
Missouri won the first two coin flips of the season, against Alabama and Tennessee, and elected to defer possession to the second half. Both the Crimson Tide and the Volunteers scored first and scored touchdowns — Alabama on its second drive, Tennessee on its first — and the Tigers' deficits (21 against Alabama early in the second quarter, 14 against Tennessee early in the second quarter) were both too big to overcome.
Against LSU, Missouri won the toss, took the ball and scored a touchdown in four plays to take its first lead of the season. On Sunday, LSU fell out of both the AP and Coaches Top 25 rankings after the loss, while Missouri received votes.
"I think that was all it was," Drinkwitz said. "I think it gave everybody confidence that, yes, we can play, we can score, we can get out front, the things that we practiced are going to work, and it was big for us. That's why we took the ball, and I'm glad it worked out."
At the final whistle, Bazelak had thrown for 406 yards and nearly as many touchdowns (four) as incompletions (five), finishing 29-of-34. Just as impressive, the inexperienced but eager group of wideouts had zero drops, an issue that had plagued the position group through two games. The fresh faces — Dove, D'ionte "Boo" Smith, Micah Wilson and Chance Luper — caught 15 passes for 251 yards and two scores, and tight end Niko Hea, who is a little more seasoned, was an excellent option on the inside, with a pitch on a fake pull cribbed straight from Andy Reid's Chiefs for a key third-down conversion and the go-ahead score in the red zone with less than six minutes to play.
"I'm so proud of them," Bazelak said. "They got their opportunity and they stepped up in big moments, and they made plays. Just super proud of them and how they played, and they deserve it."
Knox and Badie, both players with shifty moves and great acceleration continue to shine in Drinkwitz's system. A former high school running back, Knox consistently got the edge on jet sweeps and speed/read option tosses, while Badie was dependable out of the backfield as a runner or pass-catcher. Starting the game with a bomb over the top opened up the underneath areas for those two to feast for the remainder of the game.
"I feel like (the flea-flicker to Dove) opened up everything, because once we start putting that pressure on them that we can go deep, now they're scared about, alright, what can they do deep?" Knox said. "And then we start coming with all the underneath stuff, from our good runs and all the jet sweeps and everything, it's just too much stuff to try to pay attention to, so it keeps the defense on their heels."
Drinkwitz hinted there is more to come, more alignments and personnel groupings to throw defenses off the Tigers couldn't get to. Robinson tweaked his ankle on the first play of the game which kept Missouri from getting to some of those plays, and Drinkwitz lauded Robinson's preparation for the LSU game, saying he was "the most excited person" Bazelak was getting the start and "Robinson is a heck of a young man, he's a heck of a leader."
After two games of stagnant offense, Saturday was a welcome change. Five of Missouri's six touchdowns came on plays of 10-plus yards, the Tigers had 10 pass plays of 15 or more yards account for 300 yards of offense and five runs of 10-plus yards racked up another 97 on the ground.
Cutting back on turnovers and working out the kinks on punt coverage are the first two orders of business as Missouri prepares for Vanderbilt, with tightening things up in the secondary slightly behind. The Tigers cannot afford to overlook the Commodores, and another strong offensive performance would reinforce the playcalling success of Drinkwitz, who dismissed the idea Saturday's victory was a signature win, saying, "I didn't see any trophies out there."
"We've just got to get back to work and focus on Vandy, and have good habits throughout the week," Bazelak said. "Can't get too high. Just have to stay focused and get back to work."
But with hope, with proof of concept and with a locker room that didn't fall apart after a tough start to the season, it's not unreasonable to adjust expectations for this season upward after Saturday's upset, even after everything that happened since March 16 when spring practices were canceled.
"I know there's always those questions, 'Is this really gonna work?'" Drinkwitz said. "And those guys didn't flinch. They didn't flinch. That locker room stayed together. They could have flinched after a turnover; they didn't. They could have flinched after another turnover; they didn't. They could have flinched after a turnover in the third quarter; they didn't. Could have flinched after we went three-and-out; they didn't, they just blocked a field goal, we went down and scored. They could have flinched when the ball got put on the 1-yard line; they didn't.
"To have that mentality, this day and age, that's what real winners do."