COLUMBIA, Mo. — In a season full of surprises, Monday's rescheduling of the Vanderbilt-Missouri game was about as welcome as they come for Tigers head coach Eli Drinkwitz.
"First, our thoughts are with all the players that are affected with COVID at Vandy, and wish them well," he said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. "And now for us, we turn our attention to ourselves and an unexpected bye week and focus on what we can control, which is how do we improve and get better specifically in fundamental areas."
The Commodores hosted South Carolina last Saturday with a roster depleted by conference coronavirus isolation protocols, and this Saturday's game, originally scheduled to be Missouri's Homecoming, was moved to Dec. 12 because Vanderbilt was not expected to be able to meet the threshold of 53 scholarship players available.
Drinkwitz plans to use the newly-freed up time Friday and Saturday to do some recruiting, and might go to a pumpkin patch with his wife and four daughters as Halloween approaches. He has asked his players to turn their attention to academics and to their bodies, as Missouri works to recover from the weekly bruises of an all-Southeastern Conference schedule.
"Yeah, it's a tremendous blessing for us," Drinkwitz said. "We played really three tough SEC opponents, all ranked. It's a physical game in the trenches for us to try to get healthy, bumps, bruises, obviously getting people out of quarantine, get people out of contact tracing is going to be good. It gives us a chance to reevaluate the first three games, where exactly we were not where we need to be, and we can work on those things and really get some specific practices and fundamentals looked at to make sure we know what we're doing."
But the Tigers may get more than one week to recover. No. 10 Florida suspended all football activities Tuesday after five new positive COVID-19 tests through Monday ahead of this Saturday's scheduled game against LSU. Missouri is currently still scheduled to travel to Gainesville, Fla., for an evening kickoff Oct. 24, and there has been no official word on whether that game would be postponed.
The university's student newspaper, The Alligator, reported "The UF football team has 19 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday evening, three sources close to the team told The Alligator."
SEC teams usually test three times per week per conference policy, but because of the positive test results, Florida conducted tests Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, according to The Alligator.
Conference scheduling could be thrown into a bind in the future if next week's Florida-Missouri game has to be postponed. The Tigers and Commodores rescheduled for Dec. 12, the conference-wide open date, because the two teams did not share an in-season bye week. The same problem presents itself for Florida (Oct. 31 bye the week before playing Georgia) and Missouri (Nov. 7 bye).
Speaking Monday, before the Florida news came out, athletic director Jim Sterk said Missouri would also consider playing Dec. 19 if necessary, the same date as the SEC Championship game in Atlanta.
"Every game means a lot and we want to qualify for a bowl and have our full 10-game season," Sterk said.
Missouri-Florida in Gainesville the weekend before Christmas would only work if Florida does not win the SEC East.
Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak was the clear second-string quarterback during fall camp, something that might have played to his and the Tigers' advantage last Saturday against LSU. Missing two starters and one backup wideout due to isolation protocols, the second-string receiving corps of Tauskie Dove, Boo Smith, Micah Wilson and Barrett Banister stepped up.
"Connor took the lion's share of (second team) reps through fall camp just to try to multiply his reps," Drinkwitz said, "and those receivers with him during that time were Tauskie Dove, Boo and Micah Wilson and Barrett Banister. So there was some natural chemistry already built in there."
Though it's looked like it hasn't affected him so far in college, Bazelak played in a wishbone offense in high school and didn't have to pass very often because of the scheme. He spent last year with Missouri learning a more pro-style system as a backup before starting the final game against Arkansas and getting injured, but kept his redshirt. Because the NCAA gave all fall athletes a blanket year of eligibility due to the pandemic, Bazelak will also be a redshirt freshman next year.
"He's really still at practice, maybe 30 with us, as far as just getting reps of the same pass concept," Drinkwitz said. "He's now repped the same pass concept 10-12 times and he can kind of anticipate: Okay, it's this coverage, this is who should be open, that's who I see open, this is who I throw the football to.
"And I think that's really more of what you're seeing. That's the reason why we gave him the lion's share of the two reps, was just to try to put him in a microwave and get as many reps as he possibly could, knowing that he was developing fast, but he's still just hadn't seen the same past concepts. I believe, and I could be off on my statistic, I believe he had less than 200 pass attempts as a senior in high school. We had 200 pass attempts in our first two weeks of practice. So being able to get that much repetition is something that, as a quarterback, you grow from reps."
Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton was named Bronco Nagurski Trophy's National Defensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, highlighting a number of player-of-the-week honors for the Tigers after their 45-41 upset of then-No. 17 LSU.
"That dude is a straight warrior," Drinkwitz said of the junior team captain, who practiced in a limited capacity leading up to the game and left the game in the second half because of lower-body cramps.
That was the only defensive snap of the game he missed.
"Pain is only temporary, wins are forever," Bolton said after the game.
Bolton, who had 11 tackles — including stops on first and second down in Missouri's four-down goal-line stand to win the game — seven solo tackles, three pass breakups — including on third down in the aforementioned series — to win the honors as voted on by the Football Writers Association of America.
Bazelak was named SEC Freshman of the Week after completing 29-of-34 passes for 406 yards and four scores against LSU in his second career start. He was also one of eight finalists for the Manning Award Quarterback of the Week as selected by the Sugar Bowl, along with Georgia's Stetson Bennett IV, Alabama's Mac Jones, Boston College's Phil Jurkovec, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond, Middle Tennessee's Asher O'Hara and Troy's Gunnar Watson. The Manning Award will be announced this morning.
Defensive back Joshuah Bledsoe was named Senior Bowl co-defensive Senior of the Week after six solo tackles and two pass breakups, the second of which sealed the game for Missouri on fourth down.
Missouri had a pair of players elect to transfer within the past week. The first, freshman defensive lineman Montra Edwards, entered his name into the portal Tuesday, a Missouri official confirmed.
Former Parkway North wide receiver Cjay Boone entered his name into the portal Monday, though he was publicly sad he could not finish his career at Missouri.
"EVERYONE KNOWS I love this university, some things just don't go good & that's Okay," the redshirt freshman wrote as part of a message he shared on Twitter. "I love my teammates, I love the REAL FANS. MIZ in me for life & can't nobody take that away from me."