Missouri’s season-opening win over Central Michigan on Saturday wasn’t always the prettiest. The Tigers trailed by a touchdown midway through the second quarter and the Chippewas at one point had the ball in Missouri territory with a chance to tie the game in the fourth.
But Missouri ultimately held on for a 34-24 victory, and after the game, head coach Eli Drinkwitz and his players were appreciative of the result. Players were chipper as they flowed from the locker room to postgame interviews. Drinkwitz said he anticipated a game that would be in doubt until the end.
“They’re a quality opponent in the group of five,” Drinkwitz said of Central Michigan. “I’ve been on the other side and beaten two Power Five teams, so I don’t take any opponent lightly and don’t disrespect them by any means. I mean, they’ve got some really good players on their football team. … So any assumption that you’re going to beat anybody in college football is kind of crazy to me.”
That said, Drinkwitz also reiterated that the team has quite a bit to clean up after its first performance of the season. That includes himself. Drinkwitz placed the majority of the blame on his own shoulders for perhaps Missouri’s most troubling offensive stat: The Tigers converted just one of 11 third downs.
“We stunk at it,” Drinkwitz said simply. “And it’s probably my play designs, so I gotta do a better job getting my quarterback options.”
The numbers suggest that the biggest factor that contributed to Missouri’s third down struggles wasn’t the plays the offense ran on those downs, but a propensity to fall behind the chains on first and second. Missouri’s average yardage to gain on third down was a whopping 11.1 yards. The Tigers only had one opportunity to convert a third down of five yards or fewer, and they converted it, with quarterback Connor Bazelak hitting Barrett Banister on a crisp out route.
But too often, Missouri found itself needing a downfield completion to move the sticks on third downs. Eight of the team’s 11 third down attempts came with at least nine yards to gain. That had a lot to do with the offensive line struggling against Central Michigan’s defensive front.
While Missouri’s line did open up some big holes to pave the way for Tyler Badie’s 203-yard rushing performance, it also gave up a lot of negative-yardage plays — 13, in fact, including two sacks. For reference, Missouri allowed an average of 5.6 tackles for loss per game a season ago.
Drinkwitz was effusive in his praise for the Central Michigan defensive line, particularly the defensive end pairing of Troy Hairston and Laquan Johnson, but he also acknowledged that Missouri won’t be able to afford so many negative plays once conference play begins.
“Any time you’re 1-11 on third downs, there’s a lot of people that gotta go in there and fix that,” Drinkwitz said. “Again, starts with me putting us in a lot of third and long situations.”
Once Missouri got behind the chains, Bazelak found himself out of his comfort zone. Bazelak did hit on a deep ball on the first play of the game, finding Boo Smith for 63 yards, but overall, 17 of his 21 completions came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus.
However, it wasn’t so much that he missed on a lot of downfield throws on third down against Central Michigan. Bazelak often didn’t get the chance to throw for the sticks, either because he checked down to an underneath receiver or Drinkwitz called something more conservative, like a screen pass. Bazelak completed seven of eight passes on third downs but only one went for a first down.
After the game, both Bazelak and Drinkwitz expressed optimism that Missouri will learn from its first game of the season, and the third down execution will improve.
“I gotta be better on third downs, obviously, and we got to do a better job of staying ahead of the chains,” Bazelak said. “Found ourselves in a lot of third-and-12, third-and-extra long, and those are going to be hard to convert. … But we’ll be fine.”
Shawn Robinson records first sack
When he appeared on defense in the second half of Missouri’s season finale last season and recorded three tackles and an interception, Shawn Robinson felt like the kind of feel-good story that doesn’t last. After all, for as impactful as Robinson, who began last season as Missouri’s starting quarterback, had been in the secondary, he had only played because a rash of injuries and COVID-19 cases had depleted the Tiger roster below 50 scholarship players.
Yet in Missouri’s next game, Robinson showed that he has a clear role on the defense. Saturday, Robinson replaced Kris Abrams-Draine at the nickelback position in the Tiger secondary when new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks wanted some more size on the field. He wound up playing 26 snaps and recorded five tackles, including his first career sack. The sack came when Wilks dialed up a blitz and Robinson knifed through the line of scrimmage untouched, smothering Central Michigan quarterback Jacob Sirmon.
After the game, the always effervescent Robinson glowed as he tried to describe the feeling of tackling an opposing quarterback, rather than being the quarterback getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” he said. “I was telling coach Drink, like, oh my gosh. I want that again. That’s a great feeling.”
Robinson said he’s still learning new tidbits about on playing defensive side of the ball. But he’s glad he made the switch to safety rather than transferring after being beat out by Bazelak last season. He said he’s having the most fun playing football since his high school days.
“I feel pretty comfortable,” Robinson said. “There’s still so many things I have yet to learn, and I’m still getting better at it, but I definitely feel more comfortable getting the spring under my belt.”
Mevis comes up clutch
Drinkwitz pointed to Missouri’s final play of the first half as a point when the momentum turned in the Tigers’ favor. After scoring a touchdown to tie the game on its previous possession, Missouri had run a successful two-minute drill and marched across midfield, giving kicker Harrison Mevis a chance to take the lead with a long field goal.
The kick, Mevis’ first field goal attempt of the season, would be 53 yards. Central Michigan coach Tim Skipper, filling in for Jim McElwain, who didn’t make the trip to Columbia after undergoing an appendectomy last week, used his final timeout in order to give Mevis more time to feel the pressure of the moment.
Turns out, the timeout had the opposite effect. Mevis made the kick with plenty of room to spare. He said after the game he took Skipper’s attempt to “ice” him as an insult.
“I knew I was going to make it,” Mevis said. “I was pretty confident. Especially when they iced me. That was kind of a dumb move.”
Mevis said he “didn’t even kick the 53 (yarder) that hard.” The sophomore picked right up where he left off at the end of an impressive true freshman season on Saturday. He made all four of his extra point attempts. He also converted another clutch field goal late in the second half. Had Mevis missed his 44-yard attempt with about a minute to play, Central Michigan would have gotten the ball back down seven points with one last chance to tie the game. Instead, Mevis coolly split the uprights.