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How could you not like the way Missouri won its game against Florida this past weekend? It was such a big moment for the team. Going for the win in overtime on the first possession? That’s a coach who trusts his offense.
Most of us knew what it would mean for Gators coach Dan Mullen when Connor Bazelak hit Daniel Parker Jr. in the end zone for the win. It would likely mean he was a goner. But it meant something different for the coach on the other side of the field, and you have to like what Eli Drinkwitz has done with the Tigers over the past few games.
Speaking to the media this week, Drinkwitz described the thought process and what went into that play, as they trusted Bazelak and the team to pull it off.
“With the new second overtime, everybody’s got to have it. So we’ve been practicing two-point plays every Tuesday since fall camp. And so gotten a lot of extra reps on those plays. So I think all of us had a lot of confidence of getting those plays, and then we’d rep them on Fridays, our top three. And so I think what goes into it is just execution and having a confidence in knowing all of your options. That play has a lot of different options, and Connor (Bazelak) was able to get to his final option, made the play, which was nice to see.”
It hasn’t always been like the last two home games for the Tigers, as they struggled earlier on in the season, with losses to Boston College and Kentucky. We’ve all witnessed the Tigers’ defense struggle for most of the season, but they’ve never given in to the outside noise. Somehow this team fought back through adversity to earn bowl eligibility and now setup a huge showdown with Arkansas, as the Tigers look for their seventh win of the season. Drinkwitz talked about the culture of this team and assessed the way they’ve stuck together this season.
“We’ve faced a lot of different adversity with injuries and people being out, but that’s football, that’s life. And so, I think the way our guys are responding has been a positive. You know, you really can’t outperform the culture and the togetherness of a team. I think the best teams play the best together. And we’re starting to figure that out as a culture and a program,”
But now they have to hit the road for a Friday showdown with the Razorbacks, who took Alabama down to the wire this past Saturday. (Mizzou is getting 14.5 points on FanDuel.) For the Tigers to get a win in Fayetteville, they must first stop quarterback K.J. Jefferson, who is having a remarkable season under Sam Pittman, according to Drinkwitz.
“Obviously a very good football team. Coach Pittman has done just an outstanding job with that program, the way they play on both sides of the football. You know, offensively, their quarterback, KJ Jefferson, who got his first career start, I believe, against us last year and played unbelievable, is really having a remarkable season and is very difficult to tackle.
“So it will be a challenge for our team in order to match the intensity and the execution of their team,” Drinkwitz added. “And obviously it’s an important game for us with the Battle Line trophy on the line. And so excited about the opportunity to play on CBS on Friday.”
One thing to consider for the Tigers is how Arkansas DC Barry Odom uses his linebackers, which could cause multiple problems for Missouri QB Connor Bazelak. Drinkwitz mentioned that Hayden Henry and Grant Morgan are fantastic linebackers for the Razorbacks, that they play fast and with intensity. He also said that he thinks Henry is playing as well as anybody in the conference.
But Missouri cannot just rely on Tyler Badie to lead the way. To be successful on Friday afternoon, they will need Bazelak to play better and to control the offensive flow of the game. There have been times this season where the Tigers quarterback has gotten out of his element and made mistakes on the field, especially in the passing game. But Drinkwitz feels Bazelak has done a great job of blocking out the noise and staying focused on the task at hand.
“I’m not going to speak for Connor as far as him being able to do that. I mean, look, we’re all human, so I’m sure there’s been instances where you see and feel that criticism. But I think he’s done a great job within our team and the framework on our team and this building, and on the football field, being able to block out the noise and perform to the level that he believes and I believe is successful.”
Earlier in the season, Missouri coaches, especially Drinkwitz, felt as if this team was in a rut and not improving at a fast enough pace, which was noticeable. But over the last month, they have started playing with more passion and intensity, which Drinkwitz said was due to the squad rededicating themselves to the process.
“I think we had to really rededicate ourselves to ‘How are we going to focus on improvement and individual player development, and then commitment to the team?’. And I think you’ve seen that in our performances, really, the last four weeks. I think there’s a greater sense of commitment to the team, to each other, playing for each other, doing my job.”
So, after beating South Carolina and Florida in previous weeks, the Tigers will look to finish the regular season strong against a well-coached Arkansas team, which is also playing at a different level now too. If The Tigers can pull off the upset and get their seventh win, they’ll finish the season 4-1 in their last five games.
That would be one hell of a turnaround at Missouri.