Bazelak becomes Mr. Third Down in win over Kentucky

The redshirt freshman went 8/9 for 90 yards on third down, converting five through the air and two on the ground.
Connor Bazelak rolls out during Missouri's 20-10 win over Kentucky on Oct. 24, 2020. SEC Media Portal

Connor Bazelak took the snap on third and eight late in the second quarter and immediately recognized something was wrong.

Kentucky brought a corner blitz directly at Bazelak’s blind side, and the Missouri pass protection — which played well for most of the game — wasn’t prepared for it.

Bazelak, however, sensed the pressure right away. He didn’t take one look at the incoming tackler, but he sensed him. He was able to step up, keep his eyes downfield, and deliver a perfect ball over the middle to wide receiver Keke Chism for a 24-yard gain and a third-down conversion.

“I wasn’t really too sure who was coming off the edge, but I felt somebody coming off my backside,” Bazelak said. “I knew that there was a deep dig coming from Keke. He was open, and I just found a way to get it to him.”

That play — which led to a Harrison Mevis field goal — was the most impressive in a long line of third and fourth-down conversions that allowed Missouri to move the ball against a tough Kentucky defense. The Tigers ended the game 10/20 on third downs, despite an average yards-to-go of 5.9.

Bazelak accounted for seven of those conversions, throwing for five and running for two. He went 8/9 with 80 yards on third down.

“He has incredible poise,” coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “There’s several times that I thought the pocket broke down and he still kept his eyes downfield and found it. He’s just got really good poise, he really doesn’t get rattled and he does a nice job keeping his eyes downfield.”

On the first of those two runs that converted third downs, Bazelak rolled out of the pocket to his right and couldn’t find anyone open downfield.

He took it and scrambled to the sticks, barely reaching the ball across the plane. The conversion kick-started Missouri’s final scoring drive, which ended in a Mevis field goal that extended its lead to 20-10 with three minutes left and put the game away.

“The one incompletion, he was nodding his head on the sidelines because he knew he shoulda ran for the first down right there,” Drinkwitz said.

Later in the game, he clearly learned from his mistake.

“Yeah, we knew that Kentucky was gonna drop in zone coverage and not give up the big play, so I knew all week that I was gonna have to take what they give me,” Bazelak said. “Take the checkdowns, get the playmakers some space, let them get the first down using their feet.

Bazelak shined on fourth down as well, converting two on Missouri’s opening drive in the third quarter with the Tigers leading by a touchdown. The first was a four-yard dart to Jalen Knox on an out route, and the second was a short crosser to Tauskie Dove.

“[Receivers] coach [Bush] Hamdan always preaches to us that you either do something for yourself or it’s gonna be about others,” Knox, who converted two third downs as well, said. “I just go out there and try to play for my team, and if my name is called in those situations, I just gotta do what’s needed to make sure I make those plays.”

The pass to Dove was reminiscent of the throw to Chism in the second — Bazelak stayed cool under pressure, stepped up in the pocket and found the open man.

“[On third and fourth down, we ran] a lot of underneath stuff, a lotta curls in the middle, sit routes, but receivers did a good job executing,” Bazelak said. “Offensive line did an unbelievable job protecting. I just had to execute.”

Even though Missouri didn’t turn those fourth-down conversions into points on that drive — it stalled after a play-action rollout on fourth and goal failed — it succeeded in exhausting Kentucky’s defense by running 21 consecutive plays to begin the second half.

“When we went on that long drive, I think we took about ten minutes off the clock or something like that, we were already on the sideline talking about it,” Knox said. “We could see it in their eyes, we could see it in their demeanor.”

The Tigers’ defense, which dominated the game, rewarded Drinkwitz’s faith by forcing a three-and-out on the ensuing possession. He later said that he regretted his decision and he should have taken the points, but it led to Missouri getting the ball back with excellent field position and a tired Wildcat defense.

Bazelak took the ball and found Knox for 27 yards on the first play with a play-action out-and-up from the slot, and running back Larry Rountree III made it a 17-3 ballgame five plays later.

“They were tired, they couldn’t play with us, they couldn’t keep up with us,” Knox said. “So we made it a message to keep on going, don’t stop, keep shoving down.”

Edited by Eli Hoff | ehoff@themaneater.com

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