Bazelak steps up as Missouri falls to Tennessee 35-12

Missouri falls to 0-2, but it may have found its next starting quarterback on Rocky Top
Connor Bazelak is chased by Volunteer defenders during the Tigers' loss to Tennessee on Oct. 3, 2020. Mizzou Athletics

The Missouri Tigers fell to 0-2 on Saturday afternoon, but they may have found their starting quarterback.

Redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak threw for 218 yards at a 62% clip, but it was not enough to keep pace with Tennessee's ground-and-pound offense as the Tigers fell to the Volunteers 35-12 at Neyland Stadium.

“We didn’t start fast enough on either side of the ball offensively or defensively,” head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “We really struggled in the first half to stop them and their momentum.”

Through its two opening offensive drives, the Missouri offense sputtered.

Starting quarterback Shawn Robinson missed some throws and when he took off from the pocket –– the Volunteers defense often sniffed it out. The longest play for Missouri was a 9-yard run by Larry Rountree III. But when Bazelak took the field for the third series, the offense began to display signs of life.

The Tigers’ third drive showed the difference between the two quarterbacks. While Robinson stuck to checkdowns, Bazelak’s first throw went five yards to Daniel Parker Jr. and then one play later dropped back and found receiver Jalen Knox for 14 yards. Later, he ignored an open Barrett Banister underneath to hit Damon Hazelton Jr. for 21 yards on the right sideline.

Bazelak impressed throughout the next series as well. He went deep to Dominic Gicinto, who dropped the ball after finding his way behind the Tennessee secondary. The young quarterback read the game well, too, often making the correct reads and taking the positive plays when presented to him. But perhaps Bazelak’s most impressive play came when he recovered a fumbled snap, scrambled to his right and found Keke Chism for a five-yard gain.

“I’m not going to make any decisions right now, but I do think he handled himself well,” Drinkwitz said. “Other than the one decision on the interception, I thought he managed the game really well and gave us the chance to move the ball.”

After opening its season against the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Volunteers proved to be another tough test for the Missouri defense. The Tigers won five of its last eight games against Tennessee, but this is a different team than in years past. The Volunteers offensive line, with five-stars littered throughout, was as good as advertised and dominated the line of scrimmage all afternoon.

A week ago, Tennessee struggled to convert third downs, going 1-11 against South Carolina. This week, they went 6 for 13 on third down and a perfect 4-4 on fourth down, keeping Missouri’s defense on the field for long stretches.

“Those are momentum-killers right there and we have to figure out how to be better,” Drinkwitz said.

Missouri’s own offensive line wasn’t as dominant as Tennessee’s, but that didn’t prevent running back Larry Rountree III from putting together a big afternoon. A week ago, Drinkwitz said he needed to get the senior tailback the ball more, and on Saturday he did. Rountree turned 18 touches into 84 yards and scored the Tigers’ lone touchdown of the afternoon.

Outside of Bazelak and Rountree, there were a few other positives to take away. Linebacker Nick Bolton finished with 17 tackles while freshman kicker Harrison Mevis went 2-2 on field goals, including one from 50 yards.

Ultimately there wasn't enough execution, especially when the Tigers got into the red zone. Late in the game, Bazelak found tight end Logan Christopherson on 4th-down for 37 yards, but the offense then stalled out. Moving the ball between the 20s means nothing if Missouri cannot capitalize.

“In the end, we got to put points on the board in the red zone,” Bazelak said. “That’s what we focus on all week and three points isn’t enough down in the red zone. We got to score touchdowns.”

Rountree agreed, expressing frustration that his team couldn’t take advantage of its opportunities.

“You got to have some pride in yourself, grab your nuts and know that you are going to score,” Rountree said.

It wasn’t a perfect day for Bazelak and the Missouri offense. There were several drops and a fourth quarter interception on a key drive. But Bazelak provided a spark on Saturday afternoon and made his case for why he should start next weekend’s game against LSU in Death Valley.

“We don’t like the situation we are in,” Drinkwitz said. “The only way we know to get out of it is going back to work, and that is what we will do.”

Missouri’s tough opening slate doesn’t get any easier. The Tigers will travel to Death Valley to face LSU in Week Three.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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