Five takeaways: Problematic drops and an emerging starting QB

Bazelak, young defensive backs impress in Missouri’s loss to Tennessee
Connor Bazelak hands the ball off to Larry Rountree III during Missouri's loss to Tennessee on Oct. 3, 2020. SEC Media Portal

Missouri exited Rocky Top 0-2 on the heels of its second consecutive blowout loss. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Tigers can’t take any positives away from the game.

The most important of those developments was clear early: New coach Eli Drinkwitz has found a quarterback.

Bazelak earned the starting job

When Connor Bazelak entered the game on the third possession, something clearly began to change.

On a third and ten to open the drive, Bazelak completed a pass to Jalen Knox for 14 yards. Two plays later — behind the chains again — he fit the ball into a tight window to Damon Hazelton Jr. on a corner route for 21.

“I was just reading the corner, and he kind of sat on the flat [route],” Bazelak said. “So I knew if I put my eyes to the flat that the corner would kind of come down and that Dame was gonna be open in the corner window. He made a nice play.”

It was the kind of throw that Missouri hadn’t been getting from Shawn Robinson, who played efficiently against Alabama but didn’t stretch the defense by pushing the ball downfield. Drinkwitz took the blame for that last week, but the difference in both calling downfield passing plays and actually throwing them was noticeable when Bazelak came in.

Drinkwitz declined to name a starter after the game, but it would be stunning if he went back to Robinson.

“I think he played and handled himself well,” Drinkwitz said. “He handled the environment, and other than the one decision on the interception I thought he managed the game really well and gave us a chance to move the ball. He made some good throws and made some good reads.”

In particular, Bazelak was much more effective under pressure than Robinson, who recognized that he held the ball too long in multiple instances against Alabama.

He made one massive mistake, making a throw off his back foot to a covered Daniel Parker Jr. that resulted in a game-sealing interception. That said, he also turned two botched snaps into positive plays. One turned into a 28-yard gain after the Tennessee defense turned their eyes to the ball and not to receiver Keke Chism.

“I was cool, calm, and collected,” Bazelak said. “I don’t get very nervous. Just staying poised, and I think the offense kind of rallies around that, when they see the quarterback staying calm. They kind of play with it.”

Drops are a problem for the Tigers

Bazelak’s first drive, the one that included those big-time throws on unfavorable downs, did not end in seven points in large part because Knox dropped a pass on third and six from the Tennessee 10-yard line.

It would have been close to a first down and at the very least would have put Drinkwitz in a position to go for it on fourth and one, as road underdogs down by 14 deep in Volunteer territory.

“We gotta address [the drops],” Drinkwitz said. “Four big drops, two on third downs, one for an explosive play that would have been big for us.”

That “explosive play” was a deep throw to Dominic Gicinto, who had broken behind Tennessee’s secondary. If he had held onto the ball and kept his footing, he had nothing but green grass ahead of him.

Both of the Tigers’ starting outside receivers, Hazelton and Chism, dropped at least one pass as well.

“One was a third down and led to a field goal, the other one was a drive that had a chance to be a touchdown, and the other one was a drive to start the second half,” Drinkwitz said. “We can’t drop the football.”

Rountree performed well but isn’t satisfied

Running back Larry Rountree III ran well for the second week in a row, showcasing the quick change-of-direction ability that earned him third-team preseason All-SEC honors. He’s also been every bit the veteran leader the Tigers expected when they elected him captain for the 2020 season.

In keeping with that leadership, Rountree chose to focus not on his own solid play but on what the offense as a whole needs to improve upon. Specifically, they struggled mightily in the red zone, with Rountree accounting for their only touchdown of the day.

“You gotta have some pride in yourself and grab your nuts and know that you’re gonna score,” Rountree said. “When we get in the low red, we have to execute. I can’t count how many times we were in the red zone today and we only scored once. That’s not good enough.”

Manuel, Rakestraw forming a promising young defensive core

Nick Bolton’s excellent play on Saturday, with a game- and career-high 17 tackles, was nothing new. However, the second consecutive impressive performance for sophomore and first-year starter Martez Manuel, as well as cornerback Ennis Rakestraw, was encouraging.

Manuel finished second to Bolton with nine tackles, coming off an Alabama game in which he registered 3.5 tackles for loss. Rakestraw once again held his own in coverage, nearly coming away with his first interception in a Missouri uniform.

He’s made his share of rookie mistakes, like a pass interference penalty in the end zone and being the nearest man to Jaylen Waddle in coverage, but Drinkwitz has to be impressed with how the true freshman has performed.

It doesn’t get easier from here

Missouri will travel to Baton Rouge, La. to face the defending national champions on the road. Most of LSU’s contributors to that team — including Heisman trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow — are gone, but they remain a dangerous roster that has more talent than Missouri’s.

Drinkwitz knows this, and rather than reaching deep into his bag of tricks for plays that could turn the tables on the other Tigers, he’s choosing to focus on executing better and building a foundation.

“Tricks aren’t winning the SEC,” Drinkwitz said. “You gotta execute. We can try to trick people all we want and we have unique formations that cause some issues, and that’s what happened on the fourth down when we hit [TE] Logan [Christopherson for 37 yards], but we gotta execute better. That’s the solution.”

Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themanteater.com

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