Heroes of LSU win look to do it again against Kentucky

Bazelak, Bledsoe, run defense and more can build on their Week 3 performances.
Missouri tight end Niko Hea celebrates after scoring the eventual game-winning touchdown against LSU on Oct. 10, 2020. SEC Media Portal

Redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak has established himself on the national scene as one of the Southeastern Conference’s best young quarterbacks, taking home the Davey O’Brien National QB of the Week Award for his 400-yard, four-touchdown performance in Missouri’s win over LSU.

After the game on Oct. 10, Bazelak didn’t talk much about his own offensive output. Instead, he focused on what lies ahead for the 1-2 Tigers.

“We just gotta get back to work,” Bazelak said after the game. “Focus on Vandy.”

Missouri’s focus on Vanderbilt lasted all of two days, as that game was postponed due to positive COVID-19 cases within the Vanderbilt program. Instead, Bazelak will look to follow up his stellar outing against a much stingier secondary than Vanderbilt or LSU for that matter: the Kentucky Wildcats.

“Obviously, on defense, they’ve forced nine turnovers in the last two football games, and they’ve done an extremely good job of holding very good offenses,” coach Eli Drinkwitz said.

The Wildcats will enter Faurot Field as winners of their last two games, scoring more touchdowns on defense (3) than they’ve allowed (1) in that span.

Bazelak’s 400 yards and four touchdowns came without Missouri’s starting outside receivers, graduate transfers Damon Hazelton and Keke Chism, who missed the game due to COVID-19/contact tracing. They have rejoined the program, but not the top of the depth chart.

On the depth chart that was released on Tuesday, the starters at outside receiver are Tauskie Dove or Chism and D’ionte “Boo” Smith or Micah Wilson. Dove, Smith and Wilson were afterthoughts to begin the season, but they combined for 14 catches, 182 yards and two touchdowns against LSU.

Evidently, that was enough to earn them a second look, even with Hazelton and Chism healthy.

“I think specifically in the wide receiver room, you feel a lot more confidence in your receiver depth,” Drinkwitz said. “Everybody’s got an opportunity, and if your number is called, it’s up to you to be prepared for that opportunity.”

Dove, a redshirt sophomore who led the team with 83 yards and caught the opening drive touchdown pass off of a flea-flicker, figures to continue to play a big role for the emerging Tigers’ offense.

“Personally, [the LSU game] allowed me to experience the SEC,” Dove said. “It was a good game, I felt great about it, and I feel like I can do more in the SEC for this Missouri football team.”

Run defense faces another tough test

Tennessee’s offensive line blasted Missouri’s run defense line in Week 2, and the Tigers entered Week 3 without three of their four defensive tackles — including last year’s sack leader Kobie Whiteside — due to COVID-19/contract tracing or normal injury.

Naturally, the Tigers responded by holding LSU to 2.5 yards per carry and two massive stops from the one yard-line to help save the game.

“If you watch the film, they’re surging, cutting the offensive linemen,” linebacker Nick Bolton said. “They don’t make the play, they let the linebackers make the play. They’re just unselfish guys up front. They eat up blocks all day. They did a hell of a job all day.”

Markell Utsey and Isaiah McGuire — a defensive end who moved inside due to the absences — will remain in their starting spots this week against one of the top group of blockers in the SEC. Kentucky returns four of its five starters from last year including first-team All-SEC center Drake Jackson.

On Wednesday, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters was asked what needs to happen for a repeat of the LSU performance, not the Tennessee one.

“Just being aggressive, myself included,” Walters said. “Being aggressive in the play call, being aggressive on the field, getting downhill. And being a good tackling team. I thought we did a much better job in the LSU game getting ourselves prepared pre-snap, lining up guys in the right spot and not getting shaken by anything.”

Bledsoe looks to build on game-winning play

Joshuah Bledsoe was expecting Terrace Marshall Jr. to get the ball on the final play of the game, but he thought it would be the fade route, not the out route.

However, once Marshall pushed off and cut outside, all he needed to do was drive on the ball and make the play.

“I definitely think that’s one of the biggest plays in my career right now,” Bledsoe said. “But yeah, it’s in the past. I’m moving onto Kentucky.”

Not only did Bledsoe make that play against Marshall, but he was the only Missouri player to force an incompletion as the closest man in coverage to the star wideout.

“Looking back at the LSU game, I should have just had him play man to man on Marshall the whole game because most of his explosive plays came in zone coverage or somebody else covering him,” Walters said.

While Bledsoe’s official position is free safety, Walters loves the matchups he can get when he lines him up against some of the better slot receivers in the SEC.

“He’s really become a technician in the slot there, and obviously he’s a bigger guy,” Walters said. “Typically slot receivers are smaller — obviously this was not the case against LSU — but his ability to get his hands on and be able to run with slot receivers is what kind of makes him special at that spot.”

Badie proving to be crucial weapon for Drinkwitz offense

Running back Tyler Badie led Missouri in receptions in 2019, but he’s become a big-play threat out of the backfield under Drinkwitz.

Badie has receptions of 54, 35 and 21 yards, two of which went for scores, so far this year. The 54 and 35-yarders came on wheel routes while the 21-yarder against LSU came on an angle or “Texas” route.

“Tyler’s a guy who can do a lot of different things,” Drinkwitz said. “I think he was consistent running the football, I mean his first touchdown was an explosive run of 29 yards, and he made two people miss tackles.”

Badie’s versatility allows Drinkwitz’s offense to open up when he’s on the field, allowing the Tigers to become less predictable and more explosive.

“He certainly presents himself as a capable wide receiver who can do multiple things, but he’s also a physical blocker, picking up protections,” Drinkwitz said. “So it’s really good to have that versatility, kind of a 1-2 punch. He obviously makes our offense a lot more dynamic with his ability to be versatile and get us into some five-man pass concepts when he’s in the game.”

Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themaneater.com

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