Roundtable: Have expectations changed for Missouri?

The Maneater’s football beat answered three burning questions ahead of Missouri’s “bye week.”
Connor Bazelak tucks it and runs during Missouri's upset win over LSU on Oct. 10, 2020. SEC Media Portal

We’re already one-third through the Missouri Tigers’ 2020 season. With tough games against Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana State behind them, Missouri is going into an impromptu “bye week” at 1-2 feeling good about themselves.

With the impending bye week, The Maneater’s football beat writers discussed which players have stood out, where the team needs to improve, and where expectations should be after three games.

Which players have stood out through three games?

Kyle Pinnell: I’ve been impressed with some of the younger Missouri defensive players. Ennis Rakestraw Jr. has held his own, and he’s had to cover some of the country’s best receivers, Jaylen Waddle and Terrace Marshall Jr., already. Martez Manuel completed three and a half tackles for loss against Alabama and came up with the vital tackle multiple times in the Tiger’s fourth quarter goal line stand against LSU. Nick Bolton is the best player on this team and he’s proven it time and time again with 36 total tackles, including 17 against Tennessee.

On offense, redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak looks the part of a top-five SEC quarterback. There will be games in which he struggles, but the way he effortlessly threw his receivers open all afternoon without many of his top threats in the passing game is seriously impressive. The Florida Gators are Missouri’s next opponent, and their defense is susceptible to what Bazelak brings. I’d expect another big week from him in “The Swamp.”

Jack Soble: Kyle took almost every obvious stand-out, so I’ll go with a few guys who made huge differences in the LSU game. On offense, receivers Tauskie Dove and D’ionte “Boo” Smith stepped up in place of graduate transfer starters Damon Hazelton and Keke Chism and looked better than Hazelton and Chism ever did in two games of action. This LSU secondary has tons of holes, so expectations should be tempered a bit, but they made some really nice plays. Dove showed potential as a big-bodied receiver with excellent hands and impressive route-running capabilities. Smith — who walked onto the team in January — made a beautiful back-shoulder reception on the sideline against Derek Stingley Jr, arguably the best cornerback in the country. The play of Larry Borom through three games shouldn’t go unnoticed either, as he’s been extremely reliable at right tackle amidst uncertainty at the other side.

Defensively, safety Joshuah Bledsoe is rightly being recognized for his game-clinching pass break-up against Marshall, but throughout the rest of the game, he was the only one on Missouri’s defense who forced an incompletion against LSU’s star receiver (he forced three on six tries, everyone else forced zero on eight). He also made an outstanding play on second down of the goal-line stand, standing up running back Tyrion Davis-Price with zero room to spare and buying Bolton enough time to pull him out of scoring position. He was burnt by a slot fade early in the Tennessee game, but for the most part, he’s been a major plus for Ryan Walters’ defense.

What needs to be tweaked heading into the second third of its season?

KP: Ball security. The fact that Missouri lost the turnover battle by three to LSU and still won is frankly incredible and doesn’t facilitate itself to victories very often. Muffing punt returns and allowing offenses to start their drives 25 yards from the end zone is what gets a team beat, especially in the SEC. When asked at halftime about the team’s impressive performance to hang with the defending national champions, coach Eliah Drinkwitz immediately expressed his frustrations with ball security and fumbles. During Tuesday’s media availability, Drinkwitz again discussed turnovers, saying that his team needs to be better at forcing them (Missouri has just one takeaway through three games) and that they need to eliminate the silly ones on their end. The Tigers did force a fumble against Tennessee that Manuel picked up and returned, but officials overturned the call. Missouri’s defense ranks in the bottom third in most statistical categories per secsports.com, but it has also shown plenty of flashes, including that goal line stand against LSU. Finding a way to force turnovers and set the offense up with a short field could help the Tigers be the team that pulls away in close games.

JS: They can’t be entirely faulted for this because covering Terrace Marshall, Arik Gilbert, Josh Palmer, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III in three games is hard, but the secondary needs to do a better job of keeping receivers in front of them. They’ve given up 13.9 yards per completion this season, which is bad enough but gets far worse when you only count wide receivers. While Rakestraw, Manuel, Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie have been the playmakers that they’ve been advertised as, they need to keep plays in front of them more often.

The run defense was much improved against LSU but the way it was blasted by Tennessee shouldn’t be forgotten. If Missouri wants to defeat a team like Kentucky that’s extremely reliant on the run game, it needs to show that its performance against LSU’s run game wasn’t a fluke.

Does an upset win against LSU change this season’s expectations?

KP: Should it change expectations? No. For as great a moment the win was for this program, and it’s definitely an early statement result for Eli Drinkwitz and company, the metaphorical goalposts for the season shouldn’t shift. This is still a year for Drinkwitz to see what he has and to develop young players while recruiting for a year or two down the line. But in the last few weeks, the team has shown flashes of its potential. Bazelak will be in Columbia for the foreseeable future. Nick Bolton and Kobie Whiteside are expected to depart for the NFL at the end of the year, but there are already some exciting commitments in future classes. If Missouri plays like it did against LSU, or even how it did in the second half against Tennessee, the team could eclipse three wins in a grueling all-SEC schedule. Games against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Arkansas appear to be winnable. Mississippi State and Kentucky could also be close games that the Tigers can win. If they take just over 50% of those games, you’re looking at a four-win season at worst. There’s a lot of positivity flowing through this program at the moment and the win against LSU could just be the beginning of an exciting future under Drinkwitz.

JS: In terms of wins and losses, no it should not. It’s entirely possible that this LSU team, while rife with star power, just isn’t very good. It should, however, adjust fans’ expectations about how much fun they’re going to have when they tune into Missouri on Saturdays for the rest of this fall.

Eli Drinkwitz unleashed his full playbook on Saturday, and it blew expectations for what his offense could be out of the water. A flea-flicker on the first drive. Another one that would have worked if it wasn’t overthrown later in the first half. Jet sweep and end-around action galore with Jalen Knox that worked when he got the ball and even when he didn’t. On third and seven in LSU territory, Drinkwitz called a fake jet sweep shovel pass to tight end Niko Hea and it totally worked. That’s trusting in your designs and confidence that you can exploit a hole in the defense, even when it’s not conventional. He relied on the run game when it was working, and he schemed receivers open all game, especially Chance Luper for 69 yards on Missouri’s eventual game-winning drive. Micah Wilson’s touchdown was more the result of a blown coverage, but he was all alone 20 yards past the nearest defender, too.

When you combine that with a young quarterback who has looked like a long-term answer at the position, as well as a play-making defense that features a future first-round pick at linebacker who’s just an absolute joy to watch on the field, you have yourself an extremely fun Missouri football team. They probably won’t win more than four games, but they should provide plenty of hope for the future.

Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themaneater.com

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