Stellar defense seals Missouri’s first win in South Carolina since 2014

17 first-half points are all the Tigers needed in a 17-10 Mayor’s Cup win against the Gamecocks.
Nick Bolton celebrates after one of his two tackles for loss during Missouri's 17-10 win over South Carolina on Nov. 21, 2020. SEC Media Portal

Three wins.

If you look back to the beginning of August, that’s all Vegas expected the Missouri Tigers to achieve in a COVID-19-shortened, all-Southeastern Conference season.

But just three months later, on Nov. 21, Missouri notched that third win with four games to spare.

“I’ve got a couple of screenshots of people who predicted us to only win two games,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “So they can have those screenshots back.”

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Missouri offense showed up early to spot the Tigers a 14-point lead, and the defense took care of the rest in a 17-10 win against South Carolina on Saturday night.

“[The defense] played awesome,” Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak said. “Nick Bolton, Martez [Manuel] and the D-line being low. They did a great job, and I’m excited for them that they got the win. They really took us home in the second half.”

Just hours prior to kickoff, Missouri announced defensive coordinator Ryan Walters would not be on the sidelines due to contact tracing, and that cornerbacks coach David Gibbs would take over. To the untrained eye, there didn’t seem to be a difference as the Tigers’ defense came out of the gates buzzing.

The unit set the tone early when the sophomore safety Manuel beelined into the backfield and sacked South Carolina quarterback Collin Hill on a safety blitz.

Later in the first half, Missouri’s two safeties, Devin Nicholson and Manuel, met in the backfield and combined to take Hill to the ground.

Bolton got in on the action, too. The Missouri star finished with a game-high 14 tackles, including two tackles for loss. When South Carolina began to find some semblance of momentum, it was Bolton that blasted into the backfield to wrap up running back Deshaun Fenwick for a three-yard loss that stalled a promising Gamecocks drive.

And with under a minute remaining and South Carolina attempting a game-winning drive, Nicholson came up with the biggest play of the night when he intercepted freshman quarterback Luke Doty’s pass to seal the victory.

As a unit, the Missouri defense allowed just 283 yards of offense, but most of that came in the second half. South Carolina put up 42 points last week against Ole Miss, but only hung 10 on Missouri.

The Tigers will leave Columbia, S.C. with its first win at Williams-Brice Stadium since 2014 and a .500 record.

“Just as a collective unit, I feel like we played well in the first half,” Bolton said. “[Kevin Harris] had five touchdowns the week before and we kept him out of the end zone all game. We had a couple of plays that I wish we could have back, but other than that I’m proud of our performance.”

It didn’t take the Tigers to shake off three weeks of rust; at least it seemed to be that way. After going three-and-out on its first series, Missouri found pay dirt on its second drive, which started at midfield. It started with Bazelak finding Keke Chism for 21 yards.

Three plays later, he fired a perfect ball to a tightly-covered Tauskie Dove, who caught the ball as he fell to the ground to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead.

Missouri never looked back from there and doubled its lead just minutes into the second quarter.

The drive started off with a pass interference on the Gamecocks as Bazelak’s pass to Jalen Knox deflected off the receiver’s hands. A wheel route to running back Tyler Badie put the Tigers in the red zone, and his backfield partner, Larry Rountree III, punched the ball in from the one-yard line to give the visitors a 14-0 advantage.

But it was far from a perfect outing for the Missouri offense.

Bazelak threw his first interception since the Tigers’ second game of the season against Tennessee, when he attempted to find Dove in the end zone for a second time. The Gamecocks pressure got to the redshirt freshman, the ball hung in the air too long and redshirt freshman cornerback Cam Smith picked it off.

“You can’t throw an interception in the red zone,” Drinkwitz said. “The ball is at the 23-yard line and [Bazelak] threw it to the two. I mean, that’s a pretty terrible throw.”

There were numerous overthrows as well. Bazelak tested his arm often late into the first half, but couldn’t find much success and nearly threw another end zone interception when Missouri was driving to end the first half.

Missouri fared worse on the ground. Rountree III finished with just 58 yards on 21 carries as the South Carolina front proved to be a formidable force in the trenches.

“We weren’t doing what we were supposed to do before we got to third down, and that made a difference,” Rountree III said. “It was third-and-four, third-and-five and we didn’t capitalize on that.”

Missouri’s offense went from bad to worse in the second half. It couldn’t string positive enough plays together and came up scoreless on its six second-half drives. Bazelak just put 79 yards of second half offense.

But the Gamecocks weren’t able to accomplish much offensively either.

Interim head coach Mike Bobo started the second half with Doty under center after Hill threw for just 39 first-half yards. The freshman brought some life to the game and riled up the fans after a couple of good runs, but he still couldn’t move the ball against a solid Missouri defense.

“We kind of got [Doty] out of the run early and forced him to pass the ball a little more in the second half,” Bolton said. “Credit to our D-line for that and then our safeties and corners manning up when it was their time to play.”

South Carolina finally found the end zone with five minutes remaining in the game when Fenwick powered the ball in at the goal line, but by then it was too little, too late for the home team.

The game was far from pretty, especially in the second half, but it’s still a road win for a Missouri team that hasn’t played a close road game this season.

Over the course of 60 minutes, the Tigers showed they can find ways to win the games that they are supposed to, which is just another positive step for Drinkwitz and his program.

“Obviously we didn’t do what we needed to do offensively in the second half to put the game away, but you know we found a way to win and that is what you have to do,” Drinkwitz said. “We’re going home three and three and I’m really proud of our team right now.”

The Tigers will now head back to Columbia, Mo., for Thanksgiving where they will prepare to host the Arkansas Razorbacks next weekend.

Edited by Anna Cowden | acowden@themaneater.com

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