“We wanted it more”: Goal-line stand seals first win of Drinkwitz era
Joshuah Bledsoe and Nick Bolton made crucial plays that got Missouri four stops from their own one-yard line against the defending national champions.
Oct. 10, 2020
First down. LSU, down 45-41 with 44 seconds left, had the ball at the 1-yard line with four plays to score. Their first attempt: a run to the middle.
Second down. The defensive line again didn’t give an inch. Safeties Martez Manuel and Joshuah Bledsoe stood up running back Tyrion Davis-Prince, and linebacker Nick Bolton — playing hurt — came in from the back side, wrapped him up, and pulled him to the ground.
“I mean, that dude’s a straight warrior,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said of Bolton. “He’s been beat up, he was beat up last game, he wore a green jersey all of last week because he was dinged. I bet he played fifty of the sixty-something snaps, if not more. I mean he’s just unbelievable.”
For Bolton’s part, he was just never going to let Davis-Prince score.
“On defense, it’s a brotherhood,” Bolton said. “I don’t wanna be the person to let my brothers down.”
Third down. LSU quarterback Myles Brennan pulled it, knowing that with no timeouts left, a run that didn’t score would make LSU rush their final shot. He threw to the flat, directly at Nick Bolton, who read it all the way.
Bolton got his hands up and swatted it down.
“I’ve seen that route a thousand times,” Bolton said. “I practiced it, studied it, watched it on film. I was already expecting it.”
Fourth down. Brennan rolled to the right, looking for one man: Terrace Marshall Jr, who caught the pass that put them at first and goal at the 1. He will likely be a first round pick in this year’s draft, and he had a career day, catching 11 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns.
This play, however, belonged to Joshuah Bledsoe. He blanketed Marshall from the right slot, and he knocked the ball away.
That play sealed the first win of the Eli Drinkwitz era in Columbia. And what a win it was.
“It was our will versus theirs,” Drinkwitz said. “And we wanted it more.”
For Missouri, the goal-line stand to decide the game was one of many moments in a wild, back-and-forth game in which the defense could have given in, but didn’t.
“They could’ve flinched after a turnover, and they didn’t,” Drinkwitz said. “They could’ve flinched after another turnover, and they didn’t. They could’ve flinched after a turnover in the third quarter, and they didn’t.”
Drinkwitz wasn’t done.
“They could’ve flinched after we went three and out, and they didn’t,” he said. “They just blocked a field goal. They could’ve flinched when the ball got put on the 1-yard line, and they didn’t. They just kept playing this game as hard as they can.”
That goes for the offense too, which lost two of their three starting receivers in Damon Hazelton and Keke Chism, as well as an important depth target in Dominic Gicinto, to COVID-19 or contact tracing.
To replace their production, quarterback Connor Bazelak found a combination of eight different receivers — Tauskie Dove, D’ionte “Boo” Smith, Jalen Knox, Barrett Banister, Micah Wilson, Niko Hea and Chance Luper — for 406 yards and four touchdowns.
Much like the run defense, which was missing three of their top four defensive tackles including Kobie Whiteside, the shorthanded receiving corps stepped up in a big way.
“I’m so proud of them,” Bazelak, who made his first start of the season, said. “Just the way they’ve worked all offseason, they got their opportunity and they stepped up in big moments and they made plays.”
The game began with a play made by Dove, who broke behind the LSU secondary and found himself wide open, thanks in part to some trickery from Drinkwitz. Bazelak handed it to running back Larry Rountree III, who tossed it back to Bazelak, who hit Dove for the 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown to put the Tigers up 7-0.
“I think it gave us confidence that we can move the ball whenever we want on these guys,” Bazelak said. “It gave everyone confidence, and we got out to a lead early. We always talked about starting fast, and that’s what we did.”
Missouri needed to move the ball whenever they wanted because their defense struggled early against the high-powered LSU offense. Brennan had few issues throwing to Marshall or true freshman tight end Arik Gilbert, who just overmatched the Missouri secondary.
The defense got off the field on third downs, not allowing a single conversion in ten attempts, but they found that when they did, Missouri’s offense and special teams would often give it right back. They fumbled five times in the first two quarters and three minutes and lost three, which contributed to LSU’s 31-23 lead at the beginning of the third quarter.
“I hope we take every experience and learn from it,” Drinkwitz said. “We’ll go back and watch the tape. I’m sure we’ll be disappointed with a lot of different things, and we’ll be proud of a lot of different things, but hopefully, we can take this as a sign that we can compete with anybody in the country if we’ll do our jobs and improve our play.”
For the rest of the game, Missouri did both. They tied it at 31 later in the third quarter when the LSU defense appeared to forget that Micah Wilson was on the field, and he caught his first career touchdown as a result.
“It definitely felt really good,” Wilson, a converted quarterback, said. “Just to see how the team was responding to adversity and how the defense was backing us up, it was a great reminder of how good this team is and how well we play together.”
LSU would retake the lead on the next play, thanks to Brennan and Marshall, but that was their last touchdown. Missouri made it 38-38 when Bazelak found Tyler Badie on an angle route and he split the LSU secondary on his way to the end zone.
Bazelak has a solid case for SEC offensive player of the week, as an MU spokesperson pointed out on Twitter. If it wasn’t clear who Missouri’s quarterback is last week, it certainly is now.
“Toughness, preparation, decision-making, accuracy and leadership,” Drinkwitz said. “Those are the five characteristics of a great quarterback and a guy we want to be our quarterback, and [Bazelak] does all of them consistently.”
The first sign that this could be a special afternoon at Faurot Field came with the score at 41-38, when edge defender Tre Williams blocked an 45-yard field goal to keep the game within three points. Without that block, LSU would have been within one point on their final drive and the goal-line stand would not have happened.
“Earlier in the game, when I tried to jump up, one of the tackles tried to lift me up in the air,” Williams said. “So I did the same thing, and he did the same thing, and then I just made sure that I jumped a little bit and it bounced off my helmet.”
On the ensuing drive, Bazelak led the Tigers down the field and fired a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Niko Hea. That gave Missouri a 45-41 lead and the rest, as they say, is history.
The 1-2 Tigers’ vaunted schedule will see a bit of a break next week, as they’ll host Vanderbilt, the perennial doormat of the SEC — although they did defeat Missouri last year. Vanderbilt scored 7 points on this same LSU defense in Week 2, and they provide an opportunity for Missouri to reach .500.