At this point, Eli Drinkwitz is used to adjusting his plans. Since taking over as Missouri’s head coach, Drinkwitz has seen the first game of the 2020 schedule pushed back from Sept. 5 to Sept. 26, the opponent changed from Central Arkansas to Alabama. He and the rest of the team planned to travel to LSU, another new addition to the schedule after the SEC eliminated non-conference competition, last weekend. Instead, due to Hurricane Delta, the defending national champions came to Columbia for an 11 a.m. kick, and due to COVID-19 protocols, Missouri didn’t have three of its top five wide receivers as well as a contributor at defensive tackle on the field the 45-41 upset.
The latest surprise, that Vanderbilt would not have enough scholarship players available to play Missouri this weekend, resulting in the game being postponed to the end of the regular season, caught Drinkwitz off guard. He initially heard rumblings that the Commodores might not make the trip to Columbia through the bus company the team uses for travel. But of all the changes of plans Drinkwitz has had to deal with during his 10 months on the job, this might be the most welcome. Drinkwitz said a Missouri roster that is dealing with injuries and quarantines of its own would use the unexpected idle weekend to heal and self-evaluate following a brutal three-game stretch to start the season.
“It’s a tremendous blessing for us,” Drinkwitz said during his Tuesday press conference. “We’ve played, really, three tough SEC opponents, all ranked. … For us to try to get healthy, bumps, bruises, obviously get people out of quarantine, out of contact tracing is going to be good. It gives us a chance to reevaluate the first three games, where exactly we were not where we need to be, and we can work on those things and really get some specific practices and fundamentals looked at and make sure we know what we’re doing.”
Not many people likely predicted Missouri to have won a game following its first three matchups against No. 2 Alabama, No. 18 Tennessee and the defending national champs. Drinkwitz discussed the importance of Saturday’s victory, saying it “adds a tangible result to the words that we’ve put out there” and he hopes it can energize the fanbase.
However, just because the team is riding high after upsetting a two-touchdown favorite doesn’t mean Drinkwitz doesn’t see plenty of room for improvement, which he plans to use the bye to address.
The primary area that Drinkwitz wants fixed is the turnover margin. Missouri has given the ball away six times on the season, with one interception and five lost fumbles (two of which have come via muffed punts). The Tigers also recovered two of their own fumbles against LSU. The defense, meanwhile, has only taken the ball away once, and it came against Alabama’s backup quarterback. Only five teams nationally have a worse turnover margin than Missouri.
“Offensively, we’ve got too many turnovers,” Drinkwitz said. “Special teams, we’ve muffed three punts in three games, which is not good. Defensively, we’ve only got one takeaway in three games, which is not nearly where we want to be. We want to have two takeaways per game. So for us, that’s an extreme point of emphasis that we have to make to our players and to our staff, that we have to improve not only our ball security but in taking the ball away from them.”
Drinkwitz didn’t delve into specifics about how the team would reverse its turnover woes, including who would return punts moving forward. However, he did say that position coaches have identified at least one thing that every player on the roster can improve. That even goes for quarterback Connor Bazelak, who has garnered plenty of praise for his performance against LSU in his first start of the season. Bazelak completed 29 of 34 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns. As a result, he was selected as the SEC freshman of the week and one of eight quarterbacks named a finalist for both the Manning Star of the Week and Davey O’Brien Great 8 awards.
Drinkwitz noted that the redshirt freshman can’t be evaluated with the same measuring stick as most quarterbacks since he played in a predominately wishbone-style offense in high school and spent much of this past offseason rehabbing from a torn ACL. Drinkwitz estimated he’s only participated in about 30 practices since the new staff took over at Missouri. But Drinkwitz still pointed out a few areas where Bazelak can grow, which he said will come as he gets more and more reps.
“I think the biggest thing for Connor is just to continue to understand what we’re trying to do and what are the pressure points that we’re putting on the defense,” Drinkwitz explained. “With this play, what’s the pressure point we’re attacking? With this play, what’s the pressure point we’re attacking? And then he can understand when I call plays, this is why we’re calling it, versus you want this look, but if they give you this, this is your outlet. And that just comes with reps and understanding, reps and understanding. … There’s several plays, when you (watch film from Saturday), you’re critical on, but there were only a few that he just didn’t have the right progression in mind. So we gotta clean those up.”
Due to the postponement of the Vanderbilt game, Missouri will play yet another ranked opponent the next time it takes the field: Oct. 24 at No. 10 Florida. But Drinkwitz hopes having this weekend off will have the team healthier (more on that shortly) and more secure with the football when that game arrives. The six players who missed Saturday’s game due to COVID-19 quarantines are expected to be back for the Florida matchup.
As for how he will spend his suddenly free Saturday? Drinkwitz gave the answer you’d expect.
“I’m going to recruit,” he said. “We’re going to spend Friday night evaluating recruits online, and excited to be able to watch some Friday night games and watch all the guys that we’re recruiting, and then Saturday, recruit.”
Drinkwitz breaks down goal-line stand
Drinkwitz opened his press conference by remarking that Missouri’s game-winning goal-line stand, keeping LSU out of the end zone on four straight plays from the one-yard line in the final minute, appeared just as impressive on film as it had in the moment. He also provided some insight into how the clutch series unfolded.
First of all, Drinkwitz said, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters had a pretty good idea of what to expect from LSU. Walters remembered from his film study that LSU had run a similar sequence of goal-line plays in its win over Alabama last season: two inside zone handoffs and a pass “crack-screen” like the one intended for Terrance Marshall Jr. on third down, which was snuffed out by linebacker Nick Bolton (named the national defensive player of the week by the Football Writers Association of America).
The first-down play, a handoff to tailback Tyrion Davis-Price, got blown up when the interior of the defensive line clogged any running lanes up the middle. Bolton and safety Martez Manuel came unblocked off each edge and wrapped up Davis-Price. On second down, defensive tackle Markell Utsey, who spent the majority of the game at the nose tackle spot vacated by the injured Kobie Whiteside, blew past his blocker and made Davis-Price stop his momentum in the backfield, allowing Bolton and company to clean up the tackle.
“On that second down play, Markell Utsey really defeated a block, got to the tailback first, caused him to cut back,” Drinkwitz said, “… so he had a standout play right there.”
Drinkwitz said LSU actually ran its third-down play well. It had one receiver split wide left of the formation, on the short side of the field, and Marshall lined up behind the tackle as an H-back. The wideout crashed toward the line of scrimmage and picked safety Joshuah Bledsoe, assigned to cover Marshall, completely removing him from the play. But Bolton, who LSU didn’t block, counting on him to rush quarterback Myles Brennan, recognized the play. He paused his rush and batted Brennan’s pass out of the air, forcing fourth down.
Drinkwitz said Missouri didn’t actually execute perfectly on its final defensive play of the game. Manuel was supposed to blitz from the right side of the offensive formation, which would have stopped Brennan’s sprint-out in that direction. Instead, once Manuel saw it was a pass to his side, he turned around to try to find someone to cover. But Bledsoe, once again tasked with covering Marshall, who had torched Missouri for 235 yards and three touchdowns, came through with a great individual play.
“Martez was supposed to come off the front side edge to force the quarterback to pull up a little big quicker,” Drinkwitz explained. “Once he read it was a sprint-out, he turned around to try to find and help like it was going to be an in and a flag concept instead of in, double-outs. So that was really the only thing. We still got pressure on the backside, Chris Turner forced and hit the quarterback, and then Bledsoe was able to defeat the push-off at the top of the route and still break in time to knock the ball down.”
“The will it took for everybody to stay calm, execute their assignments, make the plays they made and do it for four straight downs is a testament to our defensive staff and our players, and really everybody involved.”
Having no game this weekend should help the many Missouri players dealing with the aches and pains that arise during the course of a football season. But Drinkwitz said at least two key contributors won’t be back for the Florida game.
Whiteside, who missed Saturday’s game, will be out until at least Nov. 14 due to a knee injury. Drinkwitz said the team will reassess his status during its Nov. 7 bye. He hopes to get fellow defensive tackle Darius Robinson back on the field when Missouri hosts Kentucky on Oct. 31, but Robinson might be out until Nov. 14, when Missouri hosts Georgia, as well.
One player in particular who will benefit from having a week off is cornerback Jarvis Ware. The junior left Missouri’s season-opener against Alabama in the first quarter with a knee injury and missed the following game as well. He suited up against LSU but didn’t start and played 35 of 69 defensive snaps. Drinkwitz said he wasn’t 100 percent for the game, but once he is he’ll be “the guy” at his customary corner spot.
“He was really pushing himself, and we as a coaching staff really had to make a decision that we didn’t want to put him out there to further injure himself,” said Drinkwitz. “But he’s going to be the guy when he’s 100 percent healthy. Hopefully we get him back. This couldn’t have come at a better time for him, so hopefully he’ll be back ready to go next week.”