State of Missouri Tigers football: Defense, QB are issues, but recruiting gives hope

·6 min read

The Missouri Tigers won’t take the football field this Saturday, on a bye week following a 3-4 start to the season.

Seven games into the year and still without a win in SEC play, let’s break down what has led to the team’s struggles so far and what can be expected for the rest of this season and the future of the Missouri Tigers program under head coach Eliah Drinkwitz.

Disastrous defense

Many issues have reared their head with this Missouri team: Slow starts, turnovers, penalties, but most of all defense. Game after game we’ve seen opposing running backs and wide receivers waltz their way into the end zone without so much as a hand touching them as they blaze through wide open gaps.

Mizzou has allowed an FBS-worst 286.6 rushing yards per game — 18.3 yards more than the next team. In total, the Tigers have allowed 2,005 net yards on the ground through seven games, which is hundreds more than the team allowed across the entirety of each of the last three seasons.

The Tigers are also dead last among Power Five teams in total yards per game (488.3) and yards allowed per rush (6.15), and they’re tied for the most first downs allowed on defense (180) among FBS programs — the team didn’t allow that many in each of the last three years either. Additionally, entering Saturday, Kansas was the only Power Five team worse than Mizzou on third down conversion defense (49.4%) and scoring defense (37.14 points per game).

At first, it seemed like an adjustment issue. Maybe players needed more time to learn defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ NFL-minded scheme. Or maybe it was a talent issue, some assumed after the loss to Kentucky. After all, former MU head coach Barry Odom was never known for his recruiting. But in the defeats since that first SEC matchup, most notably a 62-24 loss to Tennessee, it has become clear there is a much bigger problem.

Drinkwitz fired defensive line coach Jethro Franklin on Oct. 3 following the loss to the Volunteers and replaced him with defensive analyst Al Davis. It remains to be seen how much improvement has been made since that move, as the game after that was against North Texas and the team allowed 6.74 yards per carry against Texas A&M.

It’s almost hard to comprehend what has led to such poor play on the defensive side of the ball. The sheer gaps and missed tackles have truly been baffling at times. And barring some sort of dramatic turnaround, it seems probable that the defense will remain a sore spot for the Tigers for the rest of this season.

Questions at quarterback

As detrimental as the defense has been, there really isn’t any room for mistakes on offense if Mizzou wants to win games. But there have been a lot in recent weeks.

In his last three games against Power Five opponents (excluding North Texas), quarterback Connor Bazelak has thrown six interceptions — matching his total all of last season — to one touchdown. He has seven interceptions total through seven games, which is the most for an Mizzou quarterback in a single season since 2017.

Tyler Badie has been the only reliable playmaker. He has accounted for more total touchdowns (13) as a running back than Bazelak has passed for (12). And Badie has been one of the sole sources of explosive plays.

Following the loss to Texas A&M, in which two early interceptions for Bazelak contributed to a 21-0 deficit in the first quarter, Drinkwitz said he didn’t consider a change at the position.

While the head coach seems to believe there isn’t a better option for the Tigers under center this season, it’s clear stronger play and decision making is needed from the leader of this offense.

Looking towards the future

If it wasn’t obvious by now, the Tigers most likely aren’t making a bowl game this season. They would need to pick up three wins in their remaining five contests. Getting two of those seems in the cards — against Vanderbilt and South Carolina — but taking down No. 1 Georgia is all but impossible and this Mizzou team hasn’t shown anything to indicate it’s capable of upsetting Florida or Arkansas either.

Mizzou hasn’t fallen short of bowl eligibility since 2016. So where does that leave this program?

Let’s not forget this is Drinkwitz’s third season as a college head football coach and it’s his first attempt at building a program. There simply isn’t a lot of experience or proven results to rely on here.

When he was hired by Appalachian State in his first head coaching job in 2018, Drinkwitz inherited a team that boasted solid talent and had been quite successful in recent years. The Mountaineers went 11-2 the season before he took over, 9-4 the year before that and 10-3 in 2016.

Drinkwitz then made a big splash by leading the program to a 13-1 record with wins over Power Five programs North Carolina and South Carolina in 2019.

There’s no denying how impressive that was for a first year head coach and he proved to be a great offensive mind that season. But when considering the task he now faces at Mizzou, it’s worth remembering that there was nothing to turn around at Appalachian State. He made a good team better. Thus, this is the first real pressure or adversity Drinkwitz has faced as the leader of a collegiate program. The truth of the matter is he is figuring this out as he goes.

“I’m growing a lot right now,” Drinkwitz said after the loss to Texas A&M. He also said in that press conference that the team probably overachieved with a 5-5 record last season and he may have gotten the fan base too excited with expectations for this year. He noted that success isn’t always linear and the team couldn’t skip a step in its building process. And as he did so, he kept coming back to one word: recruit.

Perhaps recruiting has been the biggest positive of Drinkwitz’ tenure at Missouri, and that will continue to be a crucial part of how he turns this around.

Drinkwitz and his staff picked up a historic commit earlier this week when five-star wide receiver Luther Burden selected Mizzou over Georgia and Alabama. They now have three 247Sports Composite top-150 players on board for the 2022 class, including quarterback Sam Horn and offensive lineman Deshawn Woods, and rank 14th nationally.

While there are a lot more defensive needs to address given how bad the results have been on the field this season, there appears to be a path to success if Drinkwitz can continue to recruit at this level, the likes of which Missouri hasn’t seen before. But it’s going to take time to materialize, and even so, there’s no telling what the future holds.

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