Notebook: Defense continues surge, keeps Mizzou afloat

With less than 10 minutes to play in Missouri’s matchup against Florida, the Gators drove inside the Tiger 20-yard line. Missouri had just mustered its first touchdown of the game to take a 16-13 lead, but the Gators appeared poised to answer.

On a third down and one, Florida quarterback Emory Jones took a snap from under center. Jones sprinted to his right, tailback Dameon Pierce running behind him in the speed option. Missouri linebacker Blaze Alldredge, a Rice transfer who at one point lost his starting job this season before playing his way back into the lineup, ran toward Jones, forcing him to pitch the ball to Pierce. Alldredge then adjusted his angle, met Pierce in the backfield and rode him out of bounds for a loss of a yard.

The stop forced Florida coach Dan Mullen to send his field goal unit onto the field. In a game that went to overtime before Missouri pulled out a walk-off 24-23 win, the third-down stop loomed large.

“It forced them to a field goal,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said of the play. “So obviously that puts it in a different scenario. We got the ball back. … Obviously we missed that next field goal. But it gave us a chance to play with game control. We were in control.”

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Missouri linebacker Chad Bailey recorded a team-high nine tackles and three quarterback hurries against Florida. (Denny Medley/USA Today)

Missouri made that type of play all afternoon against Florida. The Tigers held the Gators, which entered Saturday ranked 10th nationally in rushing at 227.6 yards per game, to just 93 yards on the ground. A Florida offense that averaged 33.5 points on the season and dropped 70 on Samford last week scored just one touchdown in regulation. Three different Florida drives that advanced inside the Missouri 25-yard line ended in field goals.

“I think at this stage, with the way we’ve been playing lately, we almost get excited for chances like that,” Alldredge said. “We relish in the challenge where we’re like, okay, put us on the field in that situation, we’re not going to give them anything.”

That it was the Tiger defense that would carry the team to its most significant victory of the season would have been unthinkable a month ago. Through Missouri’s first five games, the defense ranked last nationally against the run and near the bottom of the FBS overall, leading to a 2-3 record despite the offense averaging 35.8 points and 465.6 total yards per game to that point.

But Steve Wilks’ unit turned a corner during Missouri’s loss to Georgia, and it has spent the past two weeks showing the performance wasn’t a fluke. Saturday, Florida rushed for just 2.4 yards per carry. Missouri recorded two sacks and 11 tackles for loss, its most stops behind the line of scrimmage in a game since 2017.

All three levels of the defense chipped in Saturday. The Tigers got strong games from their defensive ends. Trajan Jeffcoat showed why he earned preseason all-SEC votes, racking up 3.5 tackles for loss. Isaiah McGuire recorded five tackles and batted down a key pass. Jatorian Hansford recorded his first career sack.

At linebacker, Alldredge and Chad Bailey played virtually every snap. Bailey recorded a team-high nine tackles, including three for loss, while Alldredge totaled eight stops, with two behind the line of scrimmage. The duo also helped hurry Jones, combining for five quarterback pressures.

A shorthanded secondary stepped up as well. With starting cornerback Akayleb Evans watching the game in street clothes, true freshman DJ Jackson drew the start and played all game. Jackson more than held his own, finishing with five tackles and two pass break-ups. Drinkwitz also complimented Allie Green IV, who started opposite Jackson.

“We had a true freshman play all game tonight at left corner, and just played really well,” Drinkwitz said. “Tackled, covered, broke up passes. Allie Green probably had his best game since he’s been at Mizzou.”

Perhaps the most striking difference between Missouri’s defense Saturday and the unit that struggled mightily earlier in the season was the tackling. Alldredge’s stop was just one example of a Tiger defensive player winning a one-on-one meeting with a ball-carrier. Alldredge noted that wrapping up was particularly important against Florida, as the Tigers employed lots of Cover Zero, meaning no safety would be positioned between the ball carrier and the end zone if someone else missed a stop. Asked how his team has improved its tackling so drastically, Drinkwitz chalked it up to practice.

“I don’t know if you all know this, but we actually practice,” Drinkwitz said. “We practice Tuesday and Wednesday, actually practice tackling circuits and stuff. We’ve been practicing. And I think so many teams at this time of the year are just trying to get the season over with. Our team’s playing for something, they’re playing for each other. And they’re trying to get better. And that’s a good sign.”

Badie makes impact even without the ball

Florida’s defense, playing its second game without fired defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, flummoxed Missouri early in the matchup. Drinkwitz said the Gators deviated from their normal base formation, a 4-2-5, by playing three linebackers. Florida’s defensive front also won the battle at the line of scrimmage. That led to Missouri mustering just 118 total yards in the first half.

The Gators were particularly concerned with slowing down star Missouri running back Tyler Badie. Badie, who entered Saturday ranked third nationally in scrimmage yards with 1,576 and fourth in rushing at 1,239 yards, mustered just 10 total yards on 10 first-half touches.

Badie noticed that Florida made stopping him its top priority. He used that to Missouri’s advantage. Drinkwitz said after the game that Badie suggested he call a “burn” play. The play called for quarterback Connor Bazelak to fake a screen pass to Badie, while tight end Niko Hea simulated a block. Hea would then slip behind the defense.

Missouri executed it to perfection. Bazelak found Hea wide open down the right sideline. He ran untouched for a 41-yard touchdown, Missouri’s only trip to the end zone during regulation.

“(Badie) told me they were yelling ‘screen,’ said call, we call it Burn,” Drinkwitz explained. “Said call Burn. I said no, that’s a crazy idea. Then I was like, no, that’s probably a pretty good idea. So we called it, hits for a touchdown.”

“He came up to me on the sideline, he told me, he said he dialed that play up for me, because they kept going to him with the ball,” Hea said of Badie. “So I appreciate Badie for that one.”

Missouri running back Tyler Badie continued his dominant season with 146 rushing yards and a touchdown. (Denny Medley/USA Today)

Eventually, Badie would find his footing as a rusher. He broke a pair of big runs at the end of the third quarter, giving life to the drive that would end with Hea’s touchdown. And when the game went to overtime and Missouri needed a score to stay alive, the Tigers put the ball in Badie’s hands. He took a handoff 12 yards on the first snap, then scored from 13 yards out on the next one. Badie, who has consistently played better as games have progressed this season, said he knew going into overtime that Missouri’s rushing attack had the upper hand.

“I just keep fighting,” Badie said. “At the end of the day, I know how SEC games go. They’re just going to keep bumping and bumping. Just gotta stay on our grind. And that’s what I told the O-line. They did an incredible job today just fighting through adversity. First quarter, things was tight, second quarter same thing. I just told them at halftime, like, if we keep pushing, keep pushing, we’ll get them eventually. And today, we imposed our will on them.”

Badie totaled 146 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The performance gave him 1,385 yards on the season, which ranks third in Missouri history for a single campaign. He needs 193 yards to catch Devin West. His 17 touchdowns also have him tied for 10th in school history in points during a single season with 102.

Drinkwitz explains clock management

Missouri kicker Harrison Mevis missed his second field goal of the season when his 46-yard attempt sailed wide right at the end of the fourth quarter. The miss gave Florida the ball at its own 29-yard line with 1:04 remaining. Surprisingly, what ensued was not the Gators trying to score at the end of regulation, but Missouri.

On the first play after Mevis’ miss, Florida’s Nay’Quan Wright rushed for a loss of three yards. Mullen then decided to play for overtime, letting the clock wind below 30 seconds. That prompted Drinkwitz to call his remaining two timeouts. Missouri stopped the clock prior to Florida’s third down and 14 with 14 seconds left, then called another timeout with 11 seconds left to force a punt. Drinkwitz explained that he wanted to see whether a Florida special teams mistake (one of which had already happened) might set the Tigers up with a chance to throw a Hail Mary or give Mevis another shot at the win. He referenced Michigan State’s 2015 win over Michigan, when the Wolverines botched the snap on a punt on the game’s final play.

Ultimately, Florida got the punt away and Bazelak sent the game to overtime by taking a knee.

“We want to make them execute a special teams play,” Drinkwitz said. “So can we make them execute a punt? You all remember the Michigan-Michigan State game. And he had a punt shank earlier in the game that would put us in field goal range. So, you know, you’re just trying to see. And when we got the ball, I mean, obviously with two seconds left there was no reason to risk anything.”

Tigers honor 23 seniors

Saturday’s game was Missouri’s last at Faurot Field, which meant Missouri honored its seniors before the game. The Tigers honored 23 players, although the team roster lists five seniors who didn’t partake in the ceremony. Those players were Evans, offensive linemen Zeke Powell and Hyrin White, kickoff specialist Sean Koetting and walk-on tight end Kibet Chepyator.

Drinkwitz said on Tuesday that a handful of players would not participate in the senior day festivities because they have made the decision to use the extra season of eligibility provided to all players by the NCAA in 2020 and return to the roster in 2022. That does not appear to be the case for Evans, however. Evans announced this week he had accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl. Playing in the postseason showcase makes players ineligible to return to school. A team spokesperson said Evans declined to be honored because he went through a senior day ceremony at Tulsa last season before transferring to Missouri.

Drinkwitz also said that some players who were honored Saturday could still return to the team next season. Scholarship players with eligibility remaining who partook in the ceremony were Badie, running back Simi Bakare, slot receiver Barret Banister, Hansford, defensive tackle Ben Key, linebacker Chance May, tight end Daniel Parker Jr. and defensive back Shawn Robinson.

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