KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It was a tough day for Missouri football in the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Tigers attempted to overcome uphill battles of their own against No. 21 Tennessee on Saturday, but Neyland Stadium proved to be comfortable air for the Volunteers in their 35-12 victory as they held Missouri’s offense mostly in check.
"There were times I thought we were clicking pretty good," Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz said of his offense. "I thought Damon Hazelton did a really nice job getting open and Connor (Bazelak) and him had a connection. We were running the ball well, we were converting on third downs. (There’s) flashes, but there's just not the consistency right now, and I’ve got to start and take a look in the mirror first."
Missouri is 0-2 for the first time since 1996, Larry Smith’s third season at the Missouri helm, in large part due to its offense not clicking. The Tigers have only scored 31 points through two games, with all touchdowns coming in the closing minutes of the third quarter or later against Tennessee and Alabama.
Larry Rountree, Tyler Badie and Connor Bazelak are responsible for scoring a touchdown each. True freshman kicker Harrison Mevis is the team’s leading scorer, responsible for 13 points, going 4-for-4 on field goals with an extra point last week.
Mevis’ second-quarter, 50-yard field goal was the first by a Missouri true freshman since Jeff Jacke in 1988.
With Drinkwitz coming to Columbia last December with his offensive prowess in mind, the fact that Mevis — regardless of how talented he is — is the Tigers’ leading scorer isn’t a positive sign for the MU offense.
It portrays a team in flux, which could be shielded by saying that it’s only their second game in a pandemic-shortened season.
Well, a fifth of their 2020 regular season is now also over.
There was no cupcake game this year to have Missouri successfully run through the motions of what its offense could be. If the Tigers are going to figure out how to display a stout offense, they’ll have to do it against the Southeastern Conference.
"We’ve got to execute," Drinkwitz said. "Tricks aren't winning in the SEC. "You’ve got to execute. ... We can try to trick people all we want, and we have unique formations that caused them issues. That's what happened on the fourth down when we hit Logan (Christopherson). But we’ve got to execute better. That's the solution."
Missouri’s offensive line is still trying to find synergy. Last week, Zeke Powell played every snap at left tackle. This week, Bobby Lawrence played every play in that spot. All four other starters against Alabama also played against the Volunteers.
The Tigers haven’t found a solid replacement for Albert Okwuegbunam and have used a trio of tight ends in place of the current Denver Bronco.
Missouri has plenty of talented wide receivers, but with its seven dropped passes against Tennessee — some on critical plays or would-be touchdowns — the Tigers’ aerial efforts have been largely grounded.
Major decisions have to be made at quarterback, with Shawn Robinson’s promise against Alabama but inefficiency on Saturday.
Bazelak’s jolt to the offense in relief leaves Drinkwitz with an interesting choice heading into Missouri’s Week 3 matchup against LSU.
Missouri’s running backs are in an interesting position, too, as they have a lot of experience but are limited by the pitfalls from other groups.
Against Tennessee, Larry Rountree had 84 yards on 18 carries and a third-quarter touchdown. He’s now 55 yards away from fourth place on Missouri’s all-time rushing list and tied for seventh all-time at MU in rushing touchdowns (27), tying Brock Olivo.
"Close is not good enough," Rountree said of the offense’s potential. "In this business, there is no close. There’s either you won or you lost. Close ain’t good enough. So I just feel right now we'll know when we win. Obviously, every game is not perfect. But right now, we just got to focus on not inflicting wounds on ourselves and we’ll be fine."
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