How Tennessee presents an opportunity for Mizzou's offense to shine
Through four games this season, most of the focus on Missouri football has swirled around its defense, and rightfully so. The Tigers' starting defenders have struggled to stop offenses not named Southeast Missouri State.
Missouri's next opponent has a defense that hasn't fared much better.
Tennessee has allowed 79 points combined in its two most challenging games thus far, against Florida and Pittsburgh. That's just the kind of defense Missouri's offense, specifically quarterback Connor Bazelak, needs to face.
Bazelak is coming off a two-interception game against Boston College. This includes the final play of the game where the Eagles sealed the win in overtime.
"I don't mind the decision at all," Bazelak said Wednesday. "They disguised the coverage well. I thought it was man."
Bazelak said he doesn't dwell on that throw because he can't take it back. That mentality will benefit him the most this weekend at Faurot Field.
Not only does Bazelak have a chance to be much better Saturday against Tennessee, but the UT defense has matchups the redshirt sophomore can exploit.
The Vols aren't in a set base defense like Steve Wilks has for Missouri. Instead of operating mostly out of a nickel defense, Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks told a Knoxville sports radio show he'll have different alignments to operate out of.
Banks goes back and forth between three and four down linemen to give his defense some versatility, too. But different plays work against different alignments, and that's where Bazelak's intuition comes into play.
It's been nearly a calendar year since Bazelak cemented himself as Missouri's starting quarterback at Tennessee in 2020. In the year since, he's been at the epicenter of Missouri's expectations.
"I was all new for me. I was still earning the respect and trust from my receivers and offensive linemen," Bazelak said. "I'm a different person and quarterback."
Having the playbook down allows him to recognize what plays will work and when. That will be significant against Tennessee, which is a defense that struggles against the pass.
In the two games the Vols have played against Power Five teams, they've given up six passing touchdowns and 523 passing yards combined.
The best quarterback Tennessee has played is Pitt's Kenny Pickett, who has thrown for 1,342 yards, 15 touchdowns and just one interception. Florida's Emory Jones is a better player than Pickett, as the Vols couldn't contain his running ability, but has struggled more as a passer, throwing five interceptions in four games.
Still, even Jones completed 77.8% of his passes against Tennessee.
Bazelak is a better quarterback than Pickett, as he's faced better competition thus far, throwing for an average of 300 yards per game this season. Pickett has also played 0-4 UMass and FCS Colonial Athletic Association team New Hampshire.
Pickett was able to find holes in Tennessee's zone coverage for first downs. That's how Missouri broke one of its biggest plays against Boston College.
Facing a zone coverage on a third-and-8 in the fourth quarter, trailing by a field goal, Bazelak found receiver Tauskie Dove for a first down. Dove then turned that second play of the fourth quarter into a 40-yard gain.
It was a play that worked perfectly against the zone, thanks to receiver JJ Hester running a route that took the top off the defense and allowed Dove to sit past the first-down marker between the cornerback and safety's zone.
"I believe it was some type of zone," Dove said Wednesday. "JJ has a seam route, I have a dig to get that safety out of there, and that's what happened. Once I caught the ball, it was catch and run."
Dove's catch and run set up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Tennessee also plays different zone defenses, which Dove will have a chance to exploit Saturday, too.
It will also help that Bazelak and the offense should get more chances with the football this Saturday compared to last weekend.
The Vols have run an average of just over 75 plays per game through four games this year. That contrast will be a boon in Missouri's favor.
"It's hard to get into a rhythm," Bazelak said of how Boston College controlled the time of possession. "You've got to make the most of your possessions and score touchdowns. It's definitely a lot different this week."
Bazelak still needs to be able to read the UT defense to advance the ball and keep a rhythm, but that's not as important as avoiding plays or mistakes that can halt that momentum.
Missouri did a good job of avoiding negative plays against Boston College, as the Tigers scored on its final three drives of the game. But MU had two drives in the first half that were interrupted by a holding penalty and a timeout after a 1-yard gain.
Furthermore, the offensive line didn't allow a sack against BC. After giving up three sacks to start the season, the MU offensive line hasn't allowed one in two games. That's a sure-fire way to avoid negative plays.
"You always want to keep your quarterback clean," senior offensive lineman Hyrin White said. "Going into the next game, there's not much that's going to change. That's our goal, and that's what we've got to do."
Much has been made about Missouri's disappointing start to the 2021 season. Even though losses are rarely, if ever, positive, the Tigers are 2-2 after losing to two 4-0 teams.
That hasn't shaken the confidence of the starting quarterback, who can come full circle from a newly minted starter at Tennessee in 2020 to the full-fledged starter he's become in hosting Tennessee in 2021.
Bazelak's confidence has also helped him keep perspective this year.
"We're two plays away from being 4-0," Bazelak said. "We know that we're good and that we can beat anyone."
Chris Kwiecinski is the sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, overseeing University of Missouri and Boone County sports coverage. Follow him on Twitter @OchoK_ and contact him at CKwiecinsk@gannett.com or 435-414-3261.