Not all doom and gloom in Eli Drinkwitz's opening Missouri loss to Alabama
Look, there wasn’t much reason for optimism for Missouri headed into Week 1 against No. 2 Alabama.
And yes, the Crimson Tide coasted to a 38-19 win in a game that was not nearly as close as the score suggested.
But believe it or not, the Tigers can glean a few positives from their first game as the season picks up steam and Eli Drinkwitz tries to return Missouri to a Top-25 program. After all, not only did the Tigers beat the spread, but they even “won” the second half.
The deck was stacked against Mizzou from before the opening whistle. Fewer than 70 scholarship players were available arising from opt-outs, COVID-19 positives and contact tracing. Alabama opened as a 28-point favorite, marking the biggest home underdog spread for the Tigers since they were a 28.5-point dog to a Scott Frost-led Nebraska team in 1997.
And to be fair, the first half played out about as expected, perhaps best encapsulated by the final play of the second quarter when Shawn Robinson caught his own deflected pass before throwing it out of bounds, an illegal play.
As the teams headed to the locker room, Alabama led 28-3, had outgained Missouri by more than 300 percent (315 to 103) and Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris looked unstoppable.
A fumble on Mizzou’s first possession of the second half, followed by a quick Alabama score to push the lead to 35-3, had the game trending toward a need for a rolling clock, but that’s precisely when the Tigers began playing like a worthy SEC foe and not an FCS warmup game for the Crimson Tide.
Robinson, making his first start for Missouri after transferring from TCU in 2018, dialed it up to a new level, resembling the success Drinkwitz had with dual-threat QB Zac Thomas at Appalachian State a year ago.
Robinson led the Tigers on a 17-play drive that chewed up 8:15 of the clock. That ended in only 3 points after Daniel Parker dropped a would-be touchdown, but the foundation for what the Drinkwitz offense could be was laid.
In the second half, Robinson was 11-of-12 for 128 yards. He connected on a 54-yard wheel route to Tyler Badie on the next series for the first touchdown of the Drinkwitz era. Many believed that the new head coach would go with Robinson over Connor Bazelak as the starter for his dual-threat capabilities and better ability to run an uptempo scheme, and as the game went on, it looked more and more like the correct decision.
— Parker Rehm (@parker_rehm) September 27, 2020
Yes, there was the major caveat that the second-half success was contingent on playing against Alabama’s second-string defense, but if we’re being honest, many of the last guys on the Tide depth chart could be starters at other conference programs.
Also encouraging on the offensive side was the play of running back Larry Rountree and the return to his 2018 form following a disappointing 2019.
The scoreline dictated that the senior could carry it only 14 times for 67 yards, but 4.8 yards a carry against as good of a front seven as there is, and behind an inexperienced offensive line trying to replace three starters, is a feat in itself.
The Tigers defense even made hay of the second half, limiting Alabama to just 95 yards in the final two quarters and forcing a fumble that was recovered by none other than the reigning SEC tackle leader, Nick Bolton.
Alabama starting QB Mac Jones played only one series in the second half, but Nick Saban left many of the offensive starters in with freshman QB Bryce Young, including Waddle and Smith, to help the young 5-star recruit develop.
With all that said, Missouri was able to consistently generate pressure, forcing the Young fumble and even holding Alabama to just a field goal on a drive that started on the Missouri 18 after a muffed punt.
While at the end of the day a team is judged by its wins and losses, and Missouri lost by 19, things could have gone much worse.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Tigers, who play Tennessee and LSU next. But the second half of Saturday’s game should give them confidence and evidence that they can hang around just enough to not be taken lightly by the big boys of the SEC.