When the third quarter began to wind down, the Missouri coaches became traffic control specialists.

Up 47 points, it was time for Missouri to start emptying its benches. Perhaps overdue, even. Southeast Missouri State was not about to create a comeback. Backups began to enter the game as starters jogged off the field. It was not a significant moment for most people playing in the game or for those watching. As for the crowd, many had left by this point. Many fans at home had surely turned off the TV. While this point in the game might not mean much to many, there were a select few to whom this moment meant much more.

The players who have never played in a college football game before.

Among those were seven true freshmen such as running back Anthony Watkins, safety Jalani Williams and quarterback Connor Bazelak. None burned their redshirts, however. They have to play in more than four games to use up a year of eligibility.

Watkins was given six carries, which he turned into 19 rushing yards. Bazelak took the last 19 snaps of the game, replacing Taylor Powell at quarterback after Powell had already entered the game to give starter Kelly Bryant a break late in the third quarter.

Bazelak didn’t complete a pass, but he did finish with one rushing yard. The most difficult moment came when he picked up that one rushing yard as he was trying to convert a 3rd and 13.

Despite the low stakes, the first question Bazelak’s sister asked him after the game was if he was nervous.

“I was like, ‘no, it’s not that big of a deal,’” Bazelak said. “It’s kind of who I am. I don’t really get too frazzled.”

Neither did Williams when he needed to make a play. In his debut, when he had to make a tackle to stop Geno Hess from gaining any more than the 11 yards Hess had already picked up, Williams made the stop. Williams called that tackle, fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of the game, a milestone in his career.

“I had been preparing myself for that moment,” Williams said. “With the guys and my teammates to make me better for that moment. It was pretty fun. I can’t wait to get in there more.”

As the opponents become tougher, the less opportunities there will be for young guys buried on the depth chart to get playing time. Of course, strong performances in practice can quickly change that if the coaching staff decides they want to shuffle up the lineup.

At the very least, several players had a chance to realize their dreams of playing college football while getting some experience, even if it came in moments that didn’t greatly impact the game.

“I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life,” Williams said. “To have the chance to play in front of all those people, it was nice.”

Linebackers becoming ballhawks

The Missouri linebackers might have to be careful. People might start confusing them with wide receivers and returners if they keep up their recent touchdown production.

Over the past two games, a Tiger linebacker has snagged an interception then returned it for a touchdown. Both Nick Bolton and Cale Garrett have shown off their hands and return skills.

“I told them, ‘You guys are stealing picks from me, man,’” cornerback DeMarkus Acy said. “‘You guys are clogging up that middle.’ But can’t be nothing but proud for those guys. Back to back pick sixes from linebackers, that’s pretty scary.”

It’s something both he and Missouri would be happy to see become a weekly occurrence.

Bennett Durando contributed to this report.

  • Nick Kelly is a Missouri football reporter for the Columbia Missourian. A native of Minneapolis, Minn., he is studying magazine writing and business. Previously, he covered sports for The Boston Globe, Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic.

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