Missouri’s offense had a 20-day break between its last two games, but it didn’t miss a beat in the first half.
The Tigers got out to a 17-0 lead in the first half and were a red zone interception by quarterback Connor Bazelak from scoring on four of their first six drives and taking a commanding four-score lead.
But once the clock struck zero in the first half, the Missouri offense turned into a pumpkin, with only 89 yards and five punts in the second half.
“In the first half, we were making plays, making explosive plays, going down the field and scoring in the red zone,” running back Larry Rountree III said. “But when we got in the second half, it was a little different. We came out a little sluggish.”
The first-half performance was enough because Missouri’s defense was up to the challenge without three starting defensive lineman and its defensive coordinator. Devin Nicholson finished off the Gamecocks and one of the defense’s most impressive games of the season with an interception with 53 seconds left to seal a 17-10 win.
In the second half, Missouri’s offense suddenly looked like a team that hadn’t played a game in three weeks, and its overall performance left a lot to be desired against a South Carolina team depleted with opt-outs.
One of the five worst Power Five pass defenses by opposing passer rating coming into the week, South Carolina shut down Bazelak and the Missouri passing game in the second half after three of the secondary’s starters opted out of the season during the week. Bazelak finished with 203 yards on 21-for-33 passing with one touchdown and one interception.
Missouri had roster issues of its own with only 52 players, so they had excuses, too. Luke Griffin was the ninth offensive lineman to start a game for Missouri after stepping in for Dylan Spencer, who was one of the 11 Missouri players unavailable Saturday.
“That’s a I-AA roster right now, and our guys are fighting and giving everything they’ve got,” Drinkwitz said.
The offensive line, without three of the team’s opening-week starters, was part of the reason the team struggled in the run game and never seemed to get consistent yardage. Missouri ran 34 times for 98 yards, only 2.9 yards per carry.
That lack of a run game put Missouri in a lot of third-down-and-medium-to-long situations. The Tigers had an average to-go distance of 7.3 yards per third-down attempt Saturday.
“Quite honestly, we couldn’t run the ball, and we weren’t very effective on third down because our pass rush, you know, their pass rush was pressuring the quarterback,” Drinkwitz said.
Bazelak and Missouri were 6-for-9 on third down in the first half but only 2-for-7 after the break.
“I think we just weren’t what we’re supposed to be when we got on third down so that made a difference,” Rountree said. “It would be third-and-4 or third-and-5, and we didn’t capitalize on that.”
Missouri’s offensive performance was enough to get it to 3-3 in this 10-game all-SEC season, giving it as many conference wins as it had last season. Missouri was 3-5 in the SEC last season.
Five conference wins would be the program’s most since it won the SEC East for the second straight season in 2014.
For Missouri to get to that point, its offense will likely have to improve. The Tigers get a chance to get some momentum against SEC bottom-feeder Vanderbilt before they travel to Starkville, Mississippi, for a Dec. 5 game against a Mississippi State team that was a late touchdown away from upsetting No. 10 Georgia on the road Saturday. Bulldogs coach Mike Leach called it the team’s best game of the season, indicating one of the coldest teams in the conference may have found some new life.
After that, Missouri faces a stingy Arkansas defense when it has a reunion with former Tigers head coach and current Razorbacks defensive coordinator Barry Odom. That game hasn’t been scheduled after it was postponed Monday. Missouri will play the Razorbacks and Georgia on undetermined dates. The Tigers currently have open dates Dec. 12 and Dec. 19.
With the team getting a chance to get game experience for the first time in three weeks and with players on the offensive line getting closer to returning to the field, signs point to Missouri getting the improvement it needs.