When Missouri plays South Carolina in the Mayor’s Cup on Saturday, the Tigers will end a lengthy layoff with their first game since a Halloween loss to Florida.
Quarterback Connor Bazelak said the 21-day break will be the longest in-season break he’s ever had, and he probably isn’t alone. Missouri will play for the first time this November when it suits up against the Gamecocks at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network Alternate.
That near-month layoff has left some rust, and limited players available because of injuries and COVID-19 testing and contact tracing have meant less physical practices because the team doesn’t have the depth to withstand injuries.
“We haven’t hit. I mean, our offensive line hasn’t blocked and had full contact since the Florida game,” Bazelak said. “So I think it’s just kind of focusing in on that in practice, trying to get that situated. And I think that’s the biggest thing, just physical receivers blocking, running backs taking hits, me taking hits. I just haven’t had it in a while.”
The time off came because of Missouri’s bye Nov. 7 and its second postponement of the season because of COVID-19. The Tigers’ game against Georgia, originally scheduled for Nov. 14, was postponed because Missouri fell under the Southeastern Conference threshold for scholarship defensive linemen after COVID contact tracing.
Missouri is back on the field this week, but it will be missing players because of injuries and COVID-related absences. After the midweek transfer of receiver Dominic Gicinto, the Tigers had 54 players available. Drinkwitz announced on his radio show Thursday that the Tigers were down to 53 scholarship players after a player was downgraded to out from questionable. The SEC’s scholarship player threshold is 53 players.
Missouri has added positional depth by cross-training players at different positions, including backup center Drake Heismeyer practicing on the interior defensive line. Coach Eliah Drinkwitz said Tuesday that some wide receivers were practicing at defensive back. The team will also play its ninth different offensive lineman of the season when Luke Griffin gets the start at left guard.
“I’ve probably repped and listed more guys on a depth chart day-to-day this season than probably all together in my previous career,” special teams coordinator Erik Link said. “It’s been that much of a puzzle with moving parts.”
Despite the Tigers’ precarious position, their opponent’s situation is even more dire. South Carolina fired coach Will Muschamp on Sunday and made offensive coordinator Mike Bobo interim head coach. Bobo will finish the season with a depleted roster after injuries and opt-outs. Three of South Carolina’s starting defensive backs, safety R.J. Roderick and corners Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu, opted out of the season this week. The Gamecocks have had running back Zaquandre White transition to safety, and he could play some snaps there Saturday.
Defensive end Aaron Sterling and linebacker Brad Johnson are also out for the season with injuries, so a Gamecocks defense giving up an average of 36.7 points per game will be down at least five starters against the Tigers.
That should bode well for a Missouri offense that struggled during its last outing against Florida. The Tigers had only 248 total yards and didn’t score an offensive point until the fourth quarter. After two straight impressive starts, Bazelak came back to earth with a 26-for-40 performance with 208 yards and two turnovers. The first was a fumble on a botched handoff that was credited to running back Tyler Badie, and Bazelak later fumbled while being sacked in the fourth quarter.
Bazelak has had a couple of extra weeks to continue to develop and adapt to Missouri’s new offense. Drinkwitz had Bazelak split reps with Shawn Robinson in the preseason quarterback battle while getting extra reps with the backups to accelerate his development. A couple of extra weeks of practice could help Missouri’s quarterback of the present and future continue to accelerate that process.
Missouri will be a 6½-point favorite Saturday, and even with its absences from injuries and COVID, a South Carolina team in transition should be a relatively easy target. If Missouri can take advantage of what is one of the worst defenses it’ll face this season, then it shouldn’t have a problem. If it struggles to score, it would be a rough look for an offense that has had weeks to prepare, and the game could get interesting against a South Carolina offense that has struggled under new quarterback Collin Hill.
The Tigers should come away with a victory in a game that offers an opportunity for the team to regain some momentum after its blowout loss to Florida.