Commentary: Drinkwitz opens the door to a QB change
Before we get into the whole thing about how it happened and what it means, let’s just tell you what Eli Drinkwitz said about it. “It” being the decision to change his starting quarterback by choice for the first time all year.
Connor Bazelak had thrown his second interception of the game with 5:16 to play and Missouri leading South Carolina 31-21. The Gamecocks took 44 seconds to turn that into a touchdown to make it 31-28 with 4:32 to go. Missouri was getting the ball back. What did Drinkwitz tell the embattled quarterback he’s stuck by all year long even as fans begged him not to?
“We’re going with Brady (Cook).”
For the first time since taking over the starting job midway through game two of the 2020 season, Bazelak was being yanked for performance. He had not finished the Vanderbilt game and he had sat the Georgia game, but that was for health. This wasn’t about health. He had played 55 1/2 minutes. He didn’t get hit on the interception. He could have played. So why didn’t he?
“I felt like we were going to need the quarterback run, and Connor was just not, wasn't moving the way I wanted him to,” Drinkwitz said. “And that last pick — just, you know, we needed somebody who could be able to be a threat with his legs, and after that last holding call or whatever it was, it was a nice job of Brady getting us back in a position to get a manageable third down.”
So that’s what the Missouri coach said about making the move to redshirt freshman Brady Cook, who had played all of 48 snaps prior to taking over on the most important drive of Missouri’s season.
First off, I don’t really buy that explanation. Just two weeks before, Drinkwitz had put Tyler Macon in a game against Vanderbilt in a very similar situation when Bazelak got hurt. He called that decision situational. Three days later, he expanded on it.
“The last drive, four-minute offense, that was gonna be more of what we were wanting to do, maybe have the quarterback run element, which Brady actually does run the ball pretty well too,” Drinkwitz said then. “Had it been a different situation maybe Brady is more comfortable in some of the other schemes that we have, we would have put him in the game, but the schemes we were running right there, I think that was the best player for those schemes.”
So, basically, Macon is a better runner and that’s why he played against Vanderbilt. But in the last two weeks, has Cook become a better runner? If Macon played then because he is a better runner and you needed a better runner on Saturday, why didn’t Macon play on Saturday?
“Going into the game, I had prepared, I knew I couldn't prepare all three quarterbacks to play,” Drinkwitz said. “Connor was able to practice, and so I knew I couldn't get all three ready, so I went with more of a Connor and Brady game plan going into it, and so that's what it was.”
I mean…maybe? I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt there. Cook was prepared for this specific game, Macon wasn’t. That’s fine. We’ll go with it. And we’ll go with it because that part doesn’t really matter to me. Whether it was Macon or Cook isn’t the thing. The thing is that it wasn’t Bazelak. And the question I have tonight is, will it ever be Bazelak again?
I want to get a couple disclaimers out there before we dive into that. First of all, we know the quarterback always gets too much credit and too much blame. And if Mookie Cooper doesn’t fumble inside the South Carolina 30 with Missouri driving to add to a 31-14 lead a few minutes earlier, we maybe never even get to the point of having this discussion. But he did and we are.
Second, it is possible to pull your starting quarterback and go back to him. In week four, Auburn was trailing Georgia State 24-12 at halftime and Bryan Harsin pulled Bo Nix in favor of T.J. Finley. Finley led the Tigers to a 34-24 comeback win that included a miraculous touchdown pass on fourth down and game. Nix got his job back the next week and was spectacular in a 24-19 win at LSU and also beat ranked teams Arkansas and Ole Miss over the next month. So it’s possible. Simply because Bazelak got benched doesn’t mean he never gets his job back.
But let’s go back to what Drinkwitz said after the game: “And that last pick — just, you know, we needed somebody who could be able to be a threat with his legs…”
It’s not what he said. It’s what he didn’t say. “That last pick,” Drinkwitz started before switching the train of thought. You can finish that sentence however you want to: That last pick was awful. That last pick was the one thing he couldn’t do. That last pick made me think he wasn’t going to win this game for us. That last pick changed the way I look at the quarterback position on this team. I think those things are all applicable.
Facing third and six from the 17-yard line, Missouri had just called a timeout. The one thing Bazelak can’t do—the ONLY thing—is turn the ball over. A sack isn’t great, but it’s fine. An incomplete pass stops the clock, but doesn’t kill you. Literally the only thing he can’t do is throw an interception. Now, I’ll give the quarterback just a little bit of leeway in asking why his head coach is throwing the ball there to begin with. Your running back is your best player and even if he can’t get six yards the clock runs and you punt the ball and South Carolina has to go probably 60 yards to make it 31-28. But you've got to trust your quarterback that has now started 20 college football games to not do the one thing he can't afford to do. Bazelak threw the pick and South Carolina had to go 14 yards and it took exactly three plays.
And in came Cook.
It was the right move. I don’t think there’s any question about it. But not because Cook can run better than Bazelak, even though he can. It’s because Bazelak has thrown nine interceptions in the last five games he has played against Power Five competition. Yes, he’s a statue who was out there with a hamstring injury and the defense isn’t scared of the run, but the one thing he had done really well through his first 14 starts—not lose you games—is the thing he has started to do in the last six weeks. This was a game you couldn’t lose. And at that time, Eli Drinkwitz didn’t trust his starting quarterback not to lose it.
Again, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible Bazelak gets his job back next week against Florida. Cook made smart decisions and ran out the final 4:32 of the clock without South Carolina getting to touch the ball again. But he never threw a pass and he didn’t do anything that tells you he should absolutely be Missouri’s starting quarterback going forward.
But Cook did what was asked of him. He didn't beat Missouri. And because of that, I'm not sure Bazelak gets the job back. In the seconds after Drinkwitz made it, the decision to go with Cook looked to me like one you can’t reverse. It looked like one that said the head coach had lost trust in his starting quarterback. All year he’s said he will play the guy who gives him the best chance to win the game. With four-and-a-half minutes to play in a game he absolutely had to win, he no longer thought that guy was Bazelak.
His approach didn’t change when asked about it after the game.
“I’ll sit down tomorrow and evaluate the tape and look at it to see who gives us the best chance to win,” Drinkwitz said. “Who’s playing the best, who gives us the best chance to win.”
All year, that guy has been Bazelak. Drinkwitz has stood by him without wavering. He wavered on Saturday. We can’t say for sure that Bazelak lost the starting job. If he doesn’t start against Florida, we’ll say it for sure. It’s going to be an interesting decision. While fans have wanted a quarterback change for a while, the coach had never agreed. He agreed on Saturday. And that changes everything.