Commentary: The gap has gotten bigger
All offseason, Eli Drinkwitz talked about “closing the gap.” It was even posted on signs in the Mizzou football facility. Seven games into Drinkwitz’s second season, the only gap that has been closed is the one between Mizzou and Vanderbilt as the Southeastern Conference’s least competitive program.
Don’t let the score on Saturday fool you. The final tally was Texas A&M 35, Missouri 14. The game was not nearly that close and featured exactly zero seconds in the final 52 minutes where it appeared Missouri had a chance to make it close.
Most came into this season knowing the Tigers didn’t have the talent to topple the top dogs in the league. Almost nobody expected a division title. Win as many as you lose, make a minor bowl, put some bricks on the foundation. Those were the expectations. They were reasonable and relatively minimal. Mizzou fans were looking for a starter house, not a mansion.
The expectations haven’t been met. The Tigers are no closer to the top than they were two years ago. They might be closer to the bottom, though.
Missouri’s SEC opener came in week two against Kentucky. The Tigers went on the road and scratched and clawed against a better team till the final whistle, falling 35-28 to a Kentucky team that entered this weekend undefeated and pointed directly toward its best season in seven full decades. Since then, the Tigers have been outscored 97-38 in SEC play. That includes 49-3 in the first quarter. It’s not that games against Tennessee and Texas A&M were losses. It’s that Missouri hasn’t even made it to the end of the first quarter before crushing the hope of the fans under a torrent of turnovers, penalties and gaping holes in the defense. Throw in the Kentucky game, which was actually respectable, and Mizzou has a 94-31 deficit in the first half of conference games.
The Tennessee game was hard to explain. It was as uncompetitive as Missouri had looked in a game against an average opponent since 2017 against Purdue. But at the time you thought it could be written off to a bad day at a bad time. And it could have been had Mizzou not done it again on Saturday.
Texas A&M is a solid team, don’t get me wrong. Maybe better than solid. The Aggies just beat Alabama last weekend and it’s entirely possible they overcame some early season woes, had a backup quarterback get comfortable and will look like one of the country’s better teams in the second half of the season. But nothing from Saturday showed me proof of that. Just about any scholarship player in the country could have run through the holes being blown in Missouri’s defense and just about any scholarship defensive player could have caught the passes Connor Bazelak was floating into the arms of the Aggie defenders rather than his own receivers.
I’m not going to pretend I know what the solution is. Honestly, I don’t even know exactly what the problem is. Missouri doesn’t have enough talent, but it has more than this. The defensive scheme almost certainly has some issues, but it can’t be this awful. Steve Wilks didn’t rise to the level of NFL defensive coordinator and head coach by not understanding football and running a fundamentally broken system.
The Tigers came into Saturday with a chance to do what A&M did last week: Save their season. This was the Tigers’ last real chance to beat someone they shouldn’t, earn a statement win and maybe get this thing pointed back to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl or something similar. Instead, they looked unprepared, uninspired and uncompetitive until it was too late to matter.
The leash has been incredibly long for Drinkwitz in his first 22 months on the job. Even after the embarrassment against Tennessee, much of the blame was being cast toward Barry Odom or the fans or the deer that are suddenly in much more peril over the next few fall Saturdays because of the Memorial Stadium tickets that will go unused.
Not after today. Something is broken with this football team.
I don’t know what it is. I spend 20 minutes a week in the football facility, for Drinkwitz’s Tuesday media address. We get to see about half an hour of practice. I can’t tell you what’s wrong. All I can tell you is that the product I’ve seen in the last three weeks is far, far below what the level of talent says it should be. Missouri isn’t the most talented team in the country, but it should never look like it’s looked in its last two SEC games.
It’s not just the raw defensive numbers: 458 rushing to Tennessee, 305 passing to North Texas, 495 on average total no matter who they’re playing. It’s that Missouri isn’t even making the other team work for the numbers. On third and 15, Devon Achane ran for a 20-yard touchdown on which no Missouri player did so much as touch him. The Tigers might give up 21 in a game of two-hand touch. Third and long seems to be no more an annoyance than a fly that can be shooed away with a brush of the back of a hand.
It’s easy to focus on the defense and that side of the ball has earned every bit of scorn it has endured, but let’s not let the Missouri offense off the hook either. The Tigers don’t stress the opponent on that side of the ball all that much more than they do defensively. Connor Bazelak was intercepted twice in the first half and avoided a third interception only due to a defensive penalty on the Aggies. He averaged 5.35 yards per attempt, a number that was buoyed by some second half completions when the Aggies were perfectly content to let Mizzou plod its way down the field for a while. Outside of the weekly Tyler Badie highlight, there’s no evidence of a dynamic playmaker wearing black and gold and Badie ain’t walking back through that door next season.
Drinkwitz had so little faith in his offense that after taking over on his own 18-yard line with 1:28 left to go in the first half he called two running plays followed by two passes to his running back. Despite having three timeouts.
On top of not being very good on offense or defense, Mizzou piled up six penalties for 53 yards in the first half that either killed their own drives or extended A&M’s. They extended the Aggies’ second drive of the third quarter with a takedown that was kindly termed defensive holding. For good measure, they threw in a well-after-the-whistle-while-you’re-down-three-touchdowns personal foul in the fourth quarter. By the end of the day it was 13 flags for 106 yards. So you can add undisciplined to the long list of “uns” for Mizzou as the second half of the season starts.
To have any idea how to begin to climb out of this hole, you have to figure out how the hole got so deep. I don’t have that answer. There’s no logical reason it should be as bad as it’s been. It’s far past the point it can all be laid at Barry Odom’s feet or even at Steve Wilks’ or on a simple lack of talent. Had you laid out the worst case scenario for this Mizzou season two months ago, it wouldn’t have looked this bad. This looks like a broken team. Eli Drinkwitz is charged with rebuilding it. We’ll see if he knows how.