PowerMizzou - Fixing slow starts, penalties atop Mizzou's bye week to-do list
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Fixing slow starts, penalties atop Mizzou's bye week to-do list

The first seven weeks of the football season has represented a reality check for the Missouri fanbase. Second-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz injected energy and charisma into the program when he replaced Barry Odom following the 2019 season. When he went 5-5 against all SEC competition and signed the nation’s No. 20 class last year, excitement for the 2022 campaign reached levels not seen at Missouri since 2015.

After the Tigers’ latest loss, a 35-14 defeat at the hands of Texas A&M last week, Drinkwitz acknowledged that the expectations might have gotten a little bit out of whack with reality. The loss dropped Missouri to 3-4 on the season and 0-3 in SEC play. The Tigers will almost certainly have to pull off an upset in order to reach bowl eligibility.

After the game, Drinkwitz said he was disappointed by the start to the season but maintained this is “part of the building process.”

“I realize maybe last year we probably overachieved, and so everybody assumed that those expectations would meet this year,” he said. “It hasn’t gone that way, you know. It just hasn’t. But that’s part of the process. And, again, I've said this before. I wish success was always linear. There’s fight, there’s wrestling, there's good days and bad days, and that's what we're trying to do. You know, I'm trying to establish a culture, trying to recruit great players, and we can't skip steps. And I would have liked to. I thought maybe we could have, and maybe I got the fanbase too excited and thought maybe we could skip that step. We can't. We can't skip a step.”

Drinkwitz and his staff made a big move toward restoring the optimism around the program earlier this week when Luther Burden, the nation’s No. 1 wide receiver, committed to Missouri. A good next step would be showing some strides on the field over the final five contests. Here are five key areas where the Tigers will look to improve during this week’s bye.

Missouri has started 0-3 against SEC play in Eli Drinkwitz's second season.
Missouri has started 0-3 against SEC play in Eli Drinkwitz's second season. (J. Prather/USA Today)

1. Eliminate the slow starts.

Not only has Missouri failed to win any of its three SEC contests, the Tigers have never held a lead against a league opponent. In fact, they’ve trailed for 171 minutes, 45 seconds out of a possible 180 minutes in the three contests. They’ve been outscored 63-10 across the three first quarters, combined, including 49-3 in the two past league games.

Quite simply, Missouri has dug itself into cavernous holes at the start of each SEC matchup and has been unable to recover. A few factors go into fixing that. The most obvious one is the team’s mindset when it takes the field. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, both wide receiver Keke Chism and offensive lineman Case Cook said playing with intensity from the opening kickoff has been a point of emphasis during practice this week.

“Just looking at the first half of the season, we’ve been outscored a lot in the first quarter,” Chism said. “So, I mean, for us, this whole week is just kind of getting that intensity going early on in practice, just to emphasize how critical it is to start fast, especially in this league. Once you fall behind, it’s kind of hard to fight back into the game. So emphasizing the early phases of practice, hoping that will carry over toward starting fast in the game.”

Self-inflicted errors have also been a theme of Missouri’s slow starts. On the SEC coaches’ teleconference Wednesday, Drinkwitz noted that each of the three slow starts have featured costly turnovers, penalties or both.

At Kentucky, the Wildcats’ second drive got a free 15 yards thanks to a personal foul penalty on the Missouri defense. Still, the possession looked like it would end short of the end zone, but a pass interference flag on Kris Abrams-Draine turned a third down into first and goal from the two-yard line. Quarterback Connor Bazelak threw an interception late in the first quarter against Tennessee, which the Volunteers returned to the Missouri one-yard line. They scored the next play, extending their lead to 28-3. Both issues reared their heads against Texas A&M. Missouri’s first drive of the game got derailed by an illegal shift penalty, which wiped out a long completion. Bazelak threw a pick the following play. Later in the quarter, a pass interference flag on Shawn Robinson kept an Aggie drive alive on third down, and Bazelak threw a second pick.

“Turnovers have played a big issue in not providing good field position for our defense,” Drinkwitz said. “I think that’s been key. And then penalties on drives. We’ve had multiple penalties on our first drives in the two SEC games that have derailed drives and/or led to turnovers, and those cannot happen.”

2. Clean up penalties.

It hasn’t only been early in games that flags have proven costly for Missouri, particularly in the past three weeks. The Tigers were flagged 13 times for 106 yards against Texas A&M, both of which represented the highest mark of Drinkwitz’s tenure. The team also drew seven penalties for 65 yards against North Texas and nine for 97 against Tennessee.

Decreasing the number of flags has been another point of emphasis this week. The staff has placed a particular emphasis on holding and pass interference. Missouri has been called for offensive holding 15 times so far this season and defensive pass interference six times.

“I think it’s a conscientious effort to understand that you cannot play with hands outside,” Drinkwitz said. “If you’re an offensive player and the play is going away from you, you’ve got to let go of the cloth of the defender. You can’t have — when the ball is in the air, you have to look back at the football. Face-guarding is going to be pass interference just about every time. So those are things that you can continue to teach and continue to drill.”

Cook is at least optimistic that the team will cut down on the number of fouls following the bye.

“We gotta play cleaner football, no doubt about it,” he said. “We’ve hurt ourselves too much with penalties. … So just putting that point of emphasis, like, penalties hurt us in a lot of ways, so every time we get a penalty, it’s going to cost us. So having that being a point of emphasis this week has been really good for us, I think, and you can see the difference on the practice field so far this week.”

3. Slow down the run.

The biggest issue for Missouri this season has been its utter inability to slow down opposing rushing attacks. Steve Wilks’ unit has not just struggled against the run, it’s been the worst in the country.

Missouri is allowing opponents to average 287.6 yards per game on the ground and 6.17 yards per attempt. Those numbers increase to 339.3 yards per contest and 6.72 per rush against Power Five competition. Opponents have been able to use the ground game to put together long scoring drives against the Tigers and to generate explosive plays. Missouri ranks last nationally in rushing plays allowed of 10 yards per more (the 67 such plays given up by the Tigers is 14 more than the second-worst team) and tied for last in runs allowed of 20-plus yards.

There doesn’t appear to be a simple solution. Missouri has tried mixing and matching personnel among its front six and aligning additional defenders in the box. Drinkwitz also fired first-year defensive line coach Jethro Franklin following the team’s loss to Tennessee in Week Five. But Texas A&M still mustered 283 yards on the ground last week.

Linebacker Chad Bailey said Wednesday that he feels the defense is “getting there.” He said the unit is using the bye week to shore up fundamentals like tackling and gap responsibility.

“I’ve just been telling the team that we need to improve tackling,” Bailey said. “The biggest thing for us is tackling. If we get dudes on the ground, it’ll be a better turnout for the defense. You know, being accountable, staying in your gaps. Just doing your job.”

4. Create more room for Badie.

Missouri tailback Tyler Badie has totaled more than 1,000 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns during Missouri's first seven games.
Missouri tailback Tyler Badie has totaled more than 1,000 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns during Missouri's first seven games. (Denny Medley/USA Today)

One of the few pleasant surprises for Missouri during the first seven weeks of this season has been tailback Tyler Badie. Badie had flashed his big-play ability during his first three college seasons, but he always served as a change-of-pace option behind starter Larry Rountree III. With Rountree off to the NFL, Badie has emerged as a three-down threat for the Tigers, yet he’s still maintained his explosiveness.

So far this season, Badie has touched the ball 158 times. That average of 22.6 touches per game is actually more than Rountree received last season. Yet Badie is averaging a career-high 5.9 yards per carry to go along with 8.3 yards per catch. He’s scored 13 of Missouri’s 31 touchdowns on the year, with at least one score in each game.

“Our strength is our running back,” Drinkwitz said. “Trying to find as many different ways to give Tyler Badie the ball is our greatest strength.”

Drinkwitz believes Badie could be even more effective if he can get some better blocking. Missouri has struggled to run the ball against Power Five opponents so far this season. The Tigers have feasted against lesser competition, averaging 249.3 yards per game and 6.86 yards per carry against FCS or Group of Five opponents, but in four games against Power Five teams, those numbers dip drastically to 91.0 yards per game and 3.40 per carry. For Drinkwitz’s entire tenure, success on the ground has strongly correlated with success overall. Since he took over, Missouri is averaging 217.8 rushing yards in wins compared to 80.2 in losses.

Drinkwitz specifically said his offense hasn’t been able to take advantage when presented with a favorable number of defenders in the box this season. That, in turn, has made Bazelak’s job more difficult, as Missouri hasn’t forced opposing defenses to play the run, which would result in more one-on-one matchups for receivers. The line will have to improve its run blocking without its most experienced member on the field for the rest of this season, as the team announced Thursday that Cook will miss the remainder of the season with an unspecified injury.

“I think a big thing that goes into it is just fundamentals and technique,” Cook said. “Having tight hands on a guy, running your feet, having a willingness to move a guy out of a hole or to win on your combo blocks. So I think that’s something we take personal responsibility in, obviously, being an o-line. ... And he’s absolutely right. We’ve got a favorable box, we have to win, no doubt.”

5. Get Bazelak going again.

Given Missouri’s struggles running the ball against Power Five opponents and stopping the run against anybody, a lot has been asked of Bazelak. The second-year starter has been solid for much of the season, but he’s struggled with ball security and seen his efficiency wane a bit during the past three weeks.

Bazelak turned heads with his accuracy last season. He only threw six interceptions across 10 games, three of them coming in the season finale against Mississippi State. So far this year, he’s thrown nine interceptions, all of them coming during Missouri’s losses.

Bazelak has also seen his production slow as the season has progressed. Across the first three weeks of the season, Bazelak threw nine touchdowns compared to one interception. In the past four games, he’s thrown three scores and six picks. His yards per attempt have dipped from 7.94 in the first three contests to 6.34 in the past four — including marks of 5.09 and 5.35 yards per attempt in the past two games, his two lowest figures of the season.

An inability to throw the ball downfield has long been a knock on Bazelak, and that has been particularly pronounced in the past two games. He has attempted just six passes that traveled 20 yards or more in the two games combined and completed three. His average depth of target of 4.6 yards against Texas A&M was by far the lowest of his career. After the game, wideout Tauskie Dove said the Aggie defensive backs were “sitting on” short routes, which resulted in one of Bazelak’s interceptions.

The bye week might help rejuvenate Bazelak, who looked to be limping during the second half of last week’s game. Chism said his quarterback has rebounded from the outing with his typical poise. He said Bazelak “never gets too high, never gets too low,” and that rubs off on the rest of the team. In Chism’s mind, it’s not so much Bazelak that needs to improve his play moving forward, but the rest of the offense needs to do more to ease his burden.

“We can’t put all the pressure on him, to make every big play,” Chism said. “We’ve got to take it upon ourselves to make a big play. For example, if it’s a three-yard pass, we’ve got to make a move and turn it into an explosive. Just little things like that to take the pressure off of him. It’s not all on his shoulders. I mean, we’ve got a job to do just like he does. We gotta go out there and make plays for him, make it easier for him.”

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