PowerMizzou - Notebook: Another slow start sinks Mizzou against Texas A&M
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Notebook: Another slow start sinks Mizzou against Texas A&M

All week, there was talk of Saturday representing a “trap game” for Texas A&M. Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher even used those words during his weekly press conference. With Texas A&M riding high after upsetting No. 1 Alabama last week and traveling to Columbia for an 11 a.m. kickoff, Fisher feared a sluggish start from his team.

Instead, it was the home team that took the field looking lethargic. Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak threw an interception on the team’s first possession and Texas A&M became the latest team to run through Missouri’s defense with little resistance, scoring touchdowns on its first three drives of the day. The Tigers trailed 21-0 at the end of a first quarter that head coach Eli Drinkwitz called “unacceptable.” Missouri could never climb out of the deficit, falling 35-14.

“Obviously a slow start doomed us,” Drinkwitz said. “Down 21-nothing at the end of the first quarter, could never make up that margin. Had a couple opportunities when we cut it to 14, but overall just didn't play well enough in really any of the three phases.”

Slow starts have become a theme for Missouri during its 0-3 start to SEC play. The Tigers have now trailed by at least two scores in the first quarter of all three league matchups. They’ve been outscored 63-10 in the opening period by Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas A&M combined, including a 49-3 margin in the past two contests.

Speaking to reporters shortly after the game ended, Drinkwitz couldn’t identify any common themes between the three sluggish starts. He said he’d use the Tigers’ upcoming bye week to look for recurring issues. Wide receiver Tauskie Dove said the team needs to take the field with a more aggressive mentality.

“Like from the get-go, don’t just wait and see what the opposing team has to offer or what they’re going to do,” Dove said. “We should come out from the get-go with just like a cut-throat mentality.”

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Texas A&M quarterback Zach Calzada only had to throw 25 passes as the Aggies built a 21-0 first quarter lead over Missouri and cruised to a 35-14 win.
Texas A&M quarterback Zach Calzada only had to throw 25 passes as the Aggies built a 21-0 first quarter lead over Missouri and cruised to a 35-14 win. (J. Biggerstaff/USA Today)

The problem for Missouri during the first quarter Saturday was self-inflicted errors — namely, turnovers and penalties. The Tigers’ first possession started to go sideways when an illegal shift wiped out a 16-yard completion and put the offense behind the chains. The following play, Bazelak threw a pass that sailed over the head of Dove but wide of tight end Daniel Parker Jr. and landed in the arms of Texas A&M defensive back Jaylon Jones.

“Just a missed throw,” Drinkwitz said of the play. “It looked like he was throwing the sit (route) and lifted it a little bit, and it went into the corner’s hands.”

The Aggies needed just four plays to pay off the takeaway with a touchdown, as quarterback Zach Calzada hit Ainias Smith for a two-yard touchdown. Missouri proceeded to go three-and-out on its following possession. Familiar defensive issues then reared their head, as Texas A&M running back Isaiah Spiller found a massive hole up the middle, made safety Jaylon Carlies miss and jogged into the end zone for a 48-yard touchdown.

The Tigers’ early woes continued when the offense punted once again and the defense couldn’t get off the field on third down. With Texas A&M facing third and seven, Shawn Robinson broke up a pass but got flagged for pass interference, gifting the Aggies a first down. A few plays later, Texas A&M faced third and 15 from the Missouri 20-yard line. Fisher called for a handoff, apparently content to settle for a field goal attempt. Instead, no Missouri defensive players touched Devon Achane on his way into the end zone. Shortly before the disastrous opening quarter ended, Bazelak had another pass picked off. East St. Louis native Antonio Johnson sat on a button hook route run by Dove and jumped in front of the pass before it could reach the receiver.

Just about everything went wrong for Missouri during the first 15 minutes, including the porous run defense, but Drinkwitz said the two turnovers played the biggest part in Missouri’s early deficit.

“We didn’t give them great field position with turnovers,” he said of the Tiger defense. “It’s always really difficult to go out there defensively when you don’t have the advantage of the field in front of you, you have to play everything. Run, pass, screen, everything. And so they weren’t able to just focus in on maybe stopping the run. So the first quarter, can’t turn it over twice.”

Falling behind early made the job more difficult for Missouri’s offense, as well. The Tigers needed to throw the ball more than Drinkwitz likely would have preferred in an effort to get back into the game, which made it hard to get star tailback Tyler Badie going. Badie ran for just 68 yards on 22 attempts, although he did lead Missouri in receiving and score a touchdown for the seventh game in a row.

“When you’re down, we gotta turn to the passing game,” Badie said. “So we’re trying to play catch up, it’s kind of hard. I feel like we just dug ourselves into a hole.”

Missouri showed signs of life in the second half. But the deficit proved too wide to bridge, especially when more self-induced mistakes arose.

The Tigers forced a three-and-out on Texas A&M’s first possession of the third quarter, then drove 97 yards for a score. True freshman Dominic Lovett scored the first touchdown of his college career when he took an end-around toss seven yards into the end zone, cutting the Aggie lead to 14. Missouri then looked like it might get another stop when a Martez Manuel sack resulted in a 17-yard loss. But a defensive holding call on freshman Mekhi Wingo turned second-and-27 into second-and-17. Then, on third and 17, Calzada found Smith over the middle of the field for a gain of 21.

Carlies blamed himself for the coverage lapse that led to the conversion. He acknowledged that failing to get off the field there, then watching Achane score again from one yard out a few plays later, deflated Missouri’s morale.

Drinkwitz said an inability to get off the field on third down was the defense’s fatal flaw. Texas A&M moved the chains on five of 11 third downs, with two of those conversions coming by way of penalty.

“We’ve got to do a better job stopping the run, but I think if we're not going to stop the run, we gotta do a much better on third down,” Drinkwitz said. “That was really our Achilles heel tonight. We had two first downs or third downs on (pass interference) that I can remember right off the top of my head. We had two third and over 15. … So I think third downs, we’ve got to improve there.”

Texas A&M would protect its 35-14 lead for the entire fourth quarter. Afterward, Drinkwitz preached a familiar sermon, saying his team didn’t play well enough to win, but it showed fight, and the loss doesn’t have to define the season.

As Missouri enters its idle week, he characterized a disappointing first seven weeks of the season as “part of the building process.”

“Look, I realize maybe last year we probably overachieved, and so everybody assumed that those expectations would meet this year,” Drinkwitz said. “It hasn’t gone that way. 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. And we're still fighting.

“I thought today, the first quarter was unacceptable, but I thought the fight that our team showed was good. And that's what I tell recruits, our team’s fighting. We gotta continue to recruit at a high level, and we have to continue to develop the players that we have and continue to reinforce them with the recruits.”

Conservative play-calling draws boos

Audible evidence of Missouri fans’ disappointment with this season could be heard during the final seconds of the first half. As Drinkwitz let the clock run out, a shower of boos rained down from the Faurot Field bleachers.

With 88 seconds left in the first half, Missouri got its best defensive play of the day as Carlies picked off Calzada. The turnover gave Missouri, trailing 28-7, the ball at its own 18. Rather than dialing up a downfield pass to give his offense hope of scoring a touchdown before the break, or even getting the ball into kicker Harrison Mevis’ considerable range, Drinkwitz took a conservative approach. Missouri’s first two plays saw Bazelak hand the ball off to Badie. Bazelak then tossed two short passes to Badie. An incompletion intended for Chance Luper led to a third down and two at the Texas A&M 39 with 45 seconds left in the half. Badie then got another handoff, and Drinkwitz allowed the clock to run out, all three timeouts left in his pocket.

Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz drew boos when he opted to let time expire at the end of the first half.
Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz drew boos when he opted to let time expire at the end of the first half. (J. Biggerstaff/USA Today)

Asked about the sequence, Drinkwitz said he understands that fans didn’t like the decision. But he defended himself by saying that his main focus was keeping Texas A&M from scoring again prior to the half. He didn’t want the Aggies to extend their lead to 28 points before the break, then get the ball after halftime and score again, which would have essentially ended the game with 30 minutes left.

“I was trying to make sure that they didn't get the ball back, because they had all three of their timeouts and they got the ball to start the second half,” Drinkwitz explained. “And so at that point, I believe it was 28-7. And, you know, they had just driven it into the red zone, we had gotten the turnover. So, if we were to do something and give them the ball back and them get a chance to score, then they would start with it the second half and the game would be over. I thought we could go three-and-out and score, cut it to 14, then see how it played out, which is exactly how it played.

“Look, I get it. Everybody's got opinions on how to play the game out. But, strategically, I didn't think with 30 minutes left to go in the game, plenty of time to go in the game, to put ourselves in jeopardy by a turnover — which we had already committed two — or let them call timeout. Because they called the timeout, if I remember right, on third down, and we had to convert to not give them the ball back. So that’s the strategy. I understand people are upset with it. But that’s how you try to win.”

Penalties plague Tigers

Drinkwitz traced quite a few critical swings in the game back to penalties. Missouri got flagged 13 times for 106 yards, both of which represented season highs.

None of the Tigers' three units was immune to penalties. The offensive line drew four flags, three of them for holding (although one was declined). Three defensive penalties resulted in first downs for Texas A&M — two pass interference flags and an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Trajan Jeffcoat. The Tigers also got whistled for a block in the back on a punt return.

Drinkwitz called penalties a “huge” factor in the outcome and said it showed that the team needs to prioritize fundamentals during the bye week.

“Hands inside is one of the key ingredients for not getting a holding call,” he said. “We had several of those. Pass interference, you gotta, when their hands go up, you gotta get your eyes around when the ball is in the air. Can’t put hands on a wide receiver when you’re trying to knock the ball out. So those are techniques and fundamentals, and if you don't do them properly then you get penalized.”


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