Notebook: Mizzou must reverse turnover trend in order to snap streak
At some point in the five days since Missouri found out it would be playing Kentucky rather than Florida this week — the latest schedule alteration due to COVID-19 — head coach Eli Drinkwitz asked his team a question: Who here has ever beaten the Wildcats?
No hands, from players or coaches, went up.
Missouri hasn't beaten Kentucky since 2014, losing its last five games in a row to the SEC East foe. The streak, which predates the arrival of every current player and coach, has included a couple heartbreakers: a late rally that fell short in Lexington in 2017 and a late collapse, aided by a questionable penalty call, as a home favorite the following year. Even though Drinkwitz is new to Missouri, he hasn't shied away from using the losing streak to inspire his team.
"We absolutely understand that it's been a while since we've beat these guys," Drinkwitz said. "I don't think there's anybody in our team room that's beaten them while they’ve worn a Mizzou jersey or shirt. So, obviously, that gives us a little bit extra motivation."
Of course, it will take a bit more than just motivation to topple a Kentucky team that has won its past two games by a combined score of 58-9. The biggest key to reversing the losing streak will be the same area Drinkwitz emphasized entering Missouri's unexpected bye week, before he knew the Tigers would play Kentucky this weekend.
Missouri needs to take care of the ball on offense, avoiding turnovers, while taking it away on defense.
"For our football team, it is all about the football," Drinkwitz said. "Offensively, we got to protect it, take care of it. Cannot fumble it, cannot turn it over. Punt return, special teams, cannot turn over the football, and defensively we've got to get it."
Kentucky's defense enters this weekend on a turnover tear. The Wildcats intercepted nine passes across their past two games, six against Mississippi State and three against Tennessee. Three of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns, including two in the first half against the Volunteers. On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats have turned the ball over just once each in those two wins. Compare that to four turnovers and zero takeaways across their first two games, and it's easy to see how Kentucky turned around its season following an 0-2 start.
Drinkwitz attributed the Wildcats' success generating interceptions to their ability to change and disguise coverages, fooling opposing quarterbacks. He admitted that Missouri redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak "has certainly not seen the variety of coverages that this team Is going to play" thus far in his young career.
"They do a tremendous job mixing up coverage," Drinkwitz said of Kentucky. "They've intercepted the ball in man situations, ... I believe the corner, Kelvin Joseph, broke on it in a man-to-man situation, and zone situations, they’ve got really long underneath defenders. Their middle linebacker, Jamin Davis, on the interception against Tennessee, returned for a touchdown. They've got a really long BUCK that also plays nickel, Jordan Wright, had a pick six against Mississippi State. ... So it's a tremendous challenge to throw the football.”
Missouri has struggled to hang onto the ball so far this season, though it's been more due to fumbles than interceptions. The Tigers have turned the ball over six times through three games, five of which have resulted from lost fumbles. On the defensive side of the ball, they've taken the ball away just once — a strip-sack of Alabama backup quarterback Bryce Young after the result was already decided. Their minus-five turnover margin is tied for fifth-worst in the country.
Missouri fumbled five times in its recent upset of LSU, losing three of them. Two of those came on muffed punts, which has led to some depth chart changes at punt returner (more on that later). Junior receiver Barrett Banister said ball security has been drilled into players across the past two weeks.
"It’s been, from the strength staff to on the field prep, just ball security and the importance of it," Banister said. "We gotta quit putting the ball on the ground. We were fortunate to get the win against LSU with how many turnovers we had, and obviously Kentucky’s had, what, nine turnovers in the last two games. They generate turnovers, and that’s a big key to victory when you look at things in football."
Taking the ball away from opposing offenses has been an equal emphasis. Drinkwitz said the team has done "turnover circuits" in practice, which focus on stripping the ball away from opposing runners. The first defensive player to make the tackle is tasked with stopping the ball-carrier, while other players are taught to flock to the ball and try to pry it free.
Missouri has also yet to record an interception, which Drinkwitz says falls on the entire defense, from the defensive line generating pressure and trying to deflect passes to the back seven capitalizing on interception opportunities. Drinkwitz says the goal is to intercept a pass about every 40 attempts. Opponents have attempted 103 passes against the Tigers so far this season.
"Our back seven, we've been decently good in zone coverage, man coverage," linebacker Nick Bolton said, "and so when we get hands on the ball, we gotta execute and get turnovers.”
More than anything else, the most important key for Missouri to have a chance at taking the ball away from Kentucky will likely be stopping the Wildcats' potent rushing attack. Kentucky has run the ball on 65 percent of its offensive snaps so far this season. Against Tennessee, it ran on 45 of 61 snaps — nearly 75 percent.
If Missouri is able to stop the run, It might force quarterback Terry Wilson, who has thrown nine interceptions compared to 16 touchdowns during his college career, to play outside his comfort zone as a passer. The Tigers will need its defensive front to play more like it did against LSU, which ran for just 49 yards on 20 carries, than the prior week, when Tennessee gashed the Tigers for 232 yards on the ground.
"They're gonna force the run," Drinkwitz said of Kentucky. "That's what they do. They're built for it and they've been able to do that consistently, and so we're going to have to find ways to stop the run."
Drinkwitz acknowledged that turnovers tend to come in bunches, and ultimately, there is an element of luck involved. But he also said that teams tend to get what they emphasize, and that's why Missouri has made ball security and takeaways its top priorities over the past two weeks.
He and his players hope that pays off in the form of a first career win over the Wildcats for every member of the Tiger roster.
'It sucks," senior safety Joshuah Bledsoe said of the losing streak. "Because every year, it’s like something. It’s like, why are we not beating this team? We should beat this team. But we’ll get it done this time.”
McKinniss readies to face former team
While Missouri might not have anyone on its team who has experienced victory over Kentucky, there is one player on the roster who is intimately familiar with the next opponent. Punter Grant McKinniss spent four years as a Wildcat before joining Missouri as a graduate transfer during the offseason.
Ever since joining the Tigers, McKinniss said he's had this matchup circled on his calendar — although he's had to change the date a couple times. He still talks to several Kentucky players multiple times per week.
“I think it is going to be kind of weird, just looking across, like, wow, I know literally everybody on that sideline," McKinniss said. "But I think once I’m out there and I’m about to punt or something, I’m not going to be thinking about that. As in I’m not going to be thinking about, wow, I lived with Zach Johnson, I lived with Brett Slusher and now I’m going against them. ... I’m just going to think about my job and how I’m going to execute."
McKinniss said he remembers Kentucky's two previous trips to Faurot Field, including the dramatic 2018 matchup. He said he's briefly discussed that game with his new teammates, but it's still a sore subject, so he's had to "keep that on the down low." However, he didn't realize until Drinkwitz posed the question about beating Kentucky in the team meeting that his team is currently 4-0 in this series. He hopes he proves to be the lucky charm — and that Missouri can start a win streak of its own that carries on after he's gone.
"To be on this side of it, I want a win for the team," he said, "and we want to get things done and maybe switch the thing and maybe get a win streak going the other way.”
Drinkwitz: 'Don't drink the Kool-Aid'
In the days following Missouri’s upset of defending national champion LSU, accolades poured in for the Tiger players. Bazelak, in particular, drew praise for his performance, as he completed 29 of 34 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns. Bazelak was picked as the freshman of the week in the SEC and the national quarterback of the week by the Davey O’Brien award, among other honors. Bolton, who recorded 11 tackles and a game-saving pass break up, earned national defensive player of the week honors from the Football Writers Association of America.
Last week, Drinkwitz responded to a tweet recapping all the team’s awards and honors not with a message of congratulations, but with a picture. The image showed a packet of cherry Kool-Aid mix with a note affixed: “DON’T DRINK THE KOOL-AID.”
Since the upset, Drinkwitz said that’s been one of his messages to Missouri’s team as a whole, and to Bazelak in particular. Bazelak was not made available for interviews Tuesday. Drinkwitz said he’s seen firsthand that, as soon as a player or coach thinks he has it all figured out, “football is a game that will humble you.”
“The same people who pat you on the back are going to be the same people that tell you you’re the worst quarterback, worst coach or whatever on Twitter or social media or whatever it is,” Drinkwitz said. “... If you got caught up patting yourself on the back or thinking about what you did last week, there's always somebody who's hungry out there who's trying to take your position and trying to show you up.”
Bolton said there's a delicate balance between trying to maintain momentum after a big win and buying into outside hype. The key, he said, is focusing less on individual accolades and more on the game's result, as well as the execution that precipitated it.
“There's a lot of people that are getting pats on the back right now,” Drinkwitz said, “and we need to realize we're only as good as our next performance.”
Depth Chart changes
During Missouri’s unexpected week off, the team's depth chart underwent its most significant overhaul since first being released prior to the season-opener. The most significant changes come at wide receiver, where Missouri had six different players record a catch against LSU, despite the absence of three regular contributors due to COVID-19 quarantines.
In perhaps the most surprising alteration, graduate transfer Damon Hazelton slipped from a starting spot to the third string. Hazelton, who joined Missouri’s team from Virginia Tech during the offseason, missed part of fall camp due to a hamstring injury but tied for the team lead with nine receptions through the first two games of the year. He is now listed behind co-starters Boo Smith and Micah Wilson, each of whom recorded their first career catch against LSU. Smith caught six passes for 54 yards while Wilson had two grabs for 45 yards and a touchdown.
Fellow graduate transfer Keke Chism is now listed as a co-starter at the other wideout position, sharing the role with Tauskie Dove. Dove led Missouri with 83 receiving yards and a touchdown on six catches against the defending national champions. In the slot, Barrett Banister is now listed as the co-starter alongside Jalen Knox. Banister caught four passes against LSU. Knox leads the team with 14 grabs and 156 receiving yards on the season, and he’s also scored a touchdown as a rusher.
Drinkwitz said Tuesday that the LSU game made him feel better about Missouri’s depth at wide receiver. The other position where the Tigers’ depth was tested, the defensive line, also saw a makeover on the depth chart this week — although most of the changes reflect what fans already saw implemented against LSU.
Due to the absences of Kobie Whiteside, Darius Robinson and Akial Byers, Missouri had to shuffle several players around, and it appears they will stay in those roles, at least for this week. Tre Williams is now listed as a starting defensive end on the Tigers’ 3-3-5 defensive front, with Trajan Jeffcoat listed as the starter at the BUCK outside linebacker position, where Williams spent most of his time during the first two games. Fellow senior Chris Turner, formerly listed as a co-starter, will back up Williams. Sophomore Isaiah McGuire has seized the starting role at the other defensive end spot. Byers will back him up. Finally, Markell Utsey will once again start in place of Whiteside at nose tackle. Utsey recorded four tackles, including one for loss, against LSU.
The special teams units were not immune from the changes, either. Following two muffed punts against LSU, Missouri altered its punt returner position a bit. True freshman Kris Abrams-Draine, who muffed both kicks, is now listed as a co-starter along with three other players: cornerback Jarvis Ware, receiver Cade Musser and Smith. Ware relieved Abrams-Draine for two returns against LSU. Musser returned four punts a season ago.
The best thing about Missouri’s unexpected bye week: it has allowed the six Tiger players who were quarantined for the LSU victory to return to the field without missing another game. As of Tuesday afternoon, Drinkwitz said the team still hadn’t received the results from its most recent round of testing, but it didn’t have any players in quarantine due to COVID-19. Drinkwitz did say a few players have been absent from practices due to illness, but that illness is not believed to be COVID-related.
Missouri will still be without Whiteside and Robinson against Kentucky, however. Drinkwitz said that both players will continue to be sidelined due to leg injuries. He also reported that Ware has returned to full participation in practices and should play a full complement of snaps against Kentucky. Ware missed the Tennessee game and saw his workload limited against LSU due to a knee injury. Finally, Bolton said he will be good to go on Saturday. The team's leading tackler admitted he was playing through some pain against LSU but said he was able to use the bye week to heal and is "feeling good."