Adaptability key for Missouri heading into Florida showdown

With COVID and plenty of last-minute changes, the ability to be flexible — both on and off the field — is more important now than ever before.
Missouri RB Larry Rountree III celebrates after scoring his second touchdown of the Tigers' win over Kentucky on Oct. 24, 2020. SEC Media Portal

Just four plays into Missouri’s game against LSU, quarterback Connor Bazelak handed the ball off to Larry Rountree III, who pitched it back before the redshirt freshman launched a 58-yard touchdown pass to receiver Tauskie Dove.

The play marked the beginning of an electric afternoon at Faurot Field, in which Bazelak threw for 406 yards and four touchdowns in an upset victory against the defending national champions.

Against Kentucky, Bazelak's most notable play came when he avoided a cornerback blitz, stepped up in the pocket and found receiver Keke Chism downfield for a 24-yard gain to move the chains on third-and-eight.

Two hundred and one yards without a single touchdown and plenty of check-down passes may not stand out in a box score, but it was exactly what the Tigers needed to win the game. Instead of throwing into a secondary that forced nine turnovers and allowed nine combined points in its previous two games, Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz put the ball in the hands of Rountree III 37 times and won the time of possession battle 43:10 to 16:50.

Over the course of two games, the Tigers played in a high-scoring shootout and a low-scoring defensive battle. And they found a way to win both.

“To me, that’s the mark of a team and that’s the mark of coaching,” Drinkwitz said. “Each game is different, and the teams that can adjust their style in order to find a way to win are usually the teams that are the most successful. When you get stuck in one style then people know exactly what to do to beat you. For us, we’re able to win in multiple ways.”

As Drinkwitz said, Missouri is not going to play one style this season and refuse to adapt. Subtle tweaks and changes have defined the season’s first five weeks. Consistently running the ball to avoid a talented Kentucky secondary is easy to point out, but the Tigers also fair-caught every punt against the Wildcats –– regardless of whether there was an opportunity to return the ball –– after they muffed multiple punts against LSU.

“The message was, ‘Catch the ball, secure it,’” Erik Link, Missouri special teams coordinator, said. “We’re going to crawl before we walk and walk before we run.”

On Saturday, the Tigers travel to Gainesville, FL to take on No. 10-ranked Florida and all signs point to that game being much higher-scoring, similar to the LSU matchup.

The Gators feature Kyle Pitts, one of the country’s top tight end prospects, as well as standout receiver Kadarius Toney, who Drinkwitz described as an “outstanding playmaker.” While the Florida defense gives up an average of 33.3 points per game, the Gators explosive offense is capable of outscoring opponents each week.

Through three games, the Kyle Trask-led offense has put up an average of 42.3 points, and often in bunches.

“Florida passes the ball well, so we’re just going to play our defense, our coaches are confident in us and we’re confident in each other,” Missouri safety Martez Manuel said after the Kentucky game. “I feel like it’s just about attacking [the game] the same way and playing confident and fast.”

Another way the Tigers have been able to adapt on the field is through its depth, especially among the wide receiver corps. With three starting receivers out against LSU, Dove, redshirt senior Micah Wilson and freshman Chance Luper all came through in pivotal moments for the Tigers offense.

“I know that in the wide receiver room, every day we’ve got guys competing to get on the field,” Wilson said. “It’s not ‘Oh this guy deserves that.’ It’s every day of practice, let’s go fight and compete and get this sorted out. Earn ourselves a spot on the field, and I feel like throughout the entire offense that holds true.”

In the era of COVID-19, the ability to adapt and be flexible off the field has proven to be vital. Missouri learned that lesson when the league shuffled its schedule after Vanderbilt couldn’t meet the scholarship roster limitations to travel to Columbia just a few weeks ago.

Originally, the Tigers would be hosting Kentucky this weekend, but instead will travel to the Swamp.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Florida reported 37 people within the program tested positive for COVID-19 over the past month, but Drinkwitz won’t know who those players are until kickoff looms. By the time Saturday arrives, Florida wouldn't have played a game for three weeks, but they have also had a week longer to prepare for this Missouri game.

“They’re going to be prepared,” Drinkwitz said. “They’ve been watching our tape for two weeks. They’re going to know our tendencies, they’re going to know what we like to do. So we’re going to have to go out there and play a mistake-free football game and then play above our ability to have a chance to win.”

Like Florida, Missouri utilized a portion of its unscheduled bye week to start preparing for the Gators. Drinkwitz said that the coaching staff spent that Wednesday and Thursday breaking down film and brainstorming ideas to deal with the Gators’ dynamic attack.

While the week off was unexpected, the Tigers found a way to adapt and take advantage of that unique situation.

“I think one thing our staff and our team has done a really good job with is not spending a whole lot of time sitting around speculating,” Drinkwitz said “You know, we’re not sitting around the coffee pot speculating about what’s natural, what’s going to happen. We’re just focused on our task.”

According to Drinkwitz, the Tigers will be down to 64 scholarship players come Saturday. The reason wasn’t COVID, but the combination of injuries and opt outs.

After playing Florida, the Tigers will have to adapt its style once again when they face Georgia on November 14. The Florida game is projected to be an offensive shootout compared to what could be a low-scoring game against the Bulldogs’ stingy defense that held the Tigers scoreless in Athens, GA, last season.

Once again, Missouri will have to find a way to adapt; and they’ve done a good job of it so far under Drinkwitz.

“I think it was right before our first staff meeting of the walkthroughs,” Drinkwitz said. “I said the key word for our staff would be flexibility and being able to adjust based off the circumstances that are presented to us, and we’ve been able to do that.”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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