Bazelak looks to build on strong Vanderbilt performance

Like Kentucky before them, the young quarterback must be cautious when throwing towards Arkansas’ defensive (Razor)backs.

Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz will praise his redshirt freshman quarterback, Connor Bazelak, when he’s played well. And he certainly won’t hesitate to criticize him when he hasn’t.

On Tuesday, it was more of the former, and it’s easy to see why. Bazelak completed 30 of 37 passes for 8.6 yards per attempt on Saturday against Vanderbilt. A solid game by any stretch, especially in response to a rough one the week prior in South Carolina.

“I thought he did a nice job of reading coverages and putting the ball in some tight windows,” Drinkwitz said. “And he’s continued to progress, get better each week.”

One stat that Bazelak might look to improve from that game is yards per completion, which clocked in at just over 10. However, trying too hard to do so might be risky against a dangerous Arkansas defense.

“They use zone turns in the defensive secondary,” Drinkwitz said. “They play a three-safety system with number one in the middle who’s done an outstanding job of reading crossers and eliminating crossers…. This was a similar style of look, a cover-three scheme, a drop-eight scheme, a thirty-storm scheme, whatever you wanna call it.”

There is plenty of football jargon in that quote, but the message is important.

Each of those concepts — defensive backs turning to face the quarterback, a deep middle safety in Jalen Catalon who cuts off crossing routes over the middle and dropping eight defenders (five underneath and three over the top) — is designed to bait the opponent into throwing it right into the defense’s hands.

Arkansas won’t have Catalon in the first half against Missouri due to a targeting violation against LSU, but that’s exactly what its defense does. The Razorbacks lead the SEC with 13 interceptions.

If that sounds at all familiar, it’s because Arkansas’ M.O. is a lot like Kentucky’s. Missouri defeated the Wildcats in Week 5.

“Absolutely,” Drinkwitz said. “I think they’re very similar in their styles and defensive schemes.”

When asked about the similarities, Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak said the same thing that he did after the Kentucky game: he can’t force the ball into coverage.

“Can’t get bored taking what they give us,” Bazelak said. “Just have to keep taking the underneath stuff when they drop deep, take shots when they’re there. Just can’t get bored taking completions and moving the ball down the field.”

That strategy worked against the Wildcats back in October. Bazelak made plays when he needed to, Larry Rountree III carried the ball 37 times and Missouri cruised to a 20-10 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

Rountree, as much as the team rightly loves him, probably won’t reach that 37 mark again. Drinkwitz has since lamented sticking to the run game when it isn’t necessarily putting his quarterback in good spots.

This, Drinkwitz said, was the main reason why the offense couldn’t move in the second half against South Carolina.

“I think I got too conservative,” Drinkwitz said. “I was too adamant on trying to run the ball instead of utilizing the same passing concepts that got us going in the first half, and didn’t give us opportunities to be in manageable third downs.”

Running the ball into stacked boxes put the Tigers into some difficult third and fourth downs against Kentucky as well. To Bazelak’s credit, he converted many of them and showed why the team is increasingly high on him, but it’s not necessarily a repeatable strategy.

Bazelak will arrive at Faurot Field on Dec. 5 knowing that if interceptions do happen — and chances are, they will — he’ll need to put them behind him quickly for Missouri to have a shot.

That’s what he did last week. Against Vanderbilt, Bazelak missed receiver Barrett Banister, who was wide open on fourth and short in the first quarter, badly, giving the ball back to the Commodores.

He seemed to play noticeably better after that miss, and the mechanical issues that caused him to throw high and behind Banister went away. Bazelak showed that he can bounce back from his mistakes.

“You kind of just have to let it go and keep playing,” Bazelak said. “I was really upset at myself that I missed that throw, and I gotta fix that, but I think we responded well.”

Drinkwitz reiterated on Tuesday that Bazelak remains a redshirt freshman with only six college starts under his belt and that each week is a “maturation process” for the young signal-caller.

Mistakes will happen, and that’s okay. Drinkwitz understands that interceptions are part of the learning process for a quarterback who he believes can take his program where he wants it to go.

“Each week’s a little bit new,” Drinkwitz said. “There’s not a lot of recall there, so again, I think he’s just continuing to improve.”

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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