Sloppy start dooms Missouri in 51-32 loss to Mississippi State

The Tigers can’t recover from their early mistakes in Starkville and will finish the regular season with a .500 record.

If you were to tell any Missouri fan back in September that the Tigers would finish their 2020 season with a .500 record and bowl appearance, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have believed you.

A first-year head coach tasked with a ten-game SEC schedule and added games against Alabama and LSU? Well, it was always going to be a challenging first season in Columbia for Eli Drinkwitz and his staff.

Fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic after a five-win regular season, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t also hang their heads and feel disappointed after Saturday afternoon’s performance in Starkville, Mississippi.

Missouri traveled south looking to win at least six SEC games for just the third time in program history, but it put forth its worst all-around performance of the season. That performance cost them in a 51-32 loss to now-three-win Mississippi State.

“We started fast and then momentum switched, so we were never able to recapture the momentum,” Drinkwitz said. “Neither side of the ball played nearly well enough to win a football game.”

The Tigers entered the afternoon as road favorites and have been the better team all season long, but a better record and arguably more talent on paper couldn’t make up for a sloppy first half.

Senior running back Larry Rountree III lost eight yards on the first play of the game. Later in the first quarter, redshirt sophomore Cade Musser muffed a fair-catch attempt that the Bulldogs recovered in the end zone for its first touchdown.

Missouri’s offensive woes didn’t stop there. Miscommunication between center Michael Maietti and quarterback Connor Bazelak resulted in a 16-yard loss after a snap flew over the quarterback’s head, while an interception on the final drive of the first half prevented the Tigers from putting at least three points on the board.

Mississippi State took full advantage of the Tigers’ miscues and charged to a 24-10 halftime lead behind coach Mike Leach’s patented air-raid offense.

“You can’t make mistakes in the SEC,” Rountree said. “At the end of the day they made more plays than us, and unfortunately we lost.”

A system that looked broken for long stretches of this season turned lethal against the visitors as Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers threw for 295 yards and three touchdowns on a mixture of slants, screen passes and underneath throws.

“We’re in coverage for a minute,” Missouri safety Joshuah Bledsoe said. “So once the QB gets out of the pocket, it’s kinda hard to stay on your man.”

Once again, Missouri gave up back-to-back touchdowns on either side of halftime. Rogers orchestrated a seven-play, 75-yard drive before halftime and an eight-play, 75-yard drive right after the break to put the Bulldogs up 21.

The Tigers’ young secondary couldn’t do much to slow down that air-raid attack, which generated 446 total yards of offense. It didn’t help after referees disqualified freshman cornerback J.C. Carlies for targeting, forcing an inexperienced unit to play underhanded for a majority of the second half.

But in stepped Shawn Robinson, Missouri's starting quarterback from its first two games. The junior safety played most of the second half and came up with five tackles, one interception and a pass break-up.

“I got to do a lot better,” Robinson said with a smile after the game. “I missed some tackles out there… I got to learn technique for sure, but the way I thought about it was today [I had to] run full speed at somebody, wrap up and just pull them to the ground.”

Rountree provided another bright spot. He finished the night with 121 yards and a pair of touchdowns –– the senior’s fifth game this season with over 100 yards on the ground –– but it wasn’t enough to help the Tigers overcome the deep hole they dug themselves in the first half.

In many ways, that feeling of disappointment among fans is a good thing. The loss may sting, but it also means that people care. The team certainly cares. And despite recent struggles, the Tigers still have a chance to finish their season with six wins if they win their bowl game after the holidays.

“I told our team [we are] five and five, predicted to win two [games],” Drinkwitz said. “Obviously, we didn’t finish the way we wanted to, but we’ve earned ourselves respect and a chance to go to a bowl game.”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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