COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Eli Drinkwitz arrived at Missouri with a reputation for being one of college football’s brightest offensive minds.
He first proved his chops during coordinator stints at Arkansas State, Boise State and North Carolina State. The last of those stops earned the often-brash, always-confident Arkansas Tech graduate a chance to lead Appalachian State, where in one season as the head coach he went 12-1 and shattered all kinds of offensive records.
Yet his first two games of his COVID-19-delayed tenure in Columbia were hardly impressive. The Tigers were routed 38-19 by second-ranked Alabama, then managed just one touchdown and a couple field goals in a 35-12 loss at Tennessee.
Well, the 37-year-old Drinkwitz finally revealed the breadth of his offensive mind on Saturday.
With freshman Connor Bazelak at quarterback, and despite missing three crucial wide receivers because of COVID-19 protocols, the Tigers still managed to pile up nearly 600 yards of total offense in a 45-41 victory against No. 17 LSU. The Tigers unloaded a series of trick plays — a flea-flicker for a long touchdown, an end-around for another score — that left LSU coach Ed Orgeron dizzy, and left the fans in Columbia thinking that just maybe they have a coach that can lead a rebuild.
“It doesn’t mean a whole lot to me personally right now. This is about our football team, our senior class, what they’ve fought and struggled for,” Drinkwitz said. “I plan on being part of a lot more wins here at Mizzou. It’s never going to be about me. It’s going to be about our football team, our players, our seniors and the identity they’re trying to create.”
The identity they put on the field Saturday was one of a bunch of track stars.
Five of their six touchdowns covered at least 16 yards, including the 58-yard flea-flicker to open the game. Bazelak also threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to converted quarterback Micah Wilson and a 21-yarder to Tyler Badie, and Badie and wide receiver Jalen Knox each had long touchdown runs.
It was a short TD throw to Niko Hea that gave Missouri the lead with about 5 minutes to go. And while it was the defense that stopped LSU four times at the 1-yard line inside the final minute to preserve the victory, it was the thrill-a-minute offense that overcame three turnovers and ultimately put the Tigers in position to pull it off.
“Somebody asked me whether our team played with effort and ticked me off. I think we showed we play with unbelievable effort,” Drinkwitz said. “We just needed a couple breaks, and you know what? We made our own breaks.”
They also overcame plenty of adversity. They were missing three defensive playmakers due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols, along with arguably their three top pass-catchers, forcing Missouri to rely on players well down the depth chart.
Hea and Wilson had their first touchdown catches and Dionte Smith hauled in the first reception of his career.
“I’m so proud of them, just the way they’ve worked all season,” Bazelak said. “They got their opportunities and they stepped up in big moments and made big plays, and just super proud of them. They deserve it.”
Bazelak deserves all the plaudits he received, too.
After taking over for TCU transfer Shawn Robinson as the starter, he proceeded to complete 29 of 34 passes for 408 yards and four touchdowns. It was the second-best completion percentage in a game in school history.
It also came against an LSU defense that is unaccustomed to giving up such offense. The last time the Bayou Bengals allowed 24 points to an unranked team in a half was against Troy in 2008, and the last time the defending national champs allowed 45 to anybody in a game was against Florida the same season.
For its part, Missouri hadn’t scored 45 points against a ranked foe since a 52-42 win over No. 20 Illinois on Aug. 30, 2008.
It all added up to the first win for Missouri against the reigning national champions since a victory over fifth-ranked Notre Dame in 1978. And in a tidy bit of symmetry, that also was the last time a Tigers coach beat a ranked team for his first win.
“Again, it doesn’t mean a lot to me personally,” Drinkwitz said. “This is about the foundation our players are trying to lay as a football program, and this was just the start of it. There’s been a lot of hard work — ‘Is this really going to work?’ — and they found out it does.”
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