It wasn’t Missouri’s finest performance of the season, but against South Carolina, it was enough.
There were times that the Tigers’ offense looked like it hadn’t played in three weeks. In the second quarter, quarterback Connor Bazelak underthrew wide receiver Tauskie Dove in the end zone for a score that would’ve given Missouri a 21-0 lead, and the team’s first five possessions of the second half resulted in a punt. But ultimately, the defense staved off a depleted South Carolina team 17-10.
The Gamecocks’ top two corners, Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu, opted out after coach Will Muschamp was fired earlier this week, and their defensive line was without a few players because of an injury and opt-outs.
Despite being off for nearly three weeks, Missouri had roster issues of its own. Defense coordinator Ryan Walters missed the game because of contact tracing, and coach David Gibbs served in his place Saturday. The team announced that 11 players did not travel, and coach Eliah Drinkwitz said that only 52 scholarship players were available.
“I can’t be any more proud of our football team,” Drinkwitz said. “The fight they displayed, the toughness they showed.”
“Just next man up mentality,” linebacker Nick Bolton said.
Things got worse for South Carolina after Shi Smith, the team’s top receiver and a weapon who coach Eliah Drinkwitz said reminded him of Deebo Samuel earlier in the week, left the game with an injury during the team’s first drive and did not return.
Drinkwitz said “nothing” changed in the defensive game plan when he went down.
South Carolina’s defense, however, looked drastically different than from one week ago, when it gave up 59 points to Mississippi.
Although Missouri faltered on its first drive, punter Grant McKinniss pinned South Carolina at its own 1-yard line and flipped the field. Bazelak delivered a 20-yard strike to Dove for a touchdown four plays into Missouri’s next drive.
“I just gave him a chance,” Bazelak said. “I liked the matchup with him on their corner, and I just gave him a chance to go up and get it and he made a great play.”
Bazelak finished with 203 yards passing, one touchdown and one interception.
Larry Rountree III later passed Zack Abron for the most career rushing yards from a Missouri running back. He now only trails former quarterback Brad Smith for the most of any player in school history.
Safety Martez Manuel notched his first career sack in the opening quarter and combined with linebacker Devin Nicholson for another in the final minute of the first. Missouri’s defensive line was one of the main positions hindered by COVID-19 and the defense adjusted.
“(I) thought we would incorporate some different ways to get pressure on the quarterback,” Drinkwitz said.
Missouri’s defense allowed 68 yards in the first half, behind Manuel and Bolton’s nine first half tackles.
Early in the second quarter, following a Tyler Badie wheel route for chunk yardage, Rountree punched in a one-yard score to make it 14-0. Harrison Mevis tacked on a short field goal at the end of the half and Missouri led 17-0 at the break.
Luke Doty replaced Collin Hill at quarterback for South Carolina to begin the second half and provided a little spark, combining his running threat with short passing ability.
For the first time all night, South Carolina’s offense showed some life after Parker White kicked a 47-yard field goal to put the Gamecocks on the board. They cut Missouri’s lead to 17-10 with five minutes to play in the fourth quarter after a 13 play, 77-yard drive was capped off on a one-yard rushing touchdown.
Missouri couldn’t ice the game on offense, picking up just one first down and handing the ball back to South Carolina for another chance. McKinniss again pinned the Gamecocks at their own 1-yard line.
After the drive, Drinkwitz said he got on the headset and apologized to Gibbs for not being able to ice the game on offense and Gibbs told him not to worry. He said they’d get a turnover to seal it on the defensive end.
Devin Nicholson did just that, with an interception as the Gamecocks were picking momentum and had gotten to their own 36.
“The last time I saw Devin, he was running around with the turnover robe,” Drinkwitz said. “Coach (DJ) Smith does drop school for the linebackers every Wednesday after practice and (it) showed up right there.”
Missouri next takes on Arkansas at 11 a.m. next Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.