The battle of the Columbias came down to the wire, but the Tigers showed plenty of marked improvement in key areas
Missouri and South Carolina faced each other at a crossroads in their seasons, each needing this victory to keep their bowl hopes alive. Both sides had experienced up-and-down seasons up to this point, but were looking to right the ship in this one.
The battle for Columbia was intense and full of momentum swings.
South Carolina opened up with the ball led by senior Jason Brown, a transfer from St. Francis and one of many quarterbacks to take the field for the Gamecocks this season. He had a mere 2 interceptions on the season…but made it 3 on the Gamecocks’ first drive. Kris Abrams-Draine got his third of the year.
Connor Bazelak returned as the starter at quarterback after sitting out last week against Georgia. He threw his ninth interception of the year to give the Gamecocks the ball right back.
Carolina methodically worked their way down the field, converting a 4th down in the process, and punched it in with running back Kevin Harris at the goal line. Mizzou yet again found themselves down early.
The offense for Missouri continued to look lethargic, as no play went further than a dump-off pass to Tyler Badie. The ensuing punt was partially blocked by Carolina, and they were set up well in Tiger territory.
The Gamecocks seemed to be on their way to points, but Isaiah McGuire made a great individual play to steal the ball away from Harris in the backfield.
“Akial Byers took up some blocks, and I got to make a play,” McGuire explained.
“He’s been our most consistent defensive lineman,” Drinkwitz said of McGuire. “He (McGuire) talked on Monday about wanting to play fast this week and he did.”
Tyler Badie gave this offense a spark early in the drive, and some trickery on back-to-back-to-back plays put the Tigers in scoring position. Yep, Drinkwitz was pulling out all of the stops.
Mookie Cooper took a sweep down to the one, and a lot more eye candy for the Gamecock defense led to a wide-open touchdown for Daniel Parker Jr.. The game was tied at 7 apiece thanks to Parker’s third TD grab of the season.
The Tiger defense forced a 3-and-out, and Bazelak found a wide-open Mookie Cooper for his long-awaited first touchdown of the season. The 60-yard touchdown pass shifted all the momentum in Mizzou’s favor.
“Connor actually took a pretty big shot on that play, I was proud of him taking that,” Drinkwitz said. “We came back to that play after suring up protection.”
The Gamecocks converted a couple of key third downs on the next drive, and were rewarded with 7 points. Brown found a streaking Josh Vann in the corner of the end zone.
Mizzou couldn’t do anything with the ball, so Carolina took over again with just under three minutes left.
Trajan Jeffcoat continued to be problematic up front, as he put SC behind the sticks with a tackle for loss on first down. Even when they converted, a penalty and stalwart defense kept them playing catch up, finished off with an Isaiah McGuire sack.
When the Gamecocks could’ve capped off a run in the second half to take the lead, the Missouri defense stood strong.
Then, lightning struck. Di’Onte “Boo” Smith took a pop pass 47 yards to get the Tigers in scoring position. Harrison Mevis hit a chip shot as time expired to make the scoreline read 17-14 in favor of the Tigers at halftime.
“We practice ‘mayday field goals’ on Fridays,” Drinkwitz explained. “To execute it in-game was pretty good.”
After going down 7-0 early, it looked like same old, same old for this Missouri team. However, Bazelak settled in, and Tyler Badie started to make his usual explosive plays. Mookie Cooper really got involved for the first time this season, and the defensive front seven was disruptive in both the pass and run game. The end to the half was exactly what Drinkwitz could have wanted.
Abrams-Draine continued to have an impact on this game, as he returned the ball to the 35 to give the Tigers solid starting field position. Badie would get it across midfield in one run, but Mizzou could not convert to keep the drive going. Grant McKinniss would pin the Gamecocks at the 2-yard line, however.
Carolina would get bailed out by a hands to the face penalty to give them some breathing room. This was followed by a pass interference and sideline interference call against Mizzou, allowing South Carolina to get to the 50-yard line without having done anything themselves. Then, the Gamecocks got called for intentional grounding. This was not the cleanest game by any stretch of the imagination.
At the end of all of that, South Carolina just missed on converting a 3rd and 27 and had to punt.
Tyler Badie would almost single-handedly flip the field, as he got the ball out far enough for McKinniss to put it inside the 10-yard line again.
Mizzou’s building pressure on Brown got to him eventually, as Martez Manuel knocked the ball out of his hands and it was recovered in the end zone by Trajan Jeffcoat. The defense finally made a game-changing play this season, and it made this a two-score game late in the third quarter.
The Tiger defense would back up their own touchdown with a stop, getting the ball back to Bazelak and co.
This drive was all Tyler Badie. He carried it five times and ended the drive with a 19-yard touchdown run, otherwise known as a typical game-clinching drive by Mr. Badie.
Mizzou would get the ball back deep in Carolina territory after another defensive stop. The Tigers were the only FBS team that had not lost a fumble, and then Mookie Cooper got stripped and the Gamecocks took the ball back.
Zaquandre White took advantage of a busted coverage by Mizzou to house a 38-yard touchdown pass to cut the Mizzou lead to 10 midway through the fourth quarter.
Bazelak’s arm was hit, resulting in another interception for the Gamecocks deep in Missouri territory. They would punch it in from the one-yard line, and just like that the score read 31-28 in a matter of minutes.
“Up 3 scores in the fourth quarter,” Drinkwitz explained. “You can not have two turnovers.”
Brady Cook came in at quarterback, but it really did not matter. Like he has been all season, when this team needed him most, Tyler Badie delivered.
“They knew he was getting it, but there’s nothing they could’ve done,” tight end Daniel Parker, Jr. said. “O-line, tight ends, we were all working in the trenches tonight.”
This was a huge game for this program. There could not have been a bigger swing game in the SEC East, as both of these teams needed this win for the sake of their bowl hopes. When it counted most, Mizzou improved in the areas that had been plaguing them.
A South Carolina team who had just torched Florida on the ground had a mere 57 yards today, and there was constant pressure from the front seven on Brown all game long.
“Our linebackers are playing downhill and fitting well,” Drinkwitz said. “I think we are doing better at keeping contain and tackling better overall.”
Bazelak returned and outside of two questionable interceptions, played a solid game. Badie did his usual thing, and this team was able to stay composed late and hold off the rally.
The front seven was easily the biggest difference for this team. Their improved play showed what the ceiling for this team could really look like when they can stop the opposition up front.
“It’s nice to keep the Mayor’s Cup where it belongs,” Coach Drinkwitz said after the game. The trophy has now resided in Missouri for three seasons in a row.
The atmosphere around this team was also noticeably different, especially from an energy perspective.
“The energy level was different today, from first kickoff,” Parker Jr. explained. “Both sides of the ball were cheering for each other, and Coach Drinkwitz emphasized getting back that love for the game.”
The Tigers will take on Florida (4-6) next Saturday, November 20th, at 3:00 CST on the SEC Network.
“I haven’t beat them since I’ve been in college, so it means a lot to me,” safety Martez Manuel said. “My biggest thing is just getting to a bowl game for our seniors.”
A win over the Gators would secure a bowl bid for Missouri, their first appearance since 2018 (2020 game vs. Iowa cancelled due to COVID-19).