Notebook: Offensive performance a mixed bag in Drinkwitz’s debut

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When an official spotted the ball at the Alabama 33-yard line, two yards short of the first down marker, Eliah Drinkwitz didn’t hesitate. The first-year Missouri head coach, facing the No. 2 Crimson Tide in his first game, wasn’t settling for a field goal. He kept the offense on the field, hoping to match the touchdown Alabama had just scored to make the game 7-0.

The decision made sense; Missouri had moved the ball well on that drive, and the Tigers weren’t likely to beat the Crimson Tide, whose offense averaged 43.2 points per game last season, with field goals. But the play call, a speed option pitch from quarterback Shawn Robinson to running back Larry Rountree III on the short side of the field, looked doomed from the start. Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses burst through the line of scrimmage and met Rountree for a loss of one. Missouri gave the ball back to Alabama on a turnover on downs, and it took just a minute and 13 seconds for the Crimson Tide to find the end zone and take a commanding, 14-0 lead.

Reflecting on his offense’s performance after the game, Drinkwitz said it wasn’t all bad, but Missouri had too many negative plays that derailed drives and ultimately allowed the Crimson Tide to build a 35-3 advantage Missouri could not overcome. Alabama ultimately cruised to a 38-19 victory.

“We gotta stay out of negative plays,” Drinkwitz said. “I mean, we can’t take sacks, when we have a chance to execute on fourth downs, we gotta execute the block. It’s all about execution. We’re not surprised by moving the football, we thought we had a good game plan, we thought we had good players. But we gotta execute, and we can’t have self-inflicted wounds, and that’s really what happened to us tonight.»

Missouri quarterback Shawn Robinson had an up-and-down day in his Tiger debut.
Missouri quarterback Shawn Robinson had an up-and-down day in his Tiger debut. (Mizzou Athletics)

Drinkwitz kept his starting quarterback a secret leading up to kickoff, but it Robinson who took both the first snap and vast majority of snaps behind center. His performance was representative of the offense as a whole. The TCU transfer made some impressive throws, including a deep out to graduate transfer wideout Damon Hazelton on a third down in Alabama territory and a 54-yard touchdown pass to running back Tyler Badie. But he also made a few costly errors, including a lost fumble that came when he tried to flip a late pitch to Jalen Knox but missed badly.

Robinson finished 19 of 25 for 185 yards and a touchdown. Backup Connor Bazelak played just two series, finishing 7 of 14 for 69 yards and one score on the ground.

“Gotta just eliminate, I guess, bone-head plays,” Robinson said of his performance, “and be smart with the ball and don’t beat ourselves.”

Robinson said Drinkwitz told him “a few days ago” that he would start against Alabama. Drinkwitz wouldn’t commit to a starter for next Saturday’s matchup at Tennessee. Asked to evaluate Robinson’s performance, Drinkwitz said he needed to do a better job of throwing the ball away in the face of pressure. He tried to extend a few plays that ended in sacks, including one third down and goal from the Alabama four-yard line.

“Thought Shawn gave us the best chance to move the ball with his legs and some of the read game we were going to try,” Drinkwitz said. “And he had played in some games before, so he had that experience against some of these guys. And I thought he handled it well.

“The sacks were very disappointing and the negative plays, and that’s really the thing that we’ve been preaching all fall camp, is we gotta stay away from the negative plays, and I thought the quarterbacks did some really good things, but they gotta eliminate the negative plays in order for us to be successful offensively.”

As a whole, Drinkwitz’s new offensive scheme featured plentiful pre-snap motion and lots of quick-hitting passing plays to receivers either behind or just beyond the line of scrimmage. Robinson carried the ball about a half-dozen times, usually on either a read or sprint option. Slot receivers Knox and Kris Abrams-Draine both motioned in or out of the backfield before snaps and both recorded carries in the running game. An offensive line that featured three new starters from a season ago, two of whom transferred onto the roster this offseason, struggled a bit in pass protection, although Drinkwitz was actually complimentary of the group’s performance after the game.»

“I saw a lot of fight,” he said. “I really did. I thought those guys answered the bell. I don’t think it was an issue of not being good enough, at all. I thought our guys fought, I thought they opened up some holes.”

Missouri succeeded in moving the ball, racking up 20 first downs and putting together three drives of 12 plays or more, but its first four drives that entered Alabama territory netted just six points. The offense executed better as the game progressed, though whether that was due to the Tigers’ adjustments or Alabama relaxing a bit is certainly up for debate.

One aspect that appeared to change was the offense running fewer plays that featured ball-carriers moving toward the sideline and attacking downfield more. Until Robinson connected deep with Badie late in the third quarter, the Tigers didn’t have a single completion that traveled more than 15 yards in the air. Drinkwitz admitted after the game he should have built more downfield shots into the game plan. He also said he should have given Rountree, who averaged nearly five yards per carry, more rushing opportunities.

“I probably didn’t give (the offensive line) enough chances in the run game to really get it going in the first half, and that’s on me as a play-caller. Thought Larry Rountree ran really hard, and I gotta get him some more runs.”

Obviously, Nick Saban and Alabama represented a brutal test for Drinkwitz in his debut. And while college football coaches typically aren’t interested in moral victories, there were reasons for optimism after Missouri found some offensive rhythm in the second half. Knox said Drinkwitz’s message after the game was that this loss won’t define the season; that the offense knows what it has to fix and will get to work on doing so on Sunday.

“Today doesn’t define who we are as a team,” Knox said. “We knew today wasn’t going to be perfect by any means because it’s our first game as an offense, so we just need to build on today and continue to get better and figure things out, and I feel like on the road going forward we’re going to be alright.”

Defense falters on third downs

Missouri’s defense picked up right where it left off last season to start the game. On a third down and four, safety Tyree Gillespie delivered a jarring hit to all-American receiver DeVonta Smith, jarring the ball free and forcing an incompletion. The three-and-out elicited as much of a roar as the 11,734-person home crowd could muster.

After that, however, the unit’s performance, especially on third down, began to tail off. Alabama scored touchdowns on its next three possessions and five of its next six to put the game well out of reach.

After the game, both Drinkwitz and defensive players said not getting off the field on third downs was the biggest issue. Alabama converted nine of 14 third down opportunities, and a couple of the failures came after Saban subbed starting quarterback Mac Jones out for backup Bryce Young.

“We talked about that was going to be the key to winning the game, was how we did on third down,” Drinkwitz said. “We started fast with the three and out, and then after that we just didn’t do enough.”

True freshman cornerback Ennis Rakestraw and the Missouri defense struggled to get off the field on third downs.
True freshman cornerback Ennis Rakestraw and the Missouri defense struggled to get off the field on third downs. (Mizzou Athletics)

After the initial three-and-out, Jones found a groove, and that’s when the Alabama offense roared to life. At one point, Jones completed 10 straight passes, the streak only ending when tailback Brian Robinson Jr. dropped what would have been an easy touchdown. Jones continually threw from a pristine pocket, with Missouri’s pass rush doing little to rush his release. That put too much pressure on a secondary trying to defend the elite wide receiver duo of Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

Waddle, in particular, torched the Tigers, catching eight passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. The highlight of the night came when he beat double coverage and Jones dropped a perfect pass into his hands as he tapped both feet in bounds in the back of the end zone.

“I mean, crud, that guy’s a heck of a player,” Drinkwitz said. “The touchdown they threw to him, hat’s off to him and Mac Jones for a heck of a throw. We had a double-team on him, obviously we didn’t cover him well enough.”

Drinkwitz said the pass rush and coverage both need to be better moving forward. He specifically said Alabama took advantage of a hole in the middle of the field when the Tigers dropped to a cover-three zone look. But he and a few players also pointed out that, when you’re playing against two of the best wideouts in the country, you’re going to give up a few completions.

“They just played better,” safety Josh Bledsoe said. “We did all we can do. They were just the better team tonight.”

Defense plays down a coach

The Tiger defense took the field without defensive backs coach Charlie Harbison present for the game. The 61-year-old Harbison, who spent last season on Drinkwitz’s staff at Appalachian State, has been quarantined due to COVID-19, although the team didn’t specify whether he tested positive for the virus or has to quarantine due to contact tracing.

Drinkwitz said he learned Friday morning that Harbison wouldn’t be able to attend the game. He will miss next week’s game at Tennessee as well. Defensive analyst Grant O’Brien will coach his position, the strong safety spot, in his absence.

Linebacker Nick Bolton said Harbison, nicknamed “coach cheese” in the locker room, did a good job preparing his position group prior to kickoff so that his absence wasn’t a detriment during the game. Martez Manuel, who started and played nearly every snap at the strong safety spot, was one of the bright spots for the Tigers. He finished the game with seven tackles, including three and a half for loss.

“Coach cheese did a hell of a job all the way through the week getting his guys prepared throughout the week, and so when he went down, of course we were hurt by it, but we had the mindset that we were going to play hard regardless of whether he was there or not,” Bolton said.

Drinkwitz said the loss of Harbison underscores the unpredictability of trying to field a team during a pandemic.

“With COVID, you don’t know,” he said. “We’ll take another test tomorrow, I’ll get the results some time Monday, we’ll make an adjustment there. We’ll take another test Tuesday, I’ll get the results Wednesday, I’ll make another adjustment there, we’ll take another test Thursday, I’ll get the results Friday morning at 6:34 and I’ll make another adjustment there. There’s no magic formula to it, we just wake up every day and deal with the results.”

Shearin opts out

One other surprise absence in Missouri’s secondary was sophomore safety Chris Shearin. Shearin didn’t appear on the field or the sideline during the game, and after the first quarter, a team spokesperson announced he has opted out of the 2020 season. It is not clear when Shearin made the decision to opt out.

Shearin is the sixth Missouri player to opt out for 2020, joining Maurice Massey, CJay Boone, Thalen Robinson, Jack Buford and Chris Daniels. Interestingly, all six players are in their second year with the Missouri program. Shearin appeared as the backup free safety behind Bledsoe on Missouri’s depth chart earlier in the week.

Injury report

Missouri lost starting cornerback Jarvis Ware to a knee injury early in the first quarter. Ware didn’t return to the game, and while his absence thrust true freshman Ennis Rakestraw and redshirt freshman Ishmael Burdine into a bigger role than the staff might have liked against such a dynamic receiving corps, the good news for Tiger fans is that it might not be as bad as it initially looked. Drinkwitz said the injury was to Ware’s knee, but it’s not thought to be serious.

“I briefly visited with him after the game,” Drinkwitz said. “It looked like a knee injury, and I don’t think it’s serious, but we’ll take an MRI tomorrow and we’ll get the results back and we’ll go from there.”

Aside from the players who Drinkwitz announced last week would miss Saturday’s contest due to injury, Missouri had three scholarship players present on the sideline but not dressed: defensive end Z’Core Brooks, linebacker Will Norris and safety Aidan Harrison. No explanation was given for their lack of participation. The only other notable absences were backup center Drake Heismeyer and long-snapper Daniel Hawthorne, both freshmen. Neither player appeared on the sideline. The team did not disclose the reason for their absences, but Drinkwitz did say the team would have seven players in quarantine for the matchup due to COVID-19 and at one point indicated that there would be “some availability issues at long-snapper” due to the virus.