The arrival of new Missouri head football coach Eli Drinkwitz brought Tiger fans a sense of hope that the former Appalachian State play-caller would bring welcome improvements to the offense in 2020.
The Tigers ranked in the bottom five of the Southeastern Conference in both yards per game and points scored last year under former head coach Barry Odom and former offensive coordinator Derek Dooley.
Drinkwitz — a young, offensive-minded coach who led Mountaineers to a 13-1 record and a Sun Belt Conference championship while averaging nearly 39 points per game last season — was tasked with solving that. The early returns Saturday night, however, left something to be desired — albeit against No. 2 Alabama.
Missouri posted only 40 total yards from scrimmage over three drives in the first quarter against the Crimson Tide and only 69 net rushing yards overall.
Ultimately, the Tigers finished with 322 yards and a couple fourth-quarter touchdowns by the end of the night, including a 54-yard scoring pass from starting quarterback Shawn Robinson to running back Tyler Badie and a 7-yard scoring run from backup quarterback Connor Bazelak as time expired in a 38-19 loss.
Two other promising possessions stalled as Harrison Mevis sent two field goals through the uprights in his first college game.
One big bright spot for Missouri was junior wide receiver Jalen Knox. The 6-foot receiver, who finished with five catches for 63 yards, proved to be a safety blanket for the Tigers throughout the night.
Graduate transfer Damon Hazelton led the team with four receptions for 21 yards in the first half, but it was Knox who provided a big-play threat with a 23-yard catch midway through the first quarter. That proved to be the Tigers’ second-longest play from scrimmage in the game.
Drinkwitz said the offense has to do a better job giving receivers a chance downfield.
"That was something that we were kind of missing tonight," graduate transfer receiver Keke Chism said about the lack of vertical passing plays. "We really can’t control (that). We just have to go out there and play and let the chips fall where they may."
Knox had a relatively small role in the offense last year under Dooley. He was sixth in receptions with 19 catches for 307 yards last season. Badie, out of the backfield, led the team in receptions last year with 32 catches.
Knox may be the Missouri wideout to watch despite preseason buzz surrounding graduate transfers Hazelton and Chism. Hazelton led the team with nine targets. Chism had only one target in the first half and finished with two catches for 12 yards.
"I thought (Knox) played well," Drinkwitz said. "We moved him all over the field. We moved him to the slot receiver. We had him out as a perimeter receiver. When we got the two grad transfer guys, that’s what we knew we were going to do was move him inside and give us a little more flexibility in our offense to create some space."
Knox said that he is "fast and more comfortable" in the slot instead of on the outside. He compared his constant motion to the role he had in high school.
"That part of the game was easy," Knox said. "Getting to move around and be eye-candy to defenses and help other people get open ... I love it."
Drinkwitz honored his word of not naming a starting quarterback until game day. Robinson stepped in and received the bulk of the snaps — Bazelak got two series — and delivered with a 19-for-25, 185-yard performance with a 151.4 passer rating.
Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, however, outgained the entire Tigers’ offense by himself in the first half with 121 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He finished with 134 yards, more than Missouri’s starting three wideouts combined.
The Tigers look to bounce back next weekend on the road against No. 16 Tennessee. The Volunteers gave up 290 passing yards and one touchdown in a 31-27 victory against South Carolina on Saturday.