The beginning of the Eli Drinkwitz era with Missouri football went almost as expected: A victory remained out of reach at Faurot Field as the 28-point underdog, but the Tigers showed some promise against the No. 2 team in the nation.
The Crimson Tide doubled up the Tigers 38-19 as Missouri was outmatched most of the night but used late-game moxie to push back against a national title contender.
Plenty of questions preceded Missouri’s first game in nearly 10 months, especially with the limited access to fall camp because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Saturday was the first chance at answers on the identity of the team moving forward.
Here are three takeaways from Missouri’s season-opening loss:
1. The MU defense has the skeleton of a forceful unit.
Missouri’s back seven is full of players who can fly around the field and make it hard for most teams to beat you vertically.
Thankfully, most teams aren’t Alabama, which possesses maybe the best offensive line in the country and gave quarterback Mac Jones lots of time to consistently throw accurate passes. To make matters worse, Jaylen Waddle was the one receiving many of those as part of his eight-catch, two-touchdown performance.
Yet with Martez Manuel having 3 1/2 tackles for loss as well as Devin Nicholson, Nick Bolton and Tyree Gillespie combining for 26 tackles, the Tigers don’t have to over-rely on one position group or player (i.e. Cale Garrett) to make plays for the defense.
Several guys could be the star on any given night, a good sign for the Tigers.
One fix that needs to happen fast is getting the opponent off the field on third downs: Alabama converted 9 of its 14 third-down plays.
"As a whole on defense, we have to do better on third downs," Bolton said. "Also, on first downs, they really got tempo. As a collective unit, we have to get in line and get set up so we can be effective."
2. The quarterback battle may not be over, but Shawn Robinson has a leg up.
Robinson played all but two series behind center for Missouri. He was clearly the preferred choice for Drinkwitz despite having Connor Bazelak as another option on the depth chart entering the game.
Robinson made some mistakes, but in your first live action in nearly two years — especially against a team the quality of Alabama — that is bound to happen.
Robinson connected with running back Tyler Badie for a 54-yard completion midway through the fourth quarter for the first touchdown of the Drinkwitz era. A Bazelak rushing touchdown at the buzzer gave each Tiger quarterback a score on the night.
Robinson’s fumble on a failed pitch in the third quarter was his biggest blemish.
"I’ve got to do better," Robinson said. "Decision-making, just eliminate bonehead plays and be smart with the ball and don’t beat ourselves."
In his first start at Missouri, Robinson recorded a completion percentage of 76%, the best by a Tiger quarterback in a debut since Blaine Gabbert completed 75.8% against Illinois in September 2009.
3. Larry Rountree is primed for a big 2020.
One of Drinkwitz’s biggest confessions in his postgame press conference was he needs to get his senior running back more involved.
Yes, Rountree didn’t make a huge impact in the first half, but once he found his rhythm in the second half, he picked up bunches of yards that kept the Crimson Tide honest. In turn, Rountree’s efforts opened up the entire offense.
Rountree finished the game with 14 carries for 67 yards and passed Henry Josey for fifth all-time in rushing yards at Missouri.
If the senior from Raleigh, North Carolina, gets more involved in the offense sooner in games, it could be a positive sign for the season to come.
"He's a fighter," Drinkwitz said of Rountree. "He runs tough. He runs physical. It means the world to him, and I’ve got to do a better job feeding him."