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Drinkwitz, Mizzou football focus on next opportunity during unexpected bye week

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz talks with quarterback Connor Bazelak (8) during a Southeastern Conference game against LSU on Saturday at Faurot Field.

Missouri head football coach Eli Drinkwitz has maintained throughout his tenure atop the Tigers how every situation presents an opportunity.

Even with the fluid changes surrounding the 2020 college football season, those opportunities still exist. They might be more unique than usual, but his tone regarding the betterment of Missouri football hasn't slowed once.

Enter Monday afternoon's announcement from the Southeastern Conference that Missouri's homecoming game versus a winless Vanderbilt team has been moved to exactly two months later on Dec. 12, now as the regular-season finale because of coronavirus concerns within the Commodores' program.

"It's a tremendous blessing for us," Drinkwitz said of the unexpected bye week. "We played three really tough SEC opponents, all ranked. It's a physical game in the trenches. For us to try to get healthy, bumps, bruises, obviously get people out of quarantine, get people out of contact tracing is going to be good."

No one would've blamed Drinkwitz for being openly disappointed not to see Vanderbilt come to town on Saturday. 

The Commodores are averaging less than nine points per game this season and scored only a touchdown against an LSU defense two weeks ago that Missouri scored 45 against in Saturday's win. 

Two straight wins heading into The Swamp for a road matchup against Florida would've been a nice momentum-builder for Missouri, which won the last matchup between the teams in Gainesville in 2018. 

Missouri's game against Florida on Oct. 24 is still on. However, the Gators paused all team activities Tuesday afternoon after "an increase in positive COVID tests among players this week," the program announced.  

"I think the key to momentum is always improving," Drinkwitz said. "That's how you keep moving forward is always improving. So that's what we're going to do this week. 

"I have zero control this year. So whatever happens, we've got to make the most of it. It does come at a good time for us from a health standpoint and getting better."

Missouri running back Larry Rountree, left, runs with the ball as LSU linebacker Jabril Cox defends during a Southeastern Conference game Saturday at Faurot Field.

While Missouri now has the better part of two weeks to get several players healthy from COVID-19 protocols before its matchup with No. 9 Florida, there are a few other players dealing with injuries. 

Cornerback Jarvis Ware returned to the field against LSU in a limited capacity after missing the Tennessee game with a leg injury suffered against Alabama. 

Missouri will be down two key defensive tackles for a few weeks. Kobie Whiteside will be reevaluated for a leg injury during the team's regular bye week at the beginning of November. 

Darius Robinson could return from a right ankle injury in two weeks for Missouri's next home game against Kentucky on Oct. 31. If not, he'll be out until Nov. 14 against Georgia. 

On Saturday against LSU, Drinkwitz mainly rotated five players to play multiple positions being down to one scholarship defensive tackle with previous snaps in the SEC (Markell Utsey). 

"I think that's a group that really responded to the challenge," Drinkwitz said of the defensive line. "I think they were disappointed with how they played against Tennessee and really knew they needed to play better, especially in order to give us a chance to win. 

"I think at one point, they had LSU at one yard rushing. ... They stood tall. I think five, six guys got in the game and they knew they were going to take a bunch of reps and they didn't flinch."

Drinkwitz said he talked to recruits after Saturday's win and even mentioned a line in his postgame interview with ESPN about "circling wagons" and "Boomer."

That came less than 24 hours after Cardinal Ritter standout Luther Burden, the top-rated player in the state of Missouri's Class of 2022, verbally committed to Oklahoma. Missouri was in his preferred five choices, which also included Georgia, Ohio State and Alabama.

Drinkwitz dispelled any misunderstanding that it was a shot at OU coach Lincoln Riley and the five-time defending Big 12 Conference champion. 

"No, that’s Chris Berman,” Drinkwitz said, referencing the ESPN anchor, whose nickname is Boomer. “Do we not watch ‘Sunday Night Football?’ It's Chris Berman. He used to say, ‘Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills.’ All I was insinuating was we've had a lot of different things that could have turned our attention towards what we didn't have, instead of what we did have.

"What we do have is each other. We had a program and a coaching staff who believed in the kids, a group full of men who believed in each other and said, ‘You know what, we can get this done together.’ There was a lot of people that didn't think that could be the case based off contact tracing and transfers and opt-outs and all the different things that have been distractions. We just decided that we weren't going to let the outside rattle us. We were going to believe in each other. Sooners, that never crossed my mind.”

Drinkwitz doesn't look at less game prep this week as a chance to doze off. It's an opportunity for him to work ahead in other areas. 

For his athletes, Drinkwitz stated multiple times how this week is when many midterm exams take place, and he wants the Tigers to focus on academics.

For Drinkwitz and his coaches, a look to the future is in the cards. 

“I'm going to recruit," Drinkwitz said. "We're going to spend Friday night evaluating recruits online and (I'm) excited to be able to watch some Friday night games and just watch all the guys that we’re recruiting and then on Saturday recruit.

Maybe some time off is in the works as well for the 37-year-old Drinkwitz, a father of four?

“I don't even know who's playing this week, so I'm sure I'll tune in to a game or something,” Drinkwitz said. “I don't know. Maybe I’ll go to pumpkin patch. I’ll see what the wife has planned.”

eblum@columbiatribune.com

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