Bazelak, Tigers see opportunity if layoff ends
Connor Bazelak has never waited longer during a season for his next game.
Declared the starting quarterback before Missouri’s game against LSU six weeks ago, Bazelak and the Tigers have played just twice since – and not since Halloween.
Missouri is scheduled to play its first game in 21 days on the road at South Carolina on Saturday night, but in a year and season flipped upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, the status of the game remains uncertain.
After a planned bye on Nov. 7, Missouri slipped below the Southeastern Conference threshold for available defensive linemen last week, forcing the Tigers to postpone their home matchup against Georgia last Saturday.
Now, both Missouri and South Carolina are dangerously close to the overall 53-player minimum in the days leading up to their hopeful kickoff at Williams–Brice Stadium.
“Yeah, it's hard to not think about it, just because you're trying to focus in on an opponent and prepare for an opponent,” Bazelak said. “But at the same time, you don't know if you're really going to play that opponent or even play that week.
“At the end of the day, it's just about trusting the coaches, trusting in the game plan, sticking to your routine.”
Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said Wednesday he has 54 available scholarship players at his disposal, of which one is suspended for the first half of the next game and three are questionable due to injuries. Drinkwitz said there have been multiple cases of COVID-19 that have led to contact tracing within the program over the past week.
Testing conducted Tuesday didn't lead to any further positives for the Tigers, and the team is slated to undergo another round of tests Thursday.
The SEC calls for programs to have at least 53 available scholarship players to play a game, including one quarterback, seven offensive linemen and four defensive linemen – though teams can choose to play with fewer with league approval.
The Tigers’ defensive front bore the brunt of COVID-19 issues a week ago, when only three players on the D-line were available.
For all the challenges Missouri (2-3) is facing, South Carolina (2-5) is facing adverse circumstances of its own. Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp was fired Sunday. Since then, four South Carolina defensive players have opted out of playing the remainder of the season, including three starters.
South Carolina’s already floundering secondary took a massive hit with cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu deciding to begin preparing for the NFL Draft. Safety R.J. Roderick also decided to skip the three remaining games.
“I can't speak personally for each one of those guys because you don’t know exactly what’s going on with each individual,” interim coach Mike Bobo said of the Gamecock players who opted out. “There was communication with all these guys. It’s been a long year, a different year. There’s no hard feelings to anybody, but the guys who are here, it’s got to be about us and not the individual.”
When asked Wednesday whether he thinks the MU-SC game will happen as planned, Bobo said the Gamecocks are "close" to the SEC roster threshold, though he didn't disclose the number of players he has available.
South Carolina ranks 12th in the SEC in total yards allowed (464.4) and passing yards allowed (288.3) and is 13th in points allowed at 36.7 per game.
The undermanned Gamecocks defense appears to present an opportunity for Missouri to move past its struggles during a 41-17 loss at Florida last time out, when the Tigers failed to score an offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter.
“I don't think it was a step backwards, I think we just didn't execute,” Bazelak said of the Florida game. “We had chances to win the game, we had chances to score touchdowns and get points. We just didn't execute.”
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, allowed 708 total yards (513 passing) in last Saturday’s 59-42 loss at Mississippi, their third consecutive defeat by at least 17 points.
South Carolina has allowed averages of 53 points and 593 yards during its three-game losing streak.
“No, I mean, it's really not about them, it's about us,” Bazelak said of his mindset facing a depleted South Carolina secondary. “If we execute, then we'll play well. It's really just about us. I'm not too focused on who they've got back there. We play in the SEC, so everybody's gonna be good no matter who they have.”
“Obviously, their head coach just got fired,” he added, “so they're gonna play with an edge. We’ve just got to come out early and start fast.”
That is, if Saturday's game starts at all.
Eric Boynton of the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal contributed to this report.