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Mizzou at No. 25 Arkansas: Five things to watch

Mizzou at No. 25 Arkansas: Five things to watch

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1. Can Bazelak recapture pre-injury form?Connor Bazelak heard the home fans boo loudly last week, and whether those boos were for coach Eli Drinkwitz’s play-calling or Bazelak’s struggles to complete passes, Missouri’s quarterback didn’t flinch.

“The same fans that were booing are the same ones cheering in the end,” he said this week. “Everyone’s got their own opinions and they can have those, but I’m not too worried about it.”

Bazelak still is recovering from the leg injury that’s limited his mobility the last few weeks, but he’s clearly Drinkwitz’s choice to run the offense down the stretch. He completed a season-low 57.7% of his passes last week against Florida, the lowest single-game completion percentage of the 19 games he’s started at Mizzou. But he also threw the game-winning 2-point conversion in overtime.

If Drinkwitz has lost faith in his QB, he hasn’t shown it. Now his career comes full circle: Bazelak made his first career start at Arkansas in 2019 as coach Barry Odom’s choice to guide the Tigers in the season finale. (He suffered a torn ACL in the first half.) Now he takes on against Odom’s Arkansas defense, a rematch of last year’s 50-48 thriller when Bazelak led the last-minute drive to set up the game-winning field goal. Boos or no boos, the Tigers don’t question his poise or toughness.

“I’m sure there’s been instances where you see and feel that criticism,” Drinkwitz said. “But I think he’s done a great job within our team and the framework of our team in this building and on the football field, being able to block out the noise and perform at a level that that he believes and I believe is successful.”

2. What’s Odom have cooked up for former team?The Tigers got the best of Odom’s defense last year in Columbia, shredding the Hogs for 653 yards of offense, still the most under Drinkwitz in 20 games against FBS opponents. This year, Odom’s defense doesn’t generate many sacks or turnovers by SEC standards, but Arkansas is among the league’s best on third downs and inside the red zone.

Nobody knows Mizzou’s offensive talent better than Odom — he signed Bazelak plus the teams’ top rusher (Tyler Badie) and receiver (Tauskie Dove) — but knowing them isn’t the same as stopping them. Odom favors a 3-2-6 defensive package that drops eight defenders into coverage but can be exposed by a strong running game.

Bazelak likened Odom’s defensive style to Kentucky.

“They keep everything in front,” he said. “They’re tough, physical. They stopped the run really well against Alabama. So we’ve got to find ways to hurt them in the air. They’re a great defense.”

3. K.J. Jefferson ready for liftoffArkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson gives Mizzou defensive coordinator Steve Wilks “Cam Newton vibes,” he said this week. Wilks knows Newton well, having coached the Carolina Panthers during Newton’s MVP season in 2015.

Jefferson, a former Mizzou recruiting target who made his first career start against the Tigers last year, has become a dual-threat force for the Hogs. He’s third among SEC quarterbacks with 496 rushing yards and fourth in passer rating at 165.5. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound QB has thrown just three interceptions.

“It’s so difficult to bring him down with one guy,” Wilks said. “That was Cam. We really emphasized that (Monday), that we’ve got to get 11 hats to the ball. He’s very strong. If you sit there and try to tackle him high he’s gonna break that tackle and really extend the play. He does a great job of keeping his eyes downfield and finding the open receiver.”

Jefferson is coming off one of the best games of his career, at Alabama no less. He torched the Tide for 326 passing yards and three touchdowns.

4. Another chore for MU’s depleted O-lineInjuries have forced Missouri to start eight different players across the offensive line this season. Right guard Case Cook suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last month, while for the last two weeks, an ankle injury has sidelined right tackle Hyrin White. He’s considered questionable for Friday’s game.

Usually sturdy pass protection has endured some breakdowns lately, including four Florida sacks last week, all on third down. The line’s lack of cohesion was a factor, Drinkwitz said.

“For those guys to be successful,” he said, “they have to have that camaraderie and work together.”

They’ll see some familiar faces across the line Friday. Former Tigers Tre Williams and Markell Utsey both start on Odom’s D-line. Williams leads Arkansas with 34 pressures and 22 hurries but also leads the defense with 10 penalties.

5. Can the Tigers cover Treylon Burks?Mizzou’s depleted secondary faces another major test. For weeks the Tigers have been without several regulars at cornerback and safety and now add cornerback Akayleb Evans to the injury list. He sat out the Florida game with a soft tissue injury and is considered questionable for Friday’s game.

The secondary will have to contend with Hogs All-American candidate Treylon Burks, who if not for Alabama’s Jameson Williams would be the SEC’s top receiver. Arkansas has targeted him 81 times — that’s 53 more targets than anyone on the roster — and he’s caught 59 balls for almost 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Nearly 70% of Burks’ snaps start in the slot, where he’ll see lots of nickelback Kris Abrams-Draine, MU’s best defender in coverage. If Evans can’t play, the Tigers will count on freshman D.J. Jackson, who played well in his first career start last week.

Dave Matter’s prediction: Finally, a Battle Line Rivalry with some bite. Both teams come in playing well, but the Hogs have the more reliable, potent offense and should have the edge playing at home. They won’t cover the 14½ points, but they’re the more complete team. Arkansas 34, Missouri 27

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