Across The Field: Missouri Beat Writer Chris Kwiecinski Details the Tigers’ Breakout Season, Eliah Drinkwitz’s Growth and Mizzou’s Offensive Weapons

By Garrick Hodge on December 24, 2023 at 8:35 am
Brady Cook handing the ball to Cody Schrader
Saul Young/News Sentinel/USA TODAY Network

Before each Ohio State game, Eleven Warriors catches up with a media member who covers the opposing team to get his or her perspective on the Buckeyes' upcoming opponent.

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In the final game of the 2023 season, Ohio State faces Missouri in the Cotton Bowl on Friday. It’s the first Cotton Bowl appearance for the Buckeyes since 2017 and the first time these two teams will meet in a bowl game.

Missouri had a breakout year in Eliah Drinkwitz's fourth year at Missouri, winning 10 games for the first time since the 2014 season. The Tigers have plenty of star power, especially on offense, led by wide receiver Luther Burden, running back Cody Schrader and quarterback Brady Cook. 

To help break down the matchup, we're joined by Chris Kwiecinski of the Columbia Daily Tribune, who discusses the buzz around Columbia, Missouri's offensive weapons and the growth of Drinkwitz.

This arguably may be Missouri’s biggest game since the 2014 SEC Championship. What’s the vibe around the Tigers right now and how much of a lift has this season given the program? 

Chris Kwiecinski: That’s a correct assessment. This is the biggest game the program has had in a decade, not just because of the nature of the New Year’s Six but because of how this is a chance to continue the program’s upward momentum. This season, Eli Drinkwitz landed the No. 2 player in the country, flipped one of the best receivers from Arkansas and raided multiple four-star players from Florida. Then, his Tigers went out and won 10 games and could very well have won 11 if a few bounces went their way. This was the kind of season Drinkwitz has promised and he has delivered. It’s a good time to be a Missouri Tiger.

Eli Drinkwitz’s first three years at Mizzou seemed to all be very similar with average results. What changed for him this season? 

Kwiecinski: What changed is Drinkwitz taking some accountability and handing off playcalling duties, and hiring Kirby Moore to do that. Calling Moore a breath of fresh air is an understatement; he oversaw a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher this year. Plus, Blake Baker’s defense improved from where it was last season, which wasn’t an easy feat. Drinkwitz took more of a CEO role, and trusted his coaches to put the players in the right spots. That paid off in dividends.

When looking at Mizzou’s offense, a lot of talk starts with wideout Luther Burden. How much of a weapon is he offensively for the Tigers? 

Kwiecinski: If Brady Cook is the offense’s frontman, Luther Burden is the rock guitarist. He can do so many things in so many different ways that just make you stop and go “woah.” His catch radius is at an NFL level. He’s deadly running routes in the seams and he has the speed to beat basically any defensive back.

The attention he draws allows Theo Wease to get matched up in one-on-one situations, which is great for a receiver who’s become known for winning a high amount of contested catches. This doesn’t even touch on how good Burden is as a run blocker on the perimeter. When Burden is used as a decoy, watch how many defenders flock to him. He opens up so much for Missouri’s offense by just existing.

Running back Cody Schrader has also been a star for the Tigers, what have you made of his season so far? 

Kwiecinski: Cody amazes me simply because the more carries he gets, the more effective he becomes. Running backs are not meant to endure the amount of usage Schrader has seen in his college career, but that doesn’t matter to Schrader. His 20th carry of the game will be just as powerful, if not more so, than his first. Schrader has given Missouri a consistent running game and has emerged as a threat in the passing game too as a pass blocker and receiver. He’s a perfect compliment to Missouri’s passing game.

What type of quarterback would you say Brady Cook is and how has he progressed as the season has gone on?

Kwiecinski: Cook is above a game manager but below a superstar type of quarterback. His ceiling is not as high as, say, a Jayden Daniels. But, Cook has shown he can win games with his arm this year which was a question we had last season when Missouri finished 6-7 in his first year as a starter. Cook’s deep ball is accurate, his intermediate throws improved too and his ability to extend plays has remained a massive boon for MU.

We found out this year that Brady is tough mentally and physically. Fans were calling for anyone but him after Missouri barely beat Middle Tennessee State, but Cook shut everyone up with a lights-out performance to beat Kansas State to kick start the Tigers’ rise this season. Cook has settled in as a passer and runner, and he knows what constitutes as “trying to do too much.” He might not win a Heisman, but he can win plenty of big games.

Brady Cook
Brady Cook has completed 66.4% of his passing attempts for 3,189 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. (Photo: Jay Biggerstaff – USA TODAY Sports)

Moving to Missouri’s defense, it seems statistically that this is a good but not great unit. What are the strengths and weaknesses on that side of the ball?

Kwiecinski: It’s funny, since Missouri’s defense has been a great unit. It might not show in the stats, but this unit has become better at the fundamentals. They tackle consistently, they cover well and they have the players that can make plays when needed. The biggest difference is there isn’t as much pressure on the defense to perform since the offense is playing at such a high level.

The defense’s biggest strength is their experience; the Tigers don’t get flustered often on defense and can adjust when they need to. The team’s weakness is keeping the opposition’s best players bottled up. Jayden Daniels torched Missouri, the Tigers struggled to contain Kansas State’s Ben Sinnott and they couldn’t make the one play they needed to against Georgia to pull off an upset. That’s not a big weakness, since not every team has a superstar player, but it’ll come into play against an Ohio State team that has one of the best receivers college football has seen in years.

Who are some other players Ohio State fans should pay attention to in this matchup we haven’t discussed?

Kwiecinski: Kris Abrams-Draine is a very good man-defense cover corner, and I want to see how he matches up with Marvin Harrison Jr.’s ability to just do everything at a high level. It’ll test Abrams-Draine, who is also looking like he can be a day two or early day three draft pick this April.

Brett Norfleet is MU’s freshman tight end who was one of the best freshmen in the SEC this year. I can’t wait to see him against OSU’s defense in an NFL stadium. (The old Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis does not count, Missouri played there in Week 4 and the turf was an atrocity.)

What in your opinion is the biggest factor in the Cotton Bowl on both sides of the ball?

Kwiecinski: I want to say depth. It’s no secret Ohio State lost plenty of players to the transfer portal since the regular season ended. Missouri has lost some too, but Drinkwitz is giving them the option to play in the Cotton Bowl if they want, which I want to say is usually not the case.

I know Ohio State has the luxury of replacing a five-star or four-star with another four-star thanks to its status as a blue-blood program, but Missouri will be at full strength and can go pretty deep in its depth chart thanks to its player development. I’m interested in seeing if Ohio State can do the same. I know the Buckeyes have the talent, but having that experience is the next step beyond that.

Finally, while Ohio State isn’t going to punt this game by any means, it feels like Mizzou is treating it like a playoff contest. How do you see this game playing out and give us a score prediction if you have one.

Kwiecinski: Missouri is absolutely treating this like it’s the most important game in years, and, well, it is. Beat Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, and the win will be talked about for years to come and will be remembered forever, regardless of who plays. The Tigers’ momentum both as a program and in the recruiting realm is at an all-time high. It busts through the roof with a win here.

I see this game being tough for both teams, but for the Tigers more so. There’s so much to play for. Transfer portal losses aside, Missouri has played a team this talented just twice this year in LSU and Georgia. This has the makings of a thriller. It’ll be a one-score game in the end and it just depends on who can make the one play when it matters most. If it comes down to Missouri’s offense, that’s a win for Missouri. I see this as 34-30, Tigers hold on by the seat of their collective pants.

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