COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Eli Drinkwitz has seen enough of Tennessee’s offense over his first three seasons at Missouri.
There was the 2020 game when the Vols piled up 423 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-12 rout that, by the standards of the next two seasons, was relatively close. Two years ago, Tennessee ran for 458 yards and five touchdowns in a 62-24 blowout, and last year, coach Josh Heupel’s crew threw for 460 yards and ran for 264 in a 66-24 shellacking of the Tigers.
No. 16 Missouri (7-2, 3-2 SEC, No. 14 CFP) may have its best defense in years, though, heading into Saturday’s game against the No. 14 Volunteers (7-2, 3-2, No. 13) at Faurot Field. The Tigers are fifth in the SEC and among the top 25 nationally in defending the run, while Ennis Rakestraw Jr. and Kris Abrams-Draine give them two of the league’s top cornerbacks.
Maybe this will be the year the Tigers finally hold the Vols in check.
“Last year, teams weren’t able to defend the pass with the dynamic wide receivers they had,” Drinkwitz said this week, “and this year, (Heupel) has been able to do a really good job of scheming up runs, utilizing the quarterback’s legs. But I think he’s always been able to do that. At least against us he has.”
In fact, Heupel has been able to do it against three different Missouri defensive coordinators.
This year’s group is led by a three-headed monster in the backfield that is averaging 5.77 yards per carry, the fifth-best mark in the country. Jaylen Wright is second in the FBS with 7.51 yards per carry and leads the SEC with six 100-yard games, the most by a Tennessee running back in a season since Jalen Hurd in 2015.
“I mean, he’s got the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC and the No. 1 rushing defense in the SEC. So, I think Josh, who much like good offensive coordinators do, always starts with trying to figure out how to run the football,” Drinkwitz said. “Then, if they try to take the run away, he has answers vertically down the field throwing the ball.”
That’s what happened against Alabama, when its stingy defense held the Vols to just 133 yards on the ground in a 34-20 win. Joe Milton III kept them alive, throwing for 271 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a game Tennessee led at the half.
Still, everything the Vols want to do starts with the run game.
“Being able to be rated at the top means a lot,” Tennessee offensive lineman Ollie Lane said. “Through this whole offseason, that was a big point of emphasis for us that we have to be able to run the ball. That’s SEC football everywhere.”
Even though the Vols have beaten the Tigers by a combined 128-48 over Heupel’s first two seasons, the series has been close over the years with Tennessee holding a 6-5 advantage. This will be the first time both are ranked when they play each other.
If there was one positive for Missouri in last year’s lopsided loss to Tennessee, it was quarterback Brady Cook, who threw for 221 yards and three touchdowns while running for another 106 yards. He has already thrown for 2,471 yards with 16 touchdown passes and only five interceptions this season.
“He’s smart, he’s accurate with the football and he is athletic,” Heupel said. “We have to do a great job in the pass game. We have to affect him, not let him be comfortable in the pocket.”
Tennessee is still trying to figure out how to make up for the season-ending injury to cornerback Kamal Hadden in its loss to Alabama. The Vols have been vulnerable defending the pass this season, and Cook has the Tigers averaging 284.9 yards through the air. That’s fifth in the SEC and No. 23 in the country.
MORE ON MILTON
Milton was 3 for 3 for 105 yards and a score in mop-up duty against Missouri last season, and he is coming off a near-perfect game in the Vols’ 59-3 whipping of UConn. He only threw 14 times but still had 254 yards passing and two touchdowns. He has thrown a TD pass in 13 consecutive games, tied with Tony Robinson for the third-longest streak in school history.
Tennessee is outscoring opponents 89-29 in the first quarter this season. The Vols have scored at least one touchdown in the first 15 minutes under Heupel in 31 of his 35 games on their sideline. In fact, they have been shut out in the first quarter only once this season — surprisingly, a 30-13 win over Austin Peay in their home opener.
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