For fans of the teams they love, the best stories are usually unexpected, a complete surprise, and something magical that touches your heart. It’s like imagining a script for the movies, but seeing the fantasy come to life and to create the happiest of endings.
In St. Louis, we didn’t see Kurt Warner or a Super Bowl conquest coming in 1999. We knew and liked our hometown dude David Freese, but couldn’t have predicted his outrageous and heroic assault on pitchers when he took over the 2011 MLB postseason and led the Cardinals to the World Series championship.
For the St. Louis Blues, the tall tale materialized in the form of low-minors goaltender Jordan Binnington, who came to the rescue for a team that had run out of goalies – and was running out of time. A season on the skids turned into the seizing of the Stanley Cup and a parade down Market Street.
There was the old coach, Dick Vermeil, who came out of 14-year retirement to take over the St. Louis Rams before the 1997 season. DV was 9-23 in his first two seasons, and the smart money said he wouldn’t make it to a fourth season. Vermeil began the 1999 season on the firing line and ended it as an eternally beloved leader waving to massive crowds that gathered for a Super Bowl parade. Just amazing.
The 2023 Missouri football Tigers fit the tableau.
Coach Eli Drinkwitz had a .472 winning percentage in his first three seasons as MU’s coach. The fourth season would make or break Eli, and I think most people would have wagered on an inevitable firing instead of putting money down on the probability of an 11-2 season.
The No. 1 quarterback Brady Cook, was booed by the home crowd in the first game of the 2023 season, a hiss of nastiness that drew a rebuke from Coach Drink.
Backup quarterback Sam Horn was the most popular person in Columbia as the people’s choice for a starter. There was the little engine that could, Cody Schrader, the walk-on from Truman State. A lovable lad, yes. The kind of person you root for. But a first-team All American running back? A cute story that evolved into an average of 125.15 yards rushing per game that leads the nation in 2023? Come on, now. No chance. What are you drinking? Y’all have the vapors and need to see a doctor.
The star wide receiver, Luther Burden III, was supposed to be gone. Or something like that. The top wide-receiver recruit in the nation flashed his electric talent as a true freshman in 2022 but Mizzou couldn’t connect with him on downfield passes. That created a fear that Burden would disconnect from the program and enter the dreaded transfer portal. Maybe he’d wind up playing for Nick Saban at Alabama. But LB III has more loyalty than that. He stayed. He endured. He thrived. And Burden became one of the top playmakers in college football in 2023. Instant lightning.
Friday night, the ninth-ranked Missouri Tigers had an on-field celebration after downing No. 7 Ohio State in a 14-3 slugfest on the floor of the Cotton Bowl. I’m going to hit you with all of the cliches. This was a test of will. This was about hunger, determination and a who-wanted-it-more relentlessness to outlast the opponent and raise the trophy.
Seemingly overmatched against the outstanding Ohio State defense, Mizzou’s offense sputtered, and stalled, and recoiled. The Tigers wasted opportunities. They flinched and made their fans wince. Sure, MU was the underdog in this game – but does that role come with an actual offense? Fortunately a rabid Mizzou defense jumped all over the Ohio State and the Buckeyes quarterbacks for 10 tackles for losses, four sacks, and the game’s only takeaway. The Buckeyes never made it to the red zone.
The Missouri offense found a way back up from a subterranean level to hit and bully the Ohio State defense into a late surrender. The 11-point win gave Mizzou its first 11-win season since 2014.
This was Mizzou’s second season with 11-plus wins since the start of the 2014 season. Among SEC programs only Alabama (10) and Georgia (6) have posted more 11+ victories than Missouri over the last ten seasons. That’s something to be proud of.
“We’re not bluebloods – we’re a dirty, hard-working brotherhood that loves each other and fights for each other,” Drinkwitz said during the televised trophy presentation.
And that’s how Missouri prevailed in a brawl that could have made them weak. Instead, the Tigers grew stronger with each exchange of heavy punches.
A year after the hot-seat speculation and hand-wringing over the future, Drinkwitz and the MU administration have the football program rolling in all phases: recruiting, coaching, performance, NIL fundraising, team culture, organization-building, plus facility upgrades and makeovers.
This was a special season because of those responsible for the inspiration that elevated the program. The coach who was on course for failure and a firing, the quarterback who was supposed to lose his job, the running back who was too small and obscure to make a difference, and the wide receiver who seemingly had better places for his talent.
These men can stand with Freese, Warner, Binnington and Vermeil. In the Mizzou family they’re brothers with Gary Pinkel, Dan Devine, Al Onofrio, Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Phil Bradley, Kellen Winslow, Chase Coffman, Brad Smith, Tyler Badie, Devin West, Brock Olivo [– and so many others that would smile in the group photo.
The challenge is to keep the momentum churning to make it last. This can’t be a one-off season to remember. The Tigers have a unique opportunity to transform the football program to elite status. The progress on display in 2023 was immense, but it won’t be easy to sustain. Mizzou will have to keep going, and going and going – just as this indefatigable team did to overtake Ohio State and capture a precious win in the Cotton Bowl.
NOTES ON MY iPAD
= Missouri’s first nine offensive possessions: 41 plays, 105 yards, seven first downs, 2.6 yards per play, eight punts, no points.
= Missouri’s final three possessions: 30 plays, 226 yards, 12 first downs, 7.5 yards per play, no punts, two touchdowns, 14 points.
= This is leadership: on Mizzou’s final three drives that put them in the lead and then in full control, Schrader and Cook accounted for 11 of the team’s 12 first downs: five rushing first downs by Schrader, and four passing first downs by Cook, and two rushing first downs by Cook.
= This is also leadership: on MU’s final three game-altering, win-capturing drives Schrader rushed 17 times for 80 yards and put the Tigers ahead to stay on a seven-yard touchdown run. On the final three possessions Cook completed all four passing attempts for 95 yards, and took off on four rushes that produced 29 yards. Missouri was unable to put much together until Cook ignited the offense with a 50-yard completion to Marquis Johnson. That set up the first touchdown. And then QB from St. Louis zapped Ohio State with a 31-yard pass of perfection to Theo Wease to move closer to the second touchdown.
= Based on passing yards and rushing yards, Cook and Schrader accounted for 322 of Mizzou’s 331 yards in the win.
= After hammering away at the Ohio State defense for 128 rushing yards, Schrader finished his career at Missouri by establishing a single-season record in rushing yards with 1,627. That ranks 13th on the list of the most prolific rushing-yards seasons in SEC history. It’s cool to see Schrader’s name hanging with the likes of Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith, Darren McFadden, Derrick Henry, Mark Ingram, Charles Alexander, Trent Richardson, Nick Chubb and Garrison Hearst – among others.
= Mizzou’s defense held Ohio State to three points, breaking the Buckeyes’ 100-game streak of scoring no fewer than 16 points in a game. OSU had scored fewer than 20 points in only two of the 100 games during the streak. The streak began back in 2016, after Ohio State’s offense was shut out by Clemson (31-0) in the 2016 football-playoff semifinals.
= The Buckeyes scored three points on 11 possessions. Their 11 drives generated only 203 yards on 57 snaps, an average of 3.6 yards per play. MU’s defense forced eight punts and a fumble. Ohio State’s quarterbacks were sacked four times, hit often, and were under duress for most of the night. The lone takeaway (the fumble) on a quarterback hit set up Mizzou to run out the final 3 minutes and 13 seconds on the clock. Missouri stopped Ohio State on 13 of 15 third-down situations and didn’t allow the Buckeyes to reach the red zone.
= Two keys in Mizzou’s in-game resurgence, which began late in the third quarter: (A) offensive coordinator Kirby Moore went back to Mizzou’s strength and attacked the Buckeyes with a power-running approach led by Schrader and Cook. And (B) Missouri’s offensive line repeatedly muscled Ohio State’s defense out of the way in an exhibition of brute force.
= Burden grabbed Mizzou’s second touchdown on a seven-yard zip-line pass from Cook and put a lid on the win by sprinting for 20 yards on a late fourth-and-short play. Burden completed his excellent sophomore season with 86 catches for 1,212 yards and had 1,243 total yards (and nine touchdowns) from scrimmage. Burden is fifth among SEC players for most yards from scrimmage. Schrader leads the conference in the category with 1,818 scrimmage yards. And Schrader is tied for fourth in the SEC with 14 TDs from scrimmage.
Thank you to Mizzou’s Tigers for the ideal gift to close 2023.
And thanks all of you for reading!
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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