It took all 12 weeks of the season, but on Black Friday, we finally saw the hope for the future of the Missouri offense.
The Tigers scored on six of their first seven drives, staking Mizzou to a 29-21 lead and hanging on for a 29-27 victory. Dominic Lovett vaulted himself into fourth on the SEC’s receiving list for the regular season, at least as of now. Luther Burden scored a touchdown. Cody Schrader did too. Mookie Cooper and Mekhi Miller contributed. Those players are all scheduled to return next season.
“We showed what the Missouri offense could be,” Lovett said, after a six-catch, 130-yard game.
“I’d say that’s a pretty accurate statement,” quarterback Brady Cook said when asked if Friday was a glimpse of the future for the Mizzou passing game. “Just goes to show you we can get the ball to a lot of different athletes and a lot of different people can make plays.”
Cook was one of the guys making those plays. Maybe the most of them. Written off all season long—and I’m not casting blame here, because I’ve been right there with you at plenty of times—Brady Cook put together his best game of the year. He out K.J. Jefferson’ed KJ Jefferson.
Cook completed 16-of-26 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown. He ran 18 times for 138 yards and another score. That’s 380 total yards to Jefferson’s 243. It was the most rushing yards by a Missouri quarterback since James Franklin in the 2011 Independence Bowl win over North Carolina. Cook talked about learning to take his outlets and what the defense is giving him.
“Sometimes, the outlet is my feet,” he said.
Perhaps more than any of those numbers was this: Facing third and four with the game on the line with two minutes to go, Eli Drinkwitz finally showed the trust in Cook that he hasn’t all season. Rather than running the ball, punting it back to the Razorbacks and trusting his defense to get a stop, Drinkwitz and Bush Hamdan let the game ride on Cook’s right arm. He rifled a pass to true freshman Mekhi Miller for a gain of 22 yards that effectively ended Arkansas’ chances and sealed Missouri’s sixth win.
“We wanted to win the game,” Drinkwitz said.
Would he have made that call and put the game in the hands of his quarterback a few weeks ago?
“I don’t know,” he said. “But we did it today.”
Here’s why: In his last five games, Cook has completed 90-of-138 passes (65.2%) for 1081 yards and seven touchdowns. He has run the ball 60 times for 385 yards and four more scores. He has done it all with a grand total of one turnover.
The Tigers won three of those games to scratch and claw their way to guaranteed bowl eligibility. Throw in a 17-14 win over Vanderbilt in the season’s seventh game and Cook guided Missouri to a 4-2 second half of the season that was a freak ending against Kentucky away from 5-1.
Person after person that talked about Cook brought up his increased confidence as a reason for his improved play. But it’s not just Cook’s confidence in himself. The coaching staff seems to have more belief he can make a play for them than it did in the first half of the season. Maybe his teammates do too.
“That means a lot,” Cook said. “We had to make a play to win the game. I think that play helped us out a little bit.”
Here’s the real question: Is it enough that he’s Eli Drinkwitz’s starting quarterback in 2023?
That depends on two projections.
First of all, what do the Tigers think they have in Sam Horn? Those of us who aren’t in the building every day have no idea. Horn has thrown two passes and run one time for ten yards this season. He has been on the field for only one throwaway series against New Mexico State. We know he has four stars next to his name. We know he has the physical build of an NFL quarterback and a right arm capable of throwing a 95-mph fastball. What we don’t know is if he is capable of being a good starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.
The other projection is about Cook himself. Is there more growth? Or is the performance we saw over the last five weeks—which was better, but not star quality—the ceiling?
Cook took great strides in the offseason to win the job. He has taken great strides during the season to the point where Missouri actually fielded a competent offense. But is that offense good enough to win a significant number of games in 2023? It’s a fair question. Missouri needs at least the quarterback play it got on Saturday on a relatively consistent basis next season and they aren’t going to have the luxury of playing a defense as porous as Arkansas’ every week.
Obviously, Missouri is going to have to continue to put pieces around—and in front of—him. It’s not all on the quarterback. But it’s never all been on the quarterback, despite what many of us have often piled on Cook this season. Much of the year, the common discussion point has been that Missouri was a quarterback away from having a good team. But what if they already have that quarterback?
In the last five weeks of the season, Cook has averaged 293.2 yards of total offense, accounted for 11 touchdowns and turned the ball over once. One loss could have changed based on a rule that seems incredibly silly involving when a punter is no longer a punter. In the other, the normally reliable Missouri defense gave up 66 points.
Cook earned the doubt we all had through the first seven weeks of the season. Through it all, he never responded. Maybe it bothered him. We don’t really know. He says it didn’t.
“My mindset’s never changed,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of noise out there. That’s just part of the job of being an SEC quarterback. I’ve battled through a lot of adversity. I’ll continue to fight for Mizzou. I love this school. I love this team. I love all of our coaches. And no outside noise is going to change that.”
If we insist he earned the criticism, we must also be willing to admit he’s forced us to reconsider. He talks like a leader. Can he be the leader of this team in 2023? For the first time all year, I’m open to the possibility.