Eli Drinkwitz called Kentucky a 'measuring stick.' Where do things stand after the loss?
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Finding the right balance between short-term importance and long-term responsibility was a deceiving challenge for Eli Drinkwitz heading into Missouri's game against Kentucky on Saturday night.
Yes, it was the first Southeastern Conference matchup of the 2021 season, and Missouri wanted to start on the right path toward winning the SEC East.
No, Missouri didn't get the job done despite battling back from a two-touchdown deficit on three separate occasions in the 35-28 loss to the Wildcats at Kroger Field.
Yes, it was the first road game Drinkwitz faced as the Tigers' head coach with no crowd restrictions.
No, Drinkwitz wanted to push the brakes on a quick judgment of his team after falling to Kentucky, stating how the Tigers still have 10 regular-season games left despite losing a crucial contest.
"I'm proud of my football team, really friggin' proud of them. I mean, they fought their butt off in a hostile crowd," Drinkwitz said. "They frickin' fought their butt off, blocked the field goal and gave us a chance to win the game. We didn't get it done, but there's no reason to hang our heads.
"There's no reason to panic. Nobody needs to panic or jump on Twitter and go crazy. Relax. It's Week 2, on the road, at night, SEC football game versus a good opponent. We had a chance to win. We didn't get it done. We'll go back to work tomorrow and we'll go to fixing it."
The game had an official attendance of 58,437, which tops the 2021 Kentucky Derby (51,838) for the largest crowd in the state since start of the pandemic.
Missouri never led in the game and put itself in a hole with three of its first four drives ending in punts.
There was a step up in competition from Central Michigan to Kentucky, and the quality opposition showed in slowing down the Tigers.
Starting running back Tyler Badie decreased from 203 yards rushing against the Chippewas to 64 yards on the ground against Kentucky.
The senior found a way to contribute, adding 10 receptions for 88 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown.
However, it's hard to look at any individuals' stats when Drinkwitz had a one-track mind on his team in the minutes following the defeat.
"It's a good reminder for myself. I mean, it's one football game of 12 that we fought our butt off," Drinkwitz said. "We played hard, we had an opportunity, we didn't get it done. But, there's a lot of season left and a lot of fight left in this football team, and that's what I like to see.
"... They could have easily tucked their tail and they didn't, they didn't do that. Our team didn't do that; we kept fighting. That's a good sign. We've got to get a lot of things fixed, a lot of things fixed, and again, we've got to do it in a hurry."
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While the frustration to leave Lexington without a win was evident from Drinkwitz, where are the fixes Drinkwitz is talking about, and how do the Tigers make those repairs?
We will likely have to wait two weeks for concrete answers to any of those questions, with Missouri facing FCS-level Southeast Missouri State in Week 3. The Tigers travel to face Boston College to end the month of September.
Missouri offensive lineman and team captain Case Cook took it upon himself to help in those efforts.
"It's 100% our job up front to get things moving on offense, whether it's run game or pass game," Cook said. "We've just got to get in there and play good with our eyes and make sure we're opening up lanes and protecting the quarterback. And so I take responsibility, personally. I think I've got to do a better job coming out in the beginning of the game. And we've got to do a better job as a unit on offense.
"So that's all there is to it."
Drinkwitz mentioned several times during this offseason the phrase "closing the gap" with the intention of inching closer to an SEC East tile.
That comes with advancing the program closer to Georgia and Florida among the league's elite.
Yet, with Kentucky's maturation on both sides of the ball, the Wildcats may have entered the season in better position to challenge the Gators and Bulldogs this season.
Missouri nearly knocked off that Wildcats team on the road.
The Tigers have no room for moral victories, however.
"I don't like the word victory when you just lost a game," Missouri starting quarterback Connor Bazelak said. "I'm proud of this team and how we fought and competed and took the punches they were throwing."
It's a similar tone on defense where production sharply fell against Kentucky.
The Tigers posted nine sacks versus Central Michigan, but that total dropped to two against the Wildcats.
"We just didn't start fast. Then we found our rhythm," Missouri safety Martez Manuel said. "We put our offense in a bind. We didn't step up in the biggest moments that we needed to. And that's something that as a captain, I need to go back and see how I can improve on that this season. It's Week 2.
"We will get it fixed."
Contact Eric Blum at email@example.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.