'It falls on us': How Mizzou football's wide receivers can help solve its third-down woes

Chris Kwiecinski
Columbia Daily Tribune

It had been a while since Mookie Cooper played a snap of live-action football. 

Turn the clock back to Dec. 1, 2018, when Trinity Catholic beat Cardinal Ritter to win the MSHSAA Class 3 state championship game at Faurot Field.

On Sept. 4, 2021, Cooper was back at Faurot Field as Missouri beat Central Michigan. He wasn't 100% healthy — Cooper is still nursing a foot injury — but as he caught four passes for 12 yards, he accomplished a bigger goal.

"It was about getting the feel of the game again," Cooper said Wednesday. "Going out there and getting hit again for the first time since the state championship game my junior year."

The Tigers know they have much to work on after defeating the Chippewas 34-24 as a 14.5-point favorite, but getting a feel for the game, like Cooper did, is more imperative for the offense as a whole.

Specifically on third down, where Missouri was 1 of 11 against Central Michigan. But, the wide receivers group can help fix those struggles.

Missouri wide receiver D'ionte Smith (31) cannot make a catch against Central Michigan defensive back Daedae Hill (6) last Saturday at Faurot Field.

"We stunk at it," Drinkwitz said about Missouri's third-down offense last weekend. "I've got to do a better job at getting the quarterback options. It's on me."

More:How good was Blaze Alldredge? Grading Mizzou after its win over Central Michigan

This Saturday's game against Kentucky is a significant early-season matchup, and it goes without saying the third-down offense can't sputter like it did against Central Michigan. Those struggles led to wasted takeaways, squandered field position and surrendered momentum.

While it's not a problem that lies solely at the receivers' feet, three spoke Wednesday about what they could do better.

"That was the alarming statistic that we needed to raise our attention to," wide receiver Keke Chism said. "Especially on those third-down situations, we've really got to lock in."

Chism said playing receiver is all about executing the smaller details. Those details, however, require doing a little bit of everything.

They're depended on to block, understand situational football, run precise routes and discern how the defense is covering them. The more a receiver understands all of these details, the easier it is for quarterback Connor Bazelak to throw precise passes and extend drives.

That's a lot to learn, but Chism noted offensive improvement heading into Saturday against Kentucky falls on the receivers who hold the expectation of making plays.

"It falls on us a lot, we're the playmakers on the offense," Chism said. "You've got to keep drives going, you've got to be able to put up points in the red zone. 

But, it goes beyond just the third downs and red zone moments. Missouri's offense could have benefited from playmakers much earlier than that.

More:On the Beat: Kentucky football's strengths and weaknesses heading into Saturday's game vs. Mizzou

Against Central Michigan, Bazelak threw incompletions on nine of 14 passes he threw on second down. That led to third-and-long situations of eight yards or longer, as opposed to manageable third-and-four or -three, where the entire playbook is open.

In fact, the lone third down Missouri converted, on third-and-three with 4:29 left in the third quarter, was set up by a six-yard reception by Chance Luper on second-and-nine.

Some of the under-executed plays were just a result of the offense playing in its first game of the season.

Cooper remembers one of those plays well, third-and-14 on the Central Michigan 45 in the first quarter. He took a screen  for three yards before getting tackled, but later Cooper knew what he could've done to make that three-yard gain into much more.

"Everyone told me the first one could've got big," Cooper said. "I misread my block."

Missouri wide receiver Mookie Cooper (5) runs the ball as Central Michigan defensive back Devonni Reed (5) defends last Saturday at Faurot Field.

More:Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz sees game against Kentucky as measuring stick for Tigers' growth

That skill will come back, especially as Cooper continues to heal his foot injury. Cooper said he was limited running routes with his injury, as his foot would cause him to pull up on routes and give the defense an indicator of when he would change direction.

The injury is something Cooper said is getting better daily.

"My foot, it's been getting better every day," Cooper said. "This week, it was more of me practicing those cuts, just getting used to it."

As Missouri's receivers heal their injuries and get back into the flow of the game, it could lead to bigger moments and plays.

One of those moments was a 63-yard pass from Bazelak to D'ionte "Boo" Smith on the first play of the game.

"It felt good," Smith said. "Once it touched my hand, it felt like all the moments we'd been working for, it started right now."

That play energized Faurot Field. It led to a touchdown on the very next play and a had the crowd into the game immediately.

Plays like that on the road are perhaps even more significant to keep the crowd out of the game and in their seats.

As Chism simply put, a team that converts less than 10% of its third downs probably won't win many games in the SEC — let alone a pivotal early-season game against an SEC East rival.

"It's a big game, because it's the next game," Chism said. "This is a big test, a big challenge on the road. It's going to be a hostile environment at night."

Chris Kwiecinski is the sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, overseeing University of Missouri and Boone County sports coverage. Follow him on Twitter @OchoK_ and contact him at CKwiecinsk@gannett.com or 435-414-3261.