COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz was proud his team wouldn’t let the obstacles they’ve faced this season keep them from success.
And he happily congratulated them, COVID-19 worries and all, after the Tigers’ 17-10 victory over South Carolina on Saturday night.
“Can you grab me hand sanitizer? I’ve been touching a lot of players,” he said.
Coronavirus has severely impacted the Tigers this year: they had just 52 scholarship players available this week and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters remained at home because of contact tracing concerns.
Still, Missouri and quarterback Connor Bazelak opened a 17-0 lead in the first half and defense held on to defeat the Gamecocks 17-10 on Saturday night.
The Tigers hadn’t played since Oct. 31 because of a bye week and a postponement of their game last week with Georgia. Drinkwitz wasn’t sure he’d get this one either with his dwindling roster.
“That’s a (Division) I-AA roster right now,” Drinkwitz said.
Instead, they played like a winning SEC team as Bazelak threw for 203 yards and a touchdown and the defense, under substitute coordinator David Gibbs, choked off the Gaemcocks when it mattered most.
“I’m really excited we got the win and (the defense) really took us home,” Bazelak said.
Larry Rountree III rushed for a score and became the Tigers all-time time rushing leader among running backs for the Tigers (3-3 Southeastern Conference).
It was the fourth straight loss for South Carolina (2-6), which fired coach Will Muschamp last Sunday and took a half to get itself going.
Bazelak and the Missouri offense weren’t crisp. Then again, they didn’t have to be as the Tigers opened up a 17-0 lead by halftime and kept the Gamecocks off balance much of the way.
South Carolina managed just 68 yards and five first downs in the opening half, punting five times and failing to convert a fourth down in six series before halftime.
The Tigers essentially put the game out of reach on Bezelak’s pretty 20-yard TD throw to Tauskie Dove midway through the opening quarter.
Rountree’s 1-yard burst made it 14-0 and Missouri ended the half with Harrison Mevis’ 20-yard field goal to head to the locker room up 17-0.
Rountree finished with 58 yards, giving the senior 3,238 for his career and moving him past Zack Abrom who played from 2000-03. Only quarterback Brad Smith is ahead of Rountree’s school career rushing total with 4,289 yards.
South Carolina freshman quarterback Luke Doty provided a second-half spark in place of season-long starter Collin Hill, rallying the team to within a touchdown after Deshaun Fenwick’s 1-yard TD run made it 17-10.
The Gamecocks had one last drive, but Doty was intercepted by Devin Nicholson and Missouri held on for the win.
Still, South Carolina linebacker Ernest Jones the team dedicated the game to Muschamp and didn’t give in when Missouri started fast. “Nobody on this team quit tonight,” Jones said.
Mike Bobo, the first-year offensive coordinator elevated to interim coach, talked this week of settling nerves and restoring effort for a fragile group of players. But during the week, several players opted out of the season including starting cornerbacks — and likely NFL draft picks — Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu.
In addition, Bobo said two defensive line starters in Aaron Sterling and Brad Johnson were lost for the year with injuries.
That opened things up for the Tigers and Bezelak, who completed 13 of 21 passes for 140 yards the first 30 minutes.
Missouri: Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz had a major role in South Carolina’s run of 11 losses in 14 games. He was head coach of Appalachian State last year when it defeated the Gamecocks 20-15 before this Missouri win.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks didn’t win, but may have found a rallying point in freshman Luke Doty, who got the offense going and showed his speed and elusiveness after coming for starter Collin Hill in the second half.
While it’s only .500, Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said his team’s play in this difficult season was a testament to their hard work and dedication. And Drinkwitz doesn’t plan to forget those doubters who thought the Tigers would struggle even more. “I’ve got a couple of screen shots of people who said we’d win two games,” he said.
South Carolina coach Mike Bobo said receiver Shi Smith seemed “cognitive” in the locker room and appeared in good spirits after leaving the game from a hard hit in the opening quarter. Bobo said it was too soon to tell if Smith would be ready for Georgia next week. Smith is South Carolina’s leader with 54 catches for 605 yards.
Missouri plays Arkansas at home next Saturday.
South Carolina ends its home season against No. 13 Georgia next Saturday night.