No. 23 Missouri looks to continue strong start at Vanderbilt

Field Level Media

September 27, 2023 at 12:15 am.

Leaving little margin for error during its unbeaten start, No. 23 Missouri now heads to Vanderbilt on Saturday for its Southeastern Conference opener in Nashville, Tenn.

The Tigers (4-0, 0-0 SEC) have beaten their only three FBS foes (MTSU, Kansas State and Memphis) by a combined 14 points. That was good enough for The Associated Press voters to rank Missouri for the first time since 2019.

“Our goal wasn’t to be ranked,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said Tuesday. “Our goal is to play for a championship, and this week needs to be 1-0. So … all that is just noise to us. We don’t get caught up in it.”

The Tigers got to this point by taking care of the ball (two turnovers in 256 snaps) and playing good defense (4.7 yards allowed per play).

The trio of wide receiver Luther Burden (32 catches, 504 yards, three touchdowns), quarterback Brady Cook (1,073 yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions) and running back Cody Schrader (league-leading 403 yards, two TDs) leads the Tigers’ offense.

The Missouri defensive backfield has also been a strength. Kris Abrams-Draine, a preseason All-SEC second-team pick, has a pair of interceptions and five breakups, while Daylan Carnell has five tackles for loss.

Defensive lineman Johnny Walker Jr. has three sacks, picking up the slack for preseason All-SEC third-team pick Darius Robinson, who left with an injury in the first quarter last Saturday against Memphis and is questionable for Saturday.

“Darius is battling a strained calf that has really plagued him,” Drinkwitz said. “He keeps trying to go and then at some point in the game, it always goes out on him.”

Not much has gone well lately for the Commodores (2-3, 0-1), who have turned the ball over nine times during a three-game losing streak. Four of those miscues were returned for touchdowns and three others gave opponents possession deep in Vanderbilt territory.

A major culprit has been quarterback AJ Swann, who has thrown seven interceptions. He had two pick-sixes in last weekend’s 45-28 home loss to Kentucky.

“Too often we’re throwing the ball into traffic as if the defense isn’t there,” Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said Tuesday.

Lea also said that Swann’s health — an issue the last two weeks — remains a concern.

Backup Ken Seals saw time against UNLV and Kentucky; he didn’t play last year but started all of the 2020 season and most of 2021 at Vandy.

The Commodores have to get the ball more to receivers Will Sheppard, London Humphreys and Jayden McGowan, who didn’t do much last week against the Wildcats. They’ve combined for 62 catches, 939 yards and nine TDs.

McGowan has also returned a kickoff for a score this season but didn’t register a reception last week.

Vandy could benefit from the return of three starting defensive backs.

De’Rickey Wright (two interceptions) sat out last week with an injury and could return. Fellow safety Jaylen Mahoney, the team’s most experienced player with 48 games and 39 starts, played just 2 1/2 minutes against Kentucky before a targeting ejection. Vandy also hopes to get starting corner BJ Anderson back.