COLUMBIA — After an afternoon of lighting up LSU's defense, Eli Drinkwitz put his trust in Missouri's defense.
They repaid him for that trust, standing up No. 17 LSU on four consecutive plays to preserve a 45-41 win Saturday afternoon at Faurot Field after the visiting Tigers earned a first-and-goal at the Missouri 1-yard line with less than a minute left on the clock.
Drinkwitz's first career win in Columbia came against the defending national champions, came despite three fumbles and a failed fake punt early in the game, and happened with Missouri missing three of its top five receivers because of coronavirus protocols and three of its best interior defensive linemen because of injury and quarantine.
Instrumental in two run stuffs on first and second downs, with the game on the line, do-it-all linebacker Nick Bolton got his hand to a Myles Brennan pass on third down, and safety Joshuah Bledsoe made a full-extension dive to break up the fourth-down pass to Terrace Marshall Jr. in the front corner of the end zone, running to midfield to celebrate with teammates as Missouri's offense took over with :16 on the clock.
Bolton — who practiced all week with a green no-contact jersey, was not at 100 percent while playing through pain and endured cramps at the end of the game — finished with game-highs of 11 tackles, seven solo tackles and three pass break-ups.
"There wasn't really a message," Bolton said after the game of taking the field for the final series. "It was understanding, if they score, we lose, we go 0-3."
A QB sneak for no gain iced the game, and Missouri's players were celebrating in the locker room not long after.
It was the program's first home win against a ranked opponent since beating No. 18 Texas A&M 28-21 in 2013 to win its first of two SEC East titles.
"Our guys didn't flinch today," Drinkwitz said. "They didn't flinch after terrible turnovers, they didn't flinch after getting the ball on the 1-yard line, they didn't flinch being down, they just kept fighting. That's our No. 1 core value, always compete, and I'm damn proud of this football team.
"It was our will versus theirs, and we wanted it more. Bottom line."
Missouri's defense gave up 430 yards passing and didn't force a turnover until that fourth-down play, but it bottled up LSU to the tune of 0-for-10 on third-down tries. Tre Williams blocked a field goal with seven minutes to play to keep LSU's lead to three points at 41-38. Then quarterback Connor Bazelak marched the offense 77 yards in four plays, capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Niko Hea to put the Tigers ahead 45-41 with 5:18 to play.
"It wasn't 100 percent how we designed it to end up, but Niko found an opening in the defense, I just kinda had to put it on him," Bazelak said, "low, put it in his stomach to where only he could catch it. He caught it, made a great play, it gave us the lead, and then the defense took it from there."
Bazelak turned in a performance for the history books in just his second collegiate start, completing 29-of-34 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns through the air, matching Brennan in every way. He was precise, timely and unflappable in the pocket, even with a strip sack early in the second quarter, and gave the LSU defense fits all afternoon.
It was the first time a Missouri quarterback passed for more than 400 yards in a Southeastern Conference game since Drew Lock and the Tigers beat Arkansas 48-45 in 2017.
"He played his butt off today, man," Missouri running back Larry Rountree III said of Bazelak. "And I expected that, I promise. I told the guys last night, 'I expect nothing but your best.' It doesn't surprise me, because I know what he can do, and this isn't even the tip of the iceberg for him.
"All of us can do better."
Rountree piled up 119 rushing yards on 18 carries, passing Devin West for fourth on Missouri's career rushing leaders list and topping 3,000 career rushing yards in the same game as the Tigers averaged 5.5 yards per carry against LSU. Tyler Badie continued his dual-threat ability with a 29-yard scoring run in the second quarter and a 21-yard touchdown reception. Jalen Knox continued to add his name to the list, taking a jet sweep 16 yards for a score in the second quarter.
Without receivers Keke Chism, Damon Hazelton and Dominic Gicinto, and defensive linemen Kobie Whiteside (leg), Akial Byers and Darius Robinson (ankle), Missouri's opening two drives looked at first like it felt forced into breaking out every gadget play in the playbook in order to keep things close.
Missouri took the opening possession, handed off twice to Rountree and threw a short pass to Badie, and then opened the fireworks with a flea-flicker, with Rountree pitching back to Bazelak who connected with an open Tauskie Dove for 58 yards, the first passing touchdown of Bazelak's career and Dove's first receiving score. Dove waltzed the final 20 yards into the end zone after two LSU defenders whiffed on a tackle and he and his teammates celebrated their first lead of the season less than two minutes into the game.
After LSU answered to tie the game with a 4-play, 75-yard drive and a 39-yard kick return by Badie, Missouri's longest since 2017, the Tigers stalled out at their 47. On a fourth-and-3, punter Grant McKinniss tried a pass to Knox but it was broken up, and LSU moved back down the field to lead 14-7.
But it quickly became apparent Missouri wasn't just fighting for air. After getting gashed at Tennessee, the run defense held LSU to 1 yard in the first half and 49 yards in the game, and the Tigers seemed to answer every LSU score with one of their own.
Dove hauled in six catches for 83 yards and a score, speedy wide receiver D'ionte Smith had six catches for 54 yards, Chance Luper had one reception for 69 yards, mostly after the catch, Knox and Barrett Banister were their usual reliable selves with five receptions for 56 yards and four receptions for 52 yards, respectively, and Hea and QB-to-WR convert Micah Wilson both caught their first career receiving touchdowns.
Wilson's was a 41-yard reception in the third quarter, the result of a busted zone coverage by LSU. He went free up the sideline, and pulled in a pass Bazelak put on his fingers in-stride.
"The corner was soft (not pressing), and then the safety, I don't know if there was a miscommunication or what, but he was low," Wilson said. "So when I saw him go low, I was like, 'Oh, that's a house call.'"
Knox and Banister were the only pass-catchers with any real starting experience before the LSU game, and four receivers notched their first career receptions in the same game.
Bazelak's sack-fumble was one of two Missouri turnovers on offense. Freshman Kris Abrams-Draine fumbled two punt returns, the second of which he recovered, and Rountree fumbled the ball away at Missouri's first drive of the second half at the Tigers' 5-yard line. Though a TV angle showed he may have been down before the ball came out, it was never reviewed.
In all, with the failed punt fake added in, LSU (1-2) scored 24 points off of four Missouri turnovers, with all four drives starting in Missouri territory. Missouri (1-2) won anyway.
"It's always great, but it's not the be-all end-all," Bolton said. "We still have bigger goals, bigger aspirations. This was Game 3, we've still got seven more games in the SEC. We're just waiting for our next opportunity next week."
That will come at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at home against Vanderbilt on SEC Network. The Commodores (0-3) lost 41-7 on Saturday at home to South Carolina, and are also dealing with significant roster hits because of COVID-19 protocols.