COLUMBIA — Shawn Robinson earned the starting quarterback job for the first game of Eli Drinkwitz's tenure at Missouri, a 38-19 loss to No. 2 Alabama, because of his previous experience as a starter at TCU and his ability to run with the ball.
But Robinson's arm was the more impressive facet of his game Saturday, completing 19-of-25 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown with considerable turnover at receiver and against a Nick Saban defense.
In his postgame press conference, Drinkwitz gave an illuminating reply to the question of why he started Robinson, saying, "I thought Shawn gave us the best chance to move the ball with his legs in some of the read game we were going to try, and he'd played in some games before, so he had experience against some of these guys."
Missouri's receivers didn't get much separation deep, and Robinson didn't have many targets longer than 10 yards, but his 76 percent completion rate is currently third in the nation and the best ever by a Tiger quarterback in a debut of more than 15 completions, surpassing Drew Lock's 21-of-28 performance for 136 yards against South Carolina in 2015 and Blaine Gabbert's 26-of-35 for 325 yards against Illinois in 2009.
The Tigers' first offensive play of the game saw Damon Hazelton move into the backfield next to Larry Rountree III pre-snap; Robinson faked the inside handoff and, with tight end Daniel Parker Jr. moving left to right as a lead blocker to the short side of the field tried to catch Alabama off-guard. The unblocked defender, linebacker Will Anderson Jr., draped himself on Robinson's torso within a second of the snap, and Alabama had two defenders ready to stop Hazelton on the option pitch for a one-yard loss.
Even when Missouri brought a man in motion pre-snap the handful of times Drinkwitz dialed up the call and Robinson didn't hand it off, the Tigers simply did not have the speed to get to the edge, and the Crimson Tide were not fooled.
An aggressive (and correct) decision to go on fourth-and-2 from the Alabama 33 on the Tigers' second drive was stopped, again a read option to the short side, this time the toss going to Rountree as Anderson Jr. latched onto Robinson, again for a 1-yard loss. Rountree placed the blame on himself for the failed conversion as he was tackled by All-American linebacker Dylan Moses, saying, "I have to make one guy miss. I'm not supposed to be tackled by one guy." But defensive lineman LaBryan Ray was also closing in, and there were two other defenders between Rountree and the sticks as Moses tackled him.
Robinson kept a read option on Missouri's third drive for no gain, fumbling the ball out of bounds, and on the first drive of the second half, tried a similar read option toss to Jalen Knox with pressure in his face that went backward, behind Knox, and was recovered by Alabama despite Knox and Robinson diving on it.
All told, Robinson had six carries for zero net yards and two fumbles, one of which he lost, and lost 26 yards on two sacks. Backup QB Connor Bazelak was sacked once for a loss of four yards.
"The sacks were very disappointing, the negative plays, and that's really the thing we've been preaching all fall camp, is we gotta stay away from the negative plays," Drinkwitz said. "Both quarterbacks did some really good things, but they've got to eliminate the negative plays in order for us to be successful offensively."
Missouri recorded first downs on 9-of-11 drives, starting with a 3-and-out and losing a fumble on punt return in the fourth quarter (a 2-play drive ended with the 54-yard connection between Robertson and Badie). But four of the offense's possessions dried up at five plays, another at six, while all three drives of 10-plus plays led to points.
It's worth wondering how important the QB read option is in Drinkwitz's play-calling. It was only run as an option a handful of times out of Robinson's 54 offensive snaps, and Drinkwitz's quote about using it against the Tide could be interpreted to mean Missouri thought the design would work against Alabama specifically, rather than being a core play designed to fit Robinson's skill set.
Either way, Robinson will almost certainly start this Saturday at Tennessee. He looked unbothered executing his coverage reads, and his biggest mistakes were the few times he should have thrown the ball away on broken plays.
"Obviously I hadn't played in like a year, so just trying to knock the rust off, but I felt good going into the game," Robinson said afterward. "I felt comfortable."
Of his six incompletions, half were drops, two were just out of reach of his running backs on short designs and one was a miscommunication with Keke Chism on a 25-yard route in Alabama territory.
Credit has to be given to Missouri's offensive line, which had to replace three 3-year starters from last year while bringing in a new position coach and a new scheme. Credit, too, should be given to the staff's recruiting efforts: transfers Mike Maietti (center) and Zeke Powell (left guard) both acclimated to the program quickly and started against one of the best teams in the country.
"I saw a lot of fight, I really did, and I thought those guys answered the bell," Drinkwitz said of the front five. "I don't think it was an issue of not being good enough, at all, I thought our guys fought, I thought they opened up some holes."
Maietti was called for a hold (one of just three Tigers penalties) and the unit as a whole allowed three sacks, but the offensive line played well enough that Drinkwitz lamented after the game he didn't call enough runs in the first half and didn't get Rountree enough carries.
"He's a fighter. He runs tough, he runs physical, it means the world to him, and I've gotta do a better job feeding him," Drinkwitz said.
Rountree matched Henry Josey's career rushing yardage with a 9-yard carry in the second quarter, then moved into fifth place all-time in Missouri's career rushers with an 8-yard carry on the next play. Though Rountree likely won't catch record-holder Brad Smith's 4,289 yards, his 2,815 rushing yards are 384 yards shy of surpassing Zack Abron (3,198 yards) for second all-time and most by a running back. If Rountree can average 42.7 rushing yards in the next nine games, the record is his.