COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri Tigers made it a clear priority to get wide receiver Luther Burden III more involved in the team's final tuneup before entering SEC play, and the move paid immediate dividends in Saturday's 34-17 victory over Abilene Christian.
After the Tigers' defense forced a three-and-out on the Wildcats' opening drive of the game, Burden received the ensuing punt on a bounce along the left sideline at his own 22-yard line, then followed his blockers across the field before racing down the right stripe for a 78-yard score.
That was exactly the spark the Tigers (2-1) were hoping for from Burden, according to quarterback Brady Cook.
"That's huge when you open up the game with that," Cook said. "It just gives us a layer of confidence going out for that first drive, so it was huge."
The Tigers struggled finding ways to get Burden the ball a week ago in a 40-12 loss at Kansas State when he finished with just two touches for 9 yards. Coach Eliah Drinkwitz on Saturday inserted the freshman in as a punt returner and wildcat quarterback as a means of getting Burden more touches.
Late in the first quarter, Burden returned a punt 22 yards before a hard tackle from Wildcats punter Logan Burke, who grabbed Burden by the shoulder pads in pulling him toward the sideline. There was no foul on the play after officials picked up a flag for a facemask penalty, but Burden left for the locker room after an examination on the sideline.
He returned in the second quarter showing no ill effects, however, finishing the contest with 177 all-purpose yards.
Burden also received some help from his friends, namely Cook and wide receiver Dominic Lovett. The duo connected on a 79-yard touchdown pass in the first half that helped Missouri build a 17-3 halftime lead. Lovett posted career highs with seven catches for 132 yards and two scores, with Drinkwitz saying Lovett adds a different element to the Tigers' offense.
"He's got great speed," Drinkwitz said. "We've been able to settle him in at the slot position. He continues to get better and better, and so it's just on us to continue to work that connection between him and Brady and the protection and getting all 11 guys doing their job."
Lovett explained that he and Cook have been putting in overtime working on building their on-field chemistry.
"(If) we can't complete a slant, we run the slant three times on each side," Lovett explained. "We can't complete a post, we run it three times until we get it right, until we can get that connection. There's nothing more important than the QB and the wide receiver's connection when you're in the passing game. Without that, then you have nothing."
In the second half, turnovers proved pivotal for both teams but again it was Missouri making the most of the opportunities. Cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr. ended the Wildcats' first possession of the third quarter with an interception on a short pass from Maverick McIver intended for Tristan Golightly. That was the first career interception for Rakestraw, who also forced a fourth-quarter fumble recovered by linebacker Chad Bailey.
Four plays after the interception, Cook faked a jet sweep to Barrett Banister before rolling out to his right and delivering a 6-yard pass to running back Nathaniel Peat for a touchdown. Cook finished the contest 21-of-30 passing for 292 yards and three scores, a bounce back from the 128 passing yards with two interceptions against Kansas State last week.
The Wildcats (2-1) scored their only touchdown thanks to a Missouri turnover. On first down from the Tigers 9-yard line with 4:04 remaining in the third quarter, defensive tackle David Oke stripped the ball from Cook and defensive end Alexander Duke recovered the ball in the end zone, pulling the Wildcats within 24-10.
Drinkwitz delivered plenty of praise for his defense after the win but has concerns about the team's nine penalties and the offense's 5-of-15 performance on third down.
"Offensively we're still a work in progress," Drinkwitz said. "We can't get behind the chains with penalties, and again the third-and-shorts in the first half really snuck up on us."
The first loss of the season for Abilene Christian should provide valuable experience for the Wildcats, who expect to challenge Stephen F. Austin for the Western Athletic Conference crown. Coach Keith Patterson's offense moved the ball effectively at time against the Tigers, piling up 308 total yards
Missouri needs better performances from its offensive line, which committed six penalties for 55 yards on Saturday against the Wildcats. The Tigers hope to get back starting left guard Xavier Delgado, perhaps as soon as next week. Drinkwitz says he's still searching for the best combination of five starters, so more lineup tinkering may loom ahead.
Abilene Christian returns home for a matchup with Western New Mexico on Sept. 24.
Missouri enters SEC play visiting Auburn the same day.