COLUMBIA, Mo. - Eli Drinkwitz knew that Missouri could be in for a fight against Central Michigan on Saturday.
The Tigers hadn't played a nonconference game in two seasons, and they hadn't had a full house at Faurot Field in nearly as long. And none of that had happened for Drinkwitz, who took over prior to the pandemic-infected season a year ago.
"Especially when you're going to feel the pressure of the home crowd and it's a team you're supposed to beat," Drinkwitz said, "and I just kind of felt all week like we'd be in this kind of game."
Indeed, it wasn't until Tyler Badie's long run in the fourth quarter that allowed him to finish with 197 yards on the ground that the Tigers were able to breathe easy. Badie finished with TDs on the ground and through the air, and Connor Bazelak threw for 257 yards and two scores, helping the Tigers beat the Chippewas 34-24 in the opener for both teams.
"Obviously the first game there's going to be stuff we have to clean up," Bazelak said. "There's always going to be mistakes first game, but we'll get them cleaned up and we'll be fine."
Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon threw for 292 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for Central Michigan. Lew Nichols III, the reigning Mid-American Conference freshman of the year, finished with 135 yards rushing and a score.
He also did it without Jim McElwain on the sideline.
The Central Michigan coach, no stranger to the SEC from his time in Florida, underwent an emergency appendectomy on Wednesday. His doctors told him not to make the trip Saturday, leaving him to watch from afar as longtime assistant and newly minted associate head coach Tim Skipper handled game day.
"I'm very proud of those guys," Skipper said. "We came here on a mission, to get a 'W' and play hard and gain some respect, and we definitely did most of that. We wanted that 'W', but we'll get those. We'll get back to work and get them."
The Tigers opened with a 63-yard pass to Boo Smith before Badie's 12-yard touchdown run on the very next play, but the Chippewas countered by going 75 yards in just five plays before JaCorey Sullivan's tying touchdown catch.
Just when it appeared the defenses were showing up, Central Michigan put together an 88-yard drive that Nichols capped with an 18-yard run. And the Tigers promptly answered when Bazelak found Badie from 30 yards out for a score.
Both teams squandered scoring opportunities early in the second half - the Tigers turned it over on downs in the Central Michigan red zone, and Sirmon threw a pick in the opposite red zone. But the Tigers finally were able to establish breathing room late in the third quarter, when Young scooted 32 yards to give them a 24-14 lead.
Sirmon, who was sacked nine times, was briefly knocked from the game on a hard hit by Missouri's Jaylon Carlies early in the fourth quarter. His understudy, Daniel Richardson, promptly threw a touchdown pass to Sullivan to pull the Chippewas within a field goal again, but Bazelak's second TD toss with 7:58 left effectively put the game away.
"They're a quality opponent," Drinkwitz said. "I've been on the other side, beat two Power 5s. I don't take any opponent lightly or disrespect them in any way. They're going to win a lot of games."
Alex Moore's officiating crew twice overturned important calls after review. The first came when Central Michigan muffed a punt in the third quarter but recovered it while laying out of bounds; the original call gave Missouri the recovery. The other came in the fourth quarter, when Sullivan's toe-tapping touchdown catch was initially ruled incomplete.
Not only did the Tigers have nine sacks, their most since 2009, but 3 1/2 of them - and six total tackles for loss - came from Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge. That was the most by a single Missouri player in the last 15 years.
"The most important thing, I would say, is not try to do anything extra," Alldredge said. "Just keep playing hard, keep doing your job, and the game will reward you for that."
Central Michigan struggled to protect Sirmon all game, and penalties became a problem in the second half. The Chippewas were flagged 10 times for 80 yards, including three penalties in a span of six plays over consecutive drives.
Missouri wasn't sharp with its downfield passing game, but opportunities were there. Bazelak barely missed on a couple of deep throws that could have turned into touchdowns that put the game away much earlier.
Central Michigan plays its home opener against Robert Morris next Saturday.
Missouri heads to Kentucky next Saturday to begin conference play.