Somebody, Missouri or Vanderbilt, had to leave the confines of Memorial Stadium victorious.
And after an almost unspeakable 85-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser to redshirt sophomore Bud Sasser, who would walk off Faurot Field with their first Southeastern Conference win of the year was up in the air.
The snap on Missouri’s ensuing extra point attempt was not, though.
Redshirt sophomore center Mitch Morse failed to elevate the ball, forcing senior receiver T.J. Moe to corral a bouncing ball. Moe tried salvaging the play with a desperate heave to the end zone, but the prayer went unanswered. In a game full of blunders by the Tigers, Morse’s failed snap attempt will be remembered as Saturday night’s most egregious error of all.
Vanderbilt never relinquished the then 16-15 lead, as the Tigers’ rebuttal to a Commodore field goal to extend the lead to 19-15 stalled 25 yards away from the end zone in the game’s final minutes.
After the final seconds had ticked off the clock, the Tigers had fallen to 0-3 in conference play and had no one but themselves to blame.
“This is not the fun part of playing or coaching,” coach Gary Pinkel said.
The list of mistakes was long and costly. In addition to the fourth quarter extra point gaffe, a fumbled quarterback-center exchange led to a turnover and a ball went out the back of the end zone for a Vanderbilt safety after going through redshirt senior punter Trey Barrow’s hands.
The mistakes were greater Saturday night than the margin of error for a team forced to rely upon its backup quarterback.
“It’s a long game and we didn’t hold them down,” redshirt sophomore defensive end Kony Ealy said. “It’s not about all of the extra stuff. We’ve got to finish them. That’s what we didn’t do.”
Things started well for Missouri. After two drives apiece, the Tigers led 6-0 and had outgained the Commodores 128 yards to 3.
Junior quarterback James Franklin was on point, appearing poised in the pocket and precise in his throws.
The Tigers were seemingly in control.
But then Franklin headed to the locker room after his knee collided with a Vanderbilt player’s helmet on a 23-yard scramble. The collision resulted in a strained MCL, which relegated the junior to the sidelines for the rest of the game and will keep him on the shelf for “a few weeks,” according to Pinkel.
With Franklin banged up, Berkstresser led the offense onto the Faurot Field turf for the team’s third possession.
The Tigers were in control no more.
Berkstresser couldn’t handle Morse’s snap on his third play, resulting in a Tiger turnover. That set the tone for the remainder of the night.
Berkstresser struggled mightily, completing just nine of 30 pass attempts, stagnating the Tiger offense the majority of the game.
The Kansas City, Mo., native finally got the offense in motion in the fourth quarter but could not overcome a suddenly fierce Commodore pass rush.
Pinkel pointed out the circumstances faced by the embattled quarterback in his assessment.
“The best thing that can happen to (a backup quarterback) is everyone around (him) playing absolutely super and we didn’t do that,” Pinkel said. “It’s difficult.”
One thing Berkstresser did have going for him was Missouri’s utilization of the pistol formation, from which senior tailback Kendial Lawrence had some success. The senior finished with 92 yards on 21 carries and played a pivotal role in getting the Tiger offense within striking distance on its final drive.
But then the all-too-familiar struggles of the offensive line surfaced. The Commodores rushed Berkstresser on every pass attempt, eventually forcing a turnover on downs.
When senior safety Kenronte Walker failed to wrap up Commodore running back Zac Stacy on third down with just over a minute to play, one last chance at victory had escaped from the Missouri’s reach.
“I’ve been here before; we’re not going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves,” Pinkel said.
Senior cornerback Kip Edwards said a lack of enthusiasm throughout the day-to-day grind of the season is hampering the team.
“We need to practice better,” Edwards said. “That’s really all it boils down to. Games are won in practice, they’re not won on Saturday. Really, they’re won Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. In practice. We need to practice better.”
Edwards said he never would have imagined being winless in conference play after three games but also said the sky hasn’t fallen yet.
“I still have high expectations,” Edwards said. “We could still go 9-3. It starts in practice.”