Column: Missouri can play with the big boys

Even though they lost, the Tigers proved they can hang with the SEC’s best.

Heyden Rymer and Franklin Agbasimere run onto the field before the Missouri football game on Sept. 17 in Columbia.

For the better part of the week leading up to Mizzou football’s contest with Georgia, there was increasing sentiment around campus that the Tigers might have a real shot against the Bulldogs.

Mizzou was fresh off a 61-21 victory over Eastern Michigan in which everything seemed to click. Sophomore quarterback Drew Lock looked like he might finally be coming into his own after throwing five touchdowns. Johnathon Johnson looked like one of the conference’s most explosive players, and even the offensive line was holding up well enough. Throw in the fact that Georgia came to Columbia after a scant two-point win over Nicholls State with a freshman quarterback at the helm, and Tiger fans were licking their chops. It felt like Missouri was meant to take this game.

And it almost played out that way, too.

The Tigers jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead on a Bulldogs team that simply failed to show up for the game’s first eight minutes. But Georgia stormed back and pieced together consecutive scoring drives to go up 14-10. From that point on, neither team led by more than six points, and for a good while it really did look like Mizzou was going to come away with a victory. When the Tigers opened up the third quarter with an interception and scored on the subsequent play, it looked as though a Tiger win was destined to be.

However, it was not. The Tigers fell 28-27 after a last-minute Georgia score.

Yes, this loss felt like the same old Tigers. The offense turned the ball over five times. Lock threw three interceptions. The defense came up short when it was needed most. And Mizzou’s final possession ended on a J’Mon Moore fumble on the drive’s first play.

Ultimately, this one can go down as just another close loss for Mizzou.

Despite the bad taste Saturday night left in Tigers fans’ mouths, there’s a major takeaway here that cannot be ignored: Missouri proved it can hang with the big boys.

Sure, this particular big boy has a weak O-line and a measly 12-point margin of victory through three games, but it’s are still among the nation's best. The Tigers were just a play or two away from stealing this game from the Bulldogs.

Saturday’s game was proof that the Tigers can truly challenge the Southeastern Conference’s best, which was still in question headed into the weekend.

Mizzou’s ability to contend with big-time teams begins and ends, of course, with its quarterback. Even while tossing three interceptions, Lock looked pretty damn good against that Georgia defense. He countered those three picks with three passing touchdowns and 376 yards through the air. Even more important than the stats were the actual plays that Lock made. His capability to continually make throws and execute carried over from the Eastern Michigan game.

When defensive back Cam Hilton picked off Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason and left the offense with the ball at the 6-yard line early in the second half, Lock came in and fired a strike to Moore for a quick touchdown. I don’t know — maybe it’s the fact that Mizzou’s offense has been so anemic over the past two seasons — but seeing a passer execute in the red zone is as refreshing as anything at any tailgate in Columbia.

Lock also made a big play with his feet. On their second to last drive, facing a third and 4, he made a gutsy break from the pocket and scrambled for a 10-yard gain, extending a drive that might have been pivotal had it not ended with an end zone interception.

Lock’s game was a mixed bag, but he made it apparent on Saturday night that his success can make a world of difference for the Tigers.

The coaching staff also impressed yesterday. More specifically, first-year offensive coordinator Josh Heupel had an incredible game plan. A major concern headed into this week was Mizzou’s ability to slow down the game and keep Georgia’s defense on the field. During the first two weeks of the season, the Tigers had been running an up-tempo offense that did very little to shave time off of the clock. The issue? A major component of sticking with teams that possess superior talent is slowing the game down and controlling the football. Going into the game, I questioned the Tigers’ ability to slow down the game.

But Heupel proved me wrong again. While the Tigers didn’t dominate possession — the Bulldogs owned the ball for just over 60 percent of the game — Heupel’s offense was able to manage the game well and kept the Tigers in it till the very end. It may be something that goes without saying, but game planning and the execution of that game plan are integral parts to challenging talented football teams.

You could look at the way Mizzou played on Saturday and say it was far from impressive. Five turnovers? Three second-half interceptions? They could have won this game by two touchdowns, but they failed to take care of business when it mattered most.

Saturday night could be viewed as a prime example of this team’s youth and inexperience and inability to close out a game in the fourth quarter.

But it could also be viewed as a success, as something of a statement game. A moral victory means nothing when you’re sitting at the bottom of the conference standings with two losses, but the Tigers just hung with the No. 16 team in the nation for four quarters. They showed us a gear we didn’t know they had. And with conference games against quality opponents like LSU, Florida and Tennessee circled on all of our schedules, we’ll know at the very least that these Tigers should be able to hang with the best.

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