If these five plays had gone differently, Missouri would be 11-1

Missouri’s season, undeniably an overall success, still has had its what-ifs.
Missouri players wander off the field after losing to the Georgia Bulldogs, 43-29, on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018 at Faurot Field.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Give credit where it’s due: Missouri’s 2018 season has indisputably been a success.

In three years under Barry Odom, the Tigers have gone from 4-8 to 7-6 to 8-4, pending Monday’s Liberty Bowl result. But when athletic director Jim Sterk held a press conference in early December commemorating MU’s bowl placement, one line may have resonated a little more than others.

“We’re a couple of snaps from 10-2,” Sterk said.

That by itself is a haunting thought after a season with more than one heartbreaking loss and a slew of other “what-if” moments. But why stop at 10-2? If exactly five plays had gone differently over the course of the 2018 season, Missouri would be 11-1 right now.

The chosen five plays, when combined, had the power to turn three of MU’s losses into wins. One play could have changed the outcome against Kentucky; one play against South Carolina; and three plays against Georgia.

The selected moments cannot be chalked up to a referee’s call or no-call, or an impressive feat by an opponent, or any other external factor. These are five plays for which someone on Missouri had control and could have changed the outcome.

TRIO OF MISCUES: No. 2 Georgia at Missouri – Sept. 22

Q1 9:28: Missouri 0 - Georgia 0

Turnovers are the kind of momentum-grabbing plays that make an upset possible, and Missouri had forced one from No. 2 Georgia on the first series of the game. Christian Holmes’ interception of Jake Fromm had sent MU’s largest crowd of the season into an early frenzy. Now, the Tigers were driving at the Georgia 40-yard line, faced with a third-and-9 after a touchdown was waved off because freshman tailback Tyler Badie had stepped out of bounds.

Drew Lock found tight end Albert Okwuegbunam to his left for a moderate gain, but Okwuegbunam recognized he was still short of the line to gain and began to wrestle a defender, inching along the sideline toward the chains. If he stepped out of bounds or went down, it’s fourth-and-1. That means MU’s promising offense could risk going for it – another necessary piece of any upset – or let Tucker McCann take a 49-yard field goal.

But Okwuegbunam kept pushing on, trading ball security for strength. Sure enough, he was stripped by Tyson Campbell after voluntarily staying on his feet, giving Georgia one of those all-important turnovers. Campbell ran it back 68 yards to give Georgia the opening touchdown instead of Missouri. The Tigers’ curiously dominant-looking start was erased in a sudden 10 or 14-point swing, assuming MU would have scored if Okwuegbunam had gone down.

Q2 12:38 Georgia 10 - Missouri 7

Missouri had settled back in, having tied the game with a touchdown at one point while generally outplaying Georgia. The Bulldogs’ offense wasn’t getting anywhere, and Missouri’s was moving confidently. Campbell’s fumble return is the difference in the game. MU had a second-and-5 at its own 42 after starting at the 25.

Lock targeted a wide open Johnathon Johnson over the middle on a 15-yard slant, but the throw went through Johnson’s hands, off his chest and high into the air. Georgia’s Tae Crowder intercepted the dropped pass and returned it 43 yards deep into Missouri territory. Georgia’s struggling offense couldn’t get in the end zone and the Bulldogs tacked on a field goal for a 13-7 lead. MU’s drive had looked promising until another one of those momentum-deflators during an upset bid – for the wrong team.

Q2 5:56: Georgia 13 - Missouri 7

Missouri was punting at its own 27-yard line. The punt team broke out of its huddle and rushed into an unusually wide set, not typical for punt protection. Five defenders soared through gaping holes in the line to block punter Corey Fatony, and Georgia’s Eric Stokes picked it up for an easy 8-yard touchdown return. Georgia went into halftime up 20-7 despite its offense failing to score a single touchdown against an unexpectedly rigid MU defense.

If not for the Tigers’ three lapses on offense and special teams, the two Georgia touchdowns and one field goal would be erased, and the Tigers perhaps would have turned the ruined possessions into more points of their own. You can complain about the missed field goal call or the prematurely dropped ball, but the three avoidable turnovers in the first half completely turned around a game that Missouri otherwise seemed to control early. A win would not have been guaranteed without those plays, but it would have been more than likely with the combined point swing of at least 14. Missouri lost, 43-29.

ALMOST, ACY: Missouri at South Carolina – Oct. 6

Q4 0:32: Missouri 35 - South Carolina 34

There are a thousand plays that could have flipped the result of this one, and 999 of them were during Missouri’s third-quarter meltdown in the rain that coughed up a 10-point lead. Those moments with time will become a jumbled mess in the memories of MU fans. The argument can be made that if Damarea Crockett hadn’t stepped out of bounds before finishing a 70-yard touchdown run, an ensuing onslaught of penalties would have never occurred, and the flood gates would have never opened for South Carolina.

What’s more impressive, though, is the fact that the Tigers were still in position to win at the end of the fourth quarter. McCann’s improbable 57-yard boot had bumped Missouri to the latest lead change with 1:18 left.

But now, South Carolina had driven into field goal territory at the other end. With DeMarkus Acy providing tight one-on-one coverage on the sideline, his matchup turned hard on a curl route. The throw was to his other side, either not anticipating the curl or simply out of inaccuracy. It went right into Acy’s hands – and then out of them. Acy dropped what would’ve been a game-clinching interception, and South Carolina’s drive lived to see a game-winning field goal. It’s admittedly unfair to point a finger at Acy in a game where Missouri left as many as 28 points on the board, but it’s the closest there is to an indisputable change in outcome.

RUN THE BALL: No. 12 Kentucky at Missouri – Oct. 27

Q4 1:41: Missouri 14 - Kentucky 9

It was all but over. Missouri had the ball at its own 26-yard line with third-and-2 coming up. Kentucky had just one timeout left. If the Tigers got 2 yards, they could run out the rest of the clock to finish an impressive win. If they came up short of the first down running the ball, they would have to punt, but not before Kentucky is forced to use its last timeout. In either case, Kentucky’s odds were slim to none.

But Missouri didn’t run the ball. Lock took the snap in shotgun formation, rolled right by design, was pressured and threw it out of bounds. Missouri had to punt, and more importantly, the incompletion had stopped the clock with 1:36 left. Kentucky preserved its last timeout.

Fast forward a minute. Kentucky had driven from its own 19-yard line to Missouri’s 20 with 15 seconds left. Senior linebacker Terez Hall blitzed and sacked Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson from behind for a loss of 7 yards with 0:09 left. But Kentucky still had a timeout to use because Missouri didn’t run on third-and-2. Without the timeout, the last nine seconds expire and Kentucky doesn’t have time to get another snap off.

Instead, the Wildcats regrouped, drew a controversial pass interference against Acy in the end zone for an untimed down, then connected for a 2-yard, walk-off touchdown. 15-14, Kentucky. A lot went wrong in the final 1:30, but none of it would have happened if the Tigers had run the ball on third-and-2.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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