Missouri becomes bowl eligible after fighting off Vanderbilt down to final play

The Tigers said they learned from the mistakes that doomed them against Kentucky in a dramatic loss two weeks ago.
The Vanderbilt offense and Missouri defense are caught in a goal line scrum on what turned out to be a crucial stop for the Tigers en route to a 33-28 win over the Commodores on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018 at Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo.

Perception can be a cruel and often random tool in measuring a coach’s performance, a scale left to the radically fluctuating opinions of fans and media and the eyes of whatever other beholders care to assert ethos.

Perception of Missouri coach Barry Odom hit rock bottom after a last-second loss to Kentucky riddled with what-ifs. His guffaws in late game management were deemed a fireable offense. One week later, he was perceived as a resilient steward of the program for having the gumption to rebound with a dominant win at No. 13 Florida.

One more week later, perception of Odom reached both its highs and lows. Missouri was concerned with a different metric of success.

Points, not perception.

“I’m never going to apologize for a win,” Odom said.

His Tigers rallied from as many as 11 points down then averted another late disaster to win on Saturday afternoon, 33-28 over Vanderbilt, in the coldest conditions the program has played in this century. With the win, Missouri (6-4, 2-4 SEC) is bowl eligible.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Odom said, “but I’ll take a bunch of ugly [wins].”

Under Odom, Missouri is 15-5 when it wins or ties the turnover battle. It is 2-13 when it loses in that category. After losing to Vanderbilt 2-0 in that department, Saturday became the second of those outliers.

This contest, like three others before it in Missouri’s 2018 season, came down to the final play. The Tigers trailed 21-10 late in the first half and 28-19 in the third quarter. They didn’t take their first lead until senior quarterback Drew Lock ran, not threw, for a 3-yard touchdown with 9:18 left. It capped an eventual game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive.

Lock completed 22 of 33 passes and threw for two touchdowns and two interceptions. He finished with 253 yards passing, while his counterpart Kyle Shurmur threw for 249 yards and three touchdowns.

Shurmur’s final throw was a jump ball to the end zone from the Missouri 25-yard line, but it fell incomplete as the clock hit all zeros, and Vanderbilt’s bid at a game-winning drive fell short. But the Commodores, fresh off a bye week, gave Missouri a wake-up call from kickoff to final whistle, sending a message that the final trio of games wouldn’t be a cakewalk.

“They’re really well coached, coming off their bye week,” Lock said. “They could sit for two weeks and just bask in our film.”

The Commodores had a chance to win with a touchdown – rather than tie with a touchdown plus a two-point conversion – because Missouri kicker Tucker McCann pulled a 33-yard field goal attempt with 1:48 left. As Vanderbilt started at its own 20 with one timeout left and a 5-point deficit, the circumstances felt eerily similar to those when Kentucky initiated its game-winning drive against the Tigers two weeks earlier.

“You think about Kentucky, you’re gonna lose,” senior linebacker Terez Hall said. “You learn [from Kentucky] don’t get beat no more.”

Vanderbilt’s final drive then started the same way Kentucky’s did, with a sack. Senior Terry Beckner Jr. dealt Shurmur a 7-yard loss. After Missouri’s sack against Kentucky, though, the rest unraveled.

“We learned to keep going,” Beckner said.

That meant keep going even after Vanderbilt completed a circus pass for 26 yards on a high deflection. Missouri’s containment defense in the secondary adjusted and kept Vanderbilt receivers in bounds with short-yardage gains for the rest of the drive, and the clock ultimately ran down to five seconds with the Commodores still just outside the red zone. They set up for a pseudo-hail mary from 25 yards out to decide the game.

"Down to the last play,” Odom said. “I'm kind of tired of those."

After the ball fell to the ground in the end zone, another sense of deja vu crept into the Tigers’ minds. They thought they had Kentucky beaten on an incomplete jump ball until a controversial pass interference penalty gave the Wildcats one more chance. Odom said this time around, he looked for a flag before celebrating.

“Twice,” he added.

Before the play, Odom had called a timeout after seeing Vanderbilt’s formation. The Tigers set up defenders along the goal-line and emphasized one-on-one matchups to win the play, again taking from their mistakes against Kentucky. One thing they did right in that game was stop fourth-and-short plays thrice. Hall said they adopted the same approach for what was effectively a fourth-and-25.

“It’s a fourth-and-1 mindset,” Hall said. “Mono y mono deal. You versus me. Me versus you.”

Perhaps the turning point of the game was an actual fourth-and-1 on the first play of the fourth quarter. With the Commodores leading 28-26 and one yard away from a two-score lead, Missouri stuffed a fourth-and-goal run at the 1-foot line.

Akial Byers was credited with the stop within a mountain of humanity on the play, but Odom said every defender was taking credit for it as they emphatically returned to the sideline. The offense turned the momentum into a decisive 99-yard (and then some) drive.

Lock’s go-ahead touchdown scramble to finish it was the only score tallied by either team in the fourth quarter. Saturday was Lock’s birthday, a fact he reminded teammates of repeatedly as they tried to battle back from 7-0, 14-7 and 21-10 holes. Urging them not to ruin his celebration kept everyone loose on the sideline, players said.

“I don’t want to sit around at my house on my birthday,” Lock said. “I want to be in good spirits.”

It helped Missouri get boosts from unlikely sources such as converted defender Daniel Parker Jr., who scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to 28-26 while filling in for two injured tight ends.

But even that touchdown, during the comeback in the third quarter, reminded Odom and Missouri of the negative perception looming over them in the case of a loss. This too was due to a game management choice that went wrong.

After McCann kicked a field goal to get Missouri into halftime down 21-13, running back Damarea Crockett scored his second touchdown of the game four minutes after the intermission. Odom could send McCann out for the extra point and cut the deficit to 1 point, or he could gamble and go for a 2-pointer to tie.

He chose the latter – some coaches would say it was far too early to take that risk – and Crockett was stopped short. The lost point meant that Vanderbilt’s next touchdown made it a two-score game instead of one. Later on the decision would have nullified McCann’s kick – had he made it – from being a game-clincher by 1 point. Criticism awaited Odom if the game ended in the loss column.

But the defense made the late-game stop it was missing against Purdue, South Carolina and Kentucky, and Missouri survived a gut punch from a Vanderbilt team the Tigers were favored against by 16 points.

That’s a different perception than the underdog archetype Missouri adopted against Florida, but it got the same result. And whichever perception rules, the birthday boy Lock said resilience was constant.

“We were Rocky Balboa today.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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