Missouri loses one last 2018 heartbreaker in Liberty Bowl

MU nearly rallied from down 16 points in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma State before falling 9 yards short.
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock lays on the ground after stretching and failing to gain a first down and extend a late Missouri drive in the Tigers' 33-38 loss to Oklahoma State on Monday, Dec. 31 2018 at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Barry Odom patted his quarterback’s shoulder and made one thing clear.

“I wouldn’t want the ball in anyone’s hands besides No. 3 for the Mizzou Tigers,” the Missouri football coach said at the end of No. 3’s career, and at the end of a long and tiring season of thrills and agony.

Senior Drew Lock had taken full responsibility for the decision to keep the ball and run himself on a failed fourth-and-1 that cost Missouri the Liberty Bowl and an elusive ninth win to end the 2018 season. The Tigers (8-5) had led at halftime, fallen behind by 16 points into the fourth quarter then come agonizingly short in a colossal comeback attempt to Oklahoma State (7-6). The 38-33 defeat will be long remembered in the annals of MU sports classics – and MU sports heartbreaks.

“It was a heck of a game,” Odom said.

Oklahoma State, who led 35-19 entering the fourth quarter, didn’t clinch the game until 1 minute and 1 second remained on the clock. A berserk fourth quarter included two Cam Hilton interceptions in the red zone – one in the end zone – to keep Missouri afloat; two long Tiger touchdowns executed by the game’s three offensive stars; a mind-boggling decision by Odom on an extra point; a failed fake punt by Oklahoma State; a blocked go-ahead field goal attempt for Missouri; and a suspenseful Lock-led drive over the final five minutes.

Then it all came down to one play.

Missouri had been in good position with second-and-2 at the Cowboys’ 10-yard line. Oklahoma State was out of timeouts. A touchdown would win the game.

Sophomore Larry Rountree III – whose magnum opus on this New Year’s Eve included 204 rushing yards on 7.6 per carry – got the ball on second down and picked up a yard. Missouri pounded Rountree up the middle again on third down. He was still short.

“It was a bad spot,” Rountree said, “but I’m not supposed to say anything.”

Odom used his last timeout and set the stage for the biggest play-call of the year for Missouri and its first-year offensive coordinator, Derek Dooley. Would the Tigers go back to reliable Rountree even after being stuffed twice? Would they pull something creative and tricky out of their sleeve?

“You go through your progression and your read on the play design, as Drew did,” Odom said. “It’s a game of inches. We have all talked about that, and we know it.”

Like Odom said, he wanted the ball in Lock’s hands. The quarterback threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns in his final game as a Tiger. He was tasked with using his feet this time, though.

Lock took the snap in shotgun with a choice, he said, to hand off to Rountree or keep it and run for the first down himself. It’s a read option, a play Lock had scored on several times with his feet throughout the season. He kept it this time too and ran for the right sideline with defenders in pursuit. His dive for the chains was valiant, but it was short, even after an official spot measurement.

Turnover on downs. Oklahoma State ball. Game over.

“I had the option to pull it or give it, whichever one I wanted,” Lock said. “I felt the guy I knew was going to cover me take one or two steps over the top, and I pulled it.”

Lock had completed an improbable pass, while being slammed by a defender, to receiver Johnathon Johnson on a fourth-and-4 earlier in the drive. Johnson caught a 32-yard pass to kick the same drive into gear after MU started at its own 25 with 5:54 left.

Johnson, a Memphis native, had a career day of his own, making nine catches for 185 yards and a touchdown. Most of it Johnson did in senior Emanuel Hall’s absence, after the team’s leading receiver checked out early with a re-aggravated groin injury that sidelined him earlier in the season. Missouri was 7-1 in the regular season when Hall played, and 1-3 when he didn’t. The Tigers struggled again without him in the third quarter while being outscored 21-3, then thrived when Johnson stepped up in the fourth.

“I was excited coming home to play in the Liberty Bowl because I always dreamed about it as a kid,” Johnson said. “But to not get the win, I’m kind of disappointed in myself. I felt like I let the team down, that I could’ve helped us on that last drive more.”

Oklahoma State started the final frame with a 35-19 lead and the ball at the MU 28-yard line. But senior Cam Hilton picked off Taylor Cornelius at the 12 on the first play of the quarter. Now a pair touchdowns, each with successful 2-point conversions, could still tie the game.

Then came the second play of the quarter. Lock slung one downfield to his left, Johnson made the catch and never looked back. The swift 86-yard touchdown – the third-longest in the Liberty Bowl’s 60-year history – made it 35-25 and set up the first of those 2-point attempts.

But Odom called a timeout with the offense on the field, then inexplicably audibled and brought the kicking unit out for a single extra point. That made it 35-26, still a two-score game.

“There was so much time left in the game, we felt like going for 1 at that point was what we needed to do,” Odom said. “We knew we were probably going to have at least two more possessions. I didn’t feel great after the touchdown about getting lined back up and with the 2-point play we had at that current time.”

Missouri’s defense had struggled to stop Oklahoma State throughout the afternoon, especially on third downs. The Cowboys were 9-for-14 on those in the game. Stopping the Cowboys twice, much less once, looked like an immense challenge. But Cornelius provided Missouri a New Year’s gift by making an unwise heave into the end zone while being pushed out of bounds at the MU 35. Hilton came down with his second interception in the last 2 minutes and 31 seconds.

“The D-line had great pressure on the quarterback, so that gave me the opportunity to make the interceptions,” Hilton said. “On the second one we were in cover two, and I was over the top and the quarterback scrambled around and threw it up there, and I went and got it.”

Missouri worked its way toward midfield, then let Rountree take over with a play nearly as explosive as the 86-yard touchdown to Johnson moments earlier. Rountree was nearly wrapped up behind the line of scrimmage for a loss, but he evaded multiple tackles and found a hole for a 55-yard, frenzy-inducing touchdown. It was 35-33.

Missouri, with momentum fully seized, even found a way to get a third-down stop on a combined sack from senior Terry Beckner Jr. and freshman Nick Bolton – a union of sorts between the program’s departing and its future.

“I spent a little more time in the locker room like you do after most games,” Odom said of the team’s 19 seniors, “thanking them for the work that they have done.”

Oklahoma State caught the Tigers off-guard with a fake punt on fourth-and-5 from its own 30, but Ronnell Perkins stopped it short and Missouri took over again with great field position. The crowd noise seemed like that of a Missouri home game. There was still 10:36 left.

The Tigers went three-and-out, with an incompletion on third-and-1, and brought Tucker McCann out for a 43-yard go-ahead field goal try. McCann had shanked an extra point in the first half, the entire reason for the controversial debate over not going for 2.

This time, McCann’s kick was blocked, and Oklahoma State protected its narrow lead. The Cowboys engineered a drive into the red zone again, but a third-and-3 pass fell incomplete. The 27-yard field goal put the game at a touchdown’s reach at 38-33, setting the stage for the gut-wrenching climactic drive.

“All the work that is put in for this right here,” senior offensive lineman Paul Adams said, “and you don’t have the end result you wanted.”

Missouri often failed to get its defense off the field on third downs, struggled on offense with a shorter field leading to two early field goals inside the 10-yard line, and perhaps most detrimentally, it took too long to leave the locker room after leading 16-14 halftime.

Oklahoma State scored touchdowns on its first three possessions of the half while torching Missouri cornerback DeMarkus Acy in one-on-one coverage. MU freshman Jalen Knox fumbled to give Oklahoma State the first turnover of the game. Missouri was saved by some dimes from Lock, but couldn’t get more than a field goal in the red zone again.

It all foreshadowed the tragic ending on fourth-and-1 in the red zone again, the final play of Drew Lock’s career at Missouri.

“I think I’m going to reflect on how this team as a whole,” Lock said, “not just offense but offense and defense, figured out how to play as one.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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