Pair of Acy interceptions helps Missouri torch Tennessee 50-17

The sophomore Acy has never excelled at intercepting passes, but his tide-turning 76-yard return late in the first half paved the way for a Missouri rout.
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock scrambles in the Tigers' 50-17 beatdown of Tennessee on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The bane of Missouri’s existence in the 2018 season has been an element so bizarre that it was hard to take seriously as a legitimate Achilles heel.

David Blough, Michael Scarnecchia, Gunnar Hoak, Jalen Hurts and Kyle Trask combined for 1,089 passing yards against Missouri, completing 79 of 143 throws while each playing significant minutes for a different opponent. They were all backup quarterbacks.

So when Tennessee brought in a backup quarterback named Chryst, it seemed too divine to be true.

Keller Chryst threw for 173 yards after Tennessee starter Jarrett Guarantano left the game with a head injury, but his most enduring moment was a damning interception late in the first half that helped Missouri waltz to a 50-17 win over the Volunteers Saturday night.

The moment will endure for Missouri cornerback DeMarkus Acy as well.

“I’ve had more of an emphasis on getting to the ball,” Acy said. “Last year I feel like I was aggressive, just getting a lot of tackles. Not really getting to the ball and taking the ball, making bigger plays for the team.”

He made the biggest play for Missouri (7-4, 3-4 SEC) in its penultimate game of the 2018 regular season. The Tigers’ third straight win had plenty of the same early signs of a looming collapse that had become familiar over the course of the season. They out-gained Tennessee 117 yards to negative-18 in the first quarter but only led 6-0, a lead that would soon disappear.

But when the Volunteers were driving, down 19-10, in the final minute of the first half, Acy made a tide-turning play that cracked the code of the backup quarterback.

The sophomore turned when his matchup didn’t, intercepted a Chryst pass at the Missouri 13 and returned it 76 yards down the sideline to the Tennessee 11 with 44 seconds until the break.

“I really didn’t know what was going on,” Acy said. “I was just running.”

Acy read the blind fade route as the play developed and recognized that he could get in the way of what was meant to be a back-shoulder throw. The return didn’t make it all the way to the other coast, but The Tigers scored three plays later on a third-down completion to Johnathon Johnson with 15 seconds left. Instead of a 19-13 or 19-17 game at halftime, the pick helped the Tigers to a 26-10 advantage.

And Acy, who hadn’t intercepted a pass in his college career before three weeks ago, ended with two against Tennessee.

“His understanding of playing the position on not trying to do too much on every play [is improved],” coach Barry Odom said. “His practice habits have really improved as well.”

Tennessee cut the 26-10 deficit to 9 points early in the second half but never got within one possession after the turn of events. Turnovers in general sparked Missouri, a team that has only one twice under Odom when losing the turnover battle. Last week against Vanderbilt was one of those two.

“You always give [the team] points of emphasis for the game and things you want to focus on during the week,” Odom said.

Winning the turnover battle is one of those points every week. But even with the anomaly of the Vanderbilt in mind this week at practice, Odom didn’t put any extra emphasis on it. It was equally important as every week to him.

And the Tigers delivered in that department on Saturday. They only suffered one to Tennessee’s three, two of which were the Acy interceptions. The other was a 39-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Joshua Bledsoe early in the third quarter. After Missouri had scored one minute earlier to re-stretch the lead to 16 points, the scoop-and-score made it 40-17 and effectively sealed the game.

The offense would go on to add 10 more points, while Missouri shut out Tennessee the rest of the second half after allowing the touchdown on the frame’s opening possession.

The 50 points recorded by the offense was the third time it has reached that mark this season, and it was especially satisfying for the offensive coordinator.

Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, who was fired from the head coach position at Tennessee in 2012, eased into a dominant offensive performance in his Knoxville homecoming. He went with freshman Tyler Badie as a backfield option when Missouri got back to the red zone. On Badie’s second carry after returning from an injury, he ran for a 4-yard, go-ahead touchdown.

Then came some third-down engineering in the crucial series following Acy’s 76-yard pick return. Quarterback Drew Lock found Johnson on a goal-line slant for a crunch time 4-yard touchdown with 15 seconds in the half.

“To be able to convert on third down and get a touchdown at that point, we needed that one too,” Odom said. “Didn’t want to come away again with 3 points.”

The touchdown to Johnson was one of two on the afternoon for Lock. Never one to be backed up, Lock finished with 257 yards and a 21-for-30 passing mark. He didn’t throw an interception.

But he struggled to get the Tigers their first touchdown when in the red zone twice in the first quarter. A pair of Tucker McCann field goals, both of 35 yards or fewer, gave Missouri its 6-0 lead. The Volunteers took a 7-6 lead then seemingly recovered their ensuing surprise onside kick, but Missouri came away from the pile with the ball and wasn’t questioned, narrowly dodging a bullet.

That lucky break turned into Badie’s touchdown. But it was Larry Rountree III who led the way at running back for MU with 135 yards on 26 carries. His companion Damarea Crockett left with a right foot sprain and didn’t play in the second half. Rountree’s 2-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter demonstrated the adjustments the Dooley offense made to score in the red zone.

As far as getting into the red zone, Acy paved the way for that. It showed from his emphatic return to an excited sideline after a game-changing interception.

“That feeling is something I’ve been working for since I got here,” Acy said. “Can’t really explain it. It’s really just surreal.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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