Still in search of first SEC win, Missouri regroups at halfway point

When the Tigers lost their third straight last year, Barry Odom sounded off. This time, players echoed a more collected call to action.
Receiver Richaud Floyd and defensive back Adam Sparks wait to lead Missouri out of the tunnel before the team's eventual 43-29 loss to then-No. 2 Georgia at Faurot Field on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Kevin Pendleton was the littlest big man in a locker room imbued with dejection, his demeanor diffusing despondency through the space so much that it shrunk even the surrounding media.

This frustration was a cumulative product of three weeks, if perhaps unfairly targeted at one death trap of a game. But Pendleton has a kind of power of presence in the Missouri locker room, both physically and verbally, that can build or break the collective mood. The senior offensive lineman’s 6-foot-4, 325-pound frame ordinarily towers over reporters, but on this occasion he looked shriveled in his seat, his head down, his tone hushed. The reporters all knelt to meet him.

Missouri (3-3, 0-3 SEC) had just lost its third straight game, this time on No. 1 Alabama’s home soil at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. After hanging around early on, the Tigers went the last three quarters without scoring, often wilting under pressure from the sheer superiority of the Crimson Tide’s athletes.

Pendleton is known as a vocal doyen among teammates and a candid quote among media. That role of verbal leadership was addressed in one question after the 39-10 loss.

Pendleton then did something uncharacteristic: He interrupted.

“I didn’t play like one tonight,” he said.

Such was the attitude of Pendleton and other Missouri players after the familiar third straight defeat evened their record. They have reached the midpoint of their season still without a conference win.

At a similar low point last season after Missouri had also lost its third straight, coach Barry Odom sounded off in a notorious, question-free press conference, lamenting, “I've seen a damn dark day. This ain't dark days.”

Some of the players’ comments after this third straight loss were as close to an equivalent of that rant as Missouri will get. But there are evident differences this time. If Odom’s speech was that campaign’s State of the Program Address, this collection of soft-spoken calls to action served as both a sign of how much has changed and how much hasn’t. So, halfway through 2018, what is the state of the program?

“Right now, at this point, we just need to stop talking,” sophomore running back Larry Rountree III said. “We need to stop talking and just play. That’s really where we’re at right now. That’s the honest truth. We don’t need to be talking anymore.”

That shut-up-and-play attitude is somewhat unfair to himself and his team. These three losses have been to what many consider the toughest trio of opponents that any team in the country plays this season. But for a Missouri team that’s been there, done that with the whole turnaround narrative, it is fair where the frustration derives from: continually poor results against better opponents.

“It’s getting a little old,” senior quarterback Drew Lock said.

Odom is 1-16 against teams with winning records during his tenure at Missouri, but Alabama was always an unattainable win.

“It’s SEC football. This is what you come here for, to play in big games like this,” Pendleton said. “We don’t have a bad team on the schedule. We’ve got to have the mindset that we’re playing 'Bama every week. We’re playing No. 1 on the road every week.”

Pendleton refused to brush aside the loss with the tough stretch excuse, then said he “expected to win this game.” That at the very least signals that Missouri isn’t motivated by the same sense of desperation it felt last year, when Odom’s rant resembled nothing more than a plea for job security veiled by unearned aggression.

Still, the Tigers ought to keep things in perspective. Until the signature win comes along, they are undoubtedly stuck in neutral, but they did play two of the most competitive quarters Alabama has seen all season – a 13-10 first and 2-0 third. They held the Tide to its lowest point total of the season so far with 39. This is an Alabama team on track to go down as one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport.

“[Missouri] blitzed and pressured a lot, and we didn't do a good enough job of handling that part of what they did,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

And the goal for this season at MU was always to surpass last year’s 7-5 record. Maybe tack on a ninth win. Even in a dreamer’s best case scenario at the outset, Alabama was going to be the most obvious of two or three defeats.

Instead, it became an outlet to vent more about shortcomings left over from South Carolina. That’s still the true underlying source of frustration for players and fans, and the only one where gripes should be directed at this point. The other two losses were productive in some instances if frustrating in others, with encouraging signs against both last year’s national champ and runner-up.

“It was the most physical game that we’ve had,” Saban said. “It was the closest game that we’ve had. They played us tough in the red zone.”

Aside from that, Missouri has won the three games it needed to win, including a 40-37 win against Purdue to erase memories of a 35-3 loss. And as Lock emphasized, the goal is still to reach that ambitious but plausible 9-3 mark. He, of course, said he has every intention of running the table.

But if Missouri wants to go even 8-4 to top last season, it must win at least two of its next three daunting games, a trio of matchups thus far overlooked due to the preceding triumvirate. Memphis, Kentucky and Florida are each losable, and Missouri is vulnerable – especially if the imperfections that haunted the Tigers against Georgia and South Carolina keep showing up.

Lock has been one of those blemishes. His reliability has been stained almost beyond repair for a top NFL prospect across the last three weeks. His 20-yard toss in the first quarter against Alabama was his first touchdown pass since the first half against Purdue. His biggest concern is as a passer under pressure. He’s plagued Missouri with unwise decisions under duress, committing seven turnovers to just two touchdowns over those three weeks.

He threw two interceptions, fumbled and was sacked for a safety against Alabama.

An emotional Pendleton said pressure shouldn’t be a problem in the first place, and any critics who think Lock can’t handle it are pointing fingers at the wrong person.

“It’s messed up; it’s bullshit to be honest,” the lineman said. “Because when he struggles, it’s because of us. I gave up a sack, a strip fumble, but the people in the crowd are gonna say, ‘Oh he lost the ball, he folded under pressure.’ It’s bull. He's gonna go through hell this next week. I'm gonna see a report that he's falling on draft boards, and scouts don't like him under pressure, and all this bull, just because I didn't do my job.”

Pendleton has a point, albeit an exaggerated one. The unfortunate reality for him is that Lock still needs to be able to make smart choices under pressure, at any level. The three Ws to watch from Lock going forward: whether, when and where he throws when protection breaks down.

But Pendleton’s comments alone signal a large part of the difference from last year, at least in mentality. This isn’t Odom trying to distract with irrelevant comparisons. It’s a senior leader who wants to win, and feels the guilt of his own performance upon how it impacted his teammates.

If that’s a State of the Program Address, it sure is a refreshingly selfless one.

“There would be a play where 10 of 11 guys were doing what they were supposed to do, and that one guy didn't,” Pendleton said. “And that one guy that didn’t caused the team to lose that play. We can't have that if we're gonna win games. We have to go 11-for-11. They say you can't reach perfection. You have to if you want to win games.”

Missouri still has to figure out that pesky secondary. It still has to get Lock working right. It still needs to rise above 113th in the country in sacks. It still has to beat a good team. It still has to refine its game management. It still has a laundry list of other things to accomplish in the second half. But a year removed from the “dark days” speech, one change was evident in the mentality of the players after Alabama.

Last year? That was a Missouri team playing in self-defense, a team playing to be not bad.

This is a Missouri team playing to be good, and it still can be.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

Share: Facebook / Twitter / Google+

Article comments

0 comments

This item does not have any approved comments yet.

Post a comment

Please provide a full name for all comments. We don't post obscene, offensive or pure hate speech.