Tigers rely on grit, execution for crucial stops in second half

“It wasn’t like we had Michael’s Secret Stuff off of Space Jam in the locker room or anything,” senior linebacker Brandon Lee said. “It just came down to doing our job.”
The crowd watches as Missouri defensive tackle Walter Palmore applies pressure on Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur's throw on the final play of a 33-28 Missouri win on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018.

Missouri was strolling from south to north after the clock hit zero in the third quarter on Saturday. It was something of a brief calm in the middle of a storm.

The defensive performance up to that point was a little ugly, especially considering Missouri (6-4, 2-4 SEC) held two top-15 opponents in Kentucky and Florida to lower point totals in previous weeks than it had in that moment to Vanderbilt (4-6, 1-5 SEC), an SEC bottom dweller. Barry Odom put it pretty plainly after the game.

“I thought obviously we didn't play very well early on,” Odom said.

To that point, Vanderbilt had 393 total yards. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who totaled 182 yards rushing, had made his presence felt, scoring two touchdowns for the Commodores. With an offense full of endarounds and misdirections, Vanderbilt also caused confusion for its opponents. Linebacker Terez Hall said after the game he wasn’t sure what the Commodores play calls were for the first two series.

“They came out in some stuff, and I was like, ‘Snap, man,’” Hall said. “They was all over the place.”

However, just before the clock hit zero on quarter three, it looked like Missouri was doing something it ultimately couldn’t in its last-minute loss to Kentucky two weeks ago: close out.

Walter Palmore and the defense stopped Vanderbilt running back Khari Blasingame dead in his tracks on third-and-1 at the Missouri goal line.

“Nothing really changed; we just did our job properly,” Missouri linebacker Brandon Lee said of Missouri’s defensive execution from the first to the second half. “It wasn’t like we had Michael’s Secret Stuff off of Space Jam in the locker room or anything. It just came down to our doing job and we executed the play calls we got in the second half better than we did in the first.”

A touchdown on the stop would’ve meant a 35-26 lead for Vanderbilt and a likely win. It was crucial and it kept Missouri alive. However, the Tigers still had work to do on the other end of the field. It was basically the same song on repeat.

Vanderbilt went for it on fourth-and-1. Shurmur handed the ball to Vaughn, and the defense, led by Akial Byers this time, came up big yet again, stuffing Vaughn and causing a turnover on downs.

Defensive tackle Terry Beckner, Jr. said the stop was all the spark the team needed to start their comeback.

“We kind of looked sluggish a little bit first starting off and we’ve just got to get going; we just needed that spark from somewhere,” Beckner, Jr. said. “We catch that spark and we’re just going to keep going and we caught it. We caught fire.”

Starting the next drive on its own 1-yard line, Missouri marched 99 yards to put six on the board and take a 33-28 lead, but it didn’t put a win on ice.

Two drives later, Drew Lock was intercepted to give the ball back to Vanderbilt just 35 yards away from the endzone. Once again, Missouri’s came up big. The Commodores gained just one yard on a four-play drive, and ended up with another turnover on downs.

Then, yet again, with the game in peril after a missed Tucker McCann field goal, Vanderbilt had the ball with 1:48 left. It felt as if the Kentucky loss was calling back to the Tigers, but Odom and his staff had prepared for the worst since then.

“We knew as a football team that we were going to get put in that situation again,” Odom said. “I didn’t think it’d be two weeks from then, but you never know. You've got to go prepare and expect the opportunity to arise again.”

It must have been something Beckner expected because, like clockwork, he kicked off the final drive of play by sacking Shurmur for 7 yards. The cherry on top of it all was the final play – a Cam Hilton hail mary breakup. And, unlike the Kentucky loss, there were no flags to be seen.

“I did look,” Odom said. “Twice. I didn’t see any, but I didn’t see any two weeks ago either.”

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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