The scene played out like a slow-moving boxing match. Missouri whiffed on a knockout punch and let Vanderbilt stay on its feet to keep throwing uppercuts as the seconds ran down in the final round.
Down to its final drive with the ball at its own 13-yard line and less than two minutes to play, the Commodores jabbed away. First for 26 yards. Then 9. Then 11. The Tigers forced Vanderbilt into third-and-7, but quarterback Kyle Shurmur scrambled for the first down.
Tigers fans have seen this before. It unfolded on the very same Faurot Field turf two weeks ago in a 15-14 loss to then-No. 12 Kentucky when the Wildcats scored on the last play of the game after a pass interference call on Missouri in the end zone. This time, the lead was five points; and again, it was in jeopardy.
Imagine their surprise, then, when Missouri rallied for the one stop it needed. On the games final play, Missouri flushed the quarterback out of the pocket and forced him to throw into double coverage in the end zone. The Tigers batted down the ball, checked for pass interference flags ... and then celebrated.
I did look (for a flag), Missouri head coach Barry Odom said. Twice.
The referees let this play stand, and Missouri beat Vanderbilt 33-28 to improve to 6-4 (2-4 SEC) and clinch bowl eligibility for a second straight season. The Tigers earned the victory on the bruising shoulders of running backs Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III, the former running 22 times for 122 yards and a touchdown through both the ground and the air. The latter added 92 yards on 21 carries.
Senior quarterback Drew Lock added 253 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions on 22-for-33 passing. He added 27 yards and a score with his legs. His favorite targets were junior Johnathon Johnson, who caught six passes for 70 yards, and freshman Dominic Gicinto, who hauled in four catches for 81 yards.
But all of that was barely enough. Vanderbilt redshirt junior KeShawn Vaughn torched Missouris defense, which ranked 25th nationally against the run before Saturday, to the tune of 182 yards and a touchdown on only 15 carries. Shurmur, one of the SECs most underrated signal-callers, also had a solid day with 249 yards and three touchdowns while completing 24-of-35 passes.
Ironically, this time, the game didnt even look like the Tigers to lose until midway through the fourth quarter. Missouri had to mount an 11-point comeback, including from an eight-point deficit at halftime, to earn the victory and send the Commodores (4-6, 1-5 SEC) to their third loss of the season by a touchdown or less.
Its been the same story all season, Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney said. We cant finish, for whatever reason.
We just need to do it. Its unacceptable at this point. Its ridiculous. All of us need to be better.
Out of the gate, Vanderbilt made Missouris recently improved defense look more like the porous unit from the seasons first half. The Commodores scored touchdowns on each of their first two possessions, including a 65-yard rushing score from Vaughn on the games fourth play from scrimmage.
Vanderbilt used pre-snap motion to force Missouris defense to stretch sideline to sideline. This, in turn, opened up the box for Vaughns inside runs. But the Tigers also fell victim to their own poor tackling. Taking bad angles, failing to wrap up and whiffing on overly aggressive hit attempts all were issues.
Cornerback DeMarkus Acy said he didnt see as much focus and urgency from the get-go as Missouri has shown in recent weeks. Preparation, apparently, wasnt the issue. Odom said his team looked strong in practice this week.
I think we snapped into some things early on that were uncharacteristic, Odom said. But we also showed some grit and ability to continue to fight and stay the course.
The Tigers scored a touchdown of their own in between Vanderbilts first two drives, but the Commodores second score gave them a lead they didnt relinquish until just over nine minutes remained in the game.
Thats when both offenses disappeared. Lock threw an interception after right tackle Paul Adams missed Vanderbilt linebacker Dimitri Moore blitzing from the outside, allowing the redshirt freshman to crush Lock as he released the ball. The Commodores failed to capitalize on the field position, though, going three-and-out before junior Ryley Guay missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt wide left.
The unsuccessful kick was the first of five consecutive combined three-and-outs between the two teams. Missouri broke the drought with a 33-yard Tucker McCann field goal that trimmed the lead to 14-10. Vanderbilt followed with an 11-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 21-yard toss from Shurmur to Pinkney. The Tigers responded with an 11-play drive that ended on a 39-yard McCann field goal, leaving Missouri behind 21-13 at the end of the half.
The Tigers carried that momentum into the third quarter, scoring touchdowns on their first two drives of the third quarter. Lock threw both scores, one an 11-yard pass to Crockett and the other a 20-yard strike to freshman defensive end-turned-tight end Daniel Parker Jr. Parkers first career touchdown brought Missouri within two, 28-26.
The Commodores seemed destined for the end zone on a third straight drive when they earned first-and-goal at the Missouri 4. After runs of 1, 2 and 0 yards, Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason elected to keep his offense on the field for fourth-and-goal at the 1. He tried to send Vaughn over the top, but a wave of Tigers rose up to meet the back and send him to the turf a foot short of the goal line.
(Its) a mano a mano deal, Missouri linebacker Terez Hall said. Me versus you. You versus me. So if you lose, you lost to that one guy. Thats all it was. That fourth-and-1 mindset, youve got to hold your end up. Its like youre living with your parents and youve graduated and you still aint got no job or nothing like that. Youve got to put something on the table! Thats all it is, or youll get kicked out.
Down by two points inside their own 1-yard line, Lock and the offense didnt flinch. The unit marched the length of the field in 14 plays, including three third-down conversions, to set up Locks 3-yard scamper into the end zone and give Missouri a 33-28 lead, its first of the game.
Another Lock interception two minutes later gave Vanderbilt the ball in Missouri territory, but the Tigers forced three straight incompletions. Vanderbilt received one more chance after McCann hooked a 31-yard field-goal try wide left. Defensive lineman Terry Beckner Jr. sacked Shurmur with less than two minutes left on the first play of the last drive, but the quarterback drove the Commodores 55 yards in nine plays before his final pass fell to the ground, giving Missouri the victory.
Im not ever going to apologize for a win, Odom said. It wasnt pretty. But Ill take all the ugly ones we can get, too.Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.