All around him, his teammates celebrated and chatted excitedly. But amid the commotion, Drew Lock sat quietly on a bench, lost in thought in the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium visitors’ locker room.

The last time he visited “The Swamp,” two years earlier, Lock had played the worst game of his career. The then-sophomore completed four of 18 passes (22.2 percent) for 39 yards with two interceptions that day. Missouri lost to No. 18 Florida 40-14.

This time around, the Tigers desperately needed a win. They hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent since 2014. They were 4-4 despite fielding their most talented roster in four years. And they were in danger of allowing Lock and the senior class to leave Columbia without a signature win.

The Tigers answered that bell with a 38-17 thrashing of the then-No. 13 Gators. Lock went 24-for-32 (75.0 percent) and threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns, and then sat in the locker room and pondered the performance.

He’s been on a tear ever since that game in Gainesville, Florida, three weeks ago.

“Being able to think about that environment,” the senior said, “that stadium and what that place did to me my sophomore year, to be able to go into that place a couple years later with a really good team, a highly ranked opponent, and do what we did, that was something I definitely reflected on in that moment.

“You want to be able to go into those places and win and celebrate with 300 people, 200 people, in a stadium that had 102,000 in the beginning of the game. ... People talk about being at home and how when you score a touchdown it gets loud. But the better feeling is when you’re on the road and it’s dead silent.”

It hasn’t been the smoothest year for Missouri. The team got off to a 3-0 start before losing its next three games. The Tigers could’ve been a highly-ranked 9-2 team with New Year’s Six bowl hopes if it weren’t for last-second losses to South Carolina and then-No. 12 Kentucky.

Lock had delayed the start of an NFL career to return to the program for his senior year, a decision some questioned in the middle of the season as, with his draft stock at stake, he struggled against strong pass defenses without his favorite weapon, wide receiver Emanuel Hall, in the lineup due to a groin injury. Lock has compared the loss of Hall to a child losing his “blankie.” And the quarterback was still in the process of adjusting to new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley’s more complex schemes.

It looked as if the team could survive the receiver’s absence with little damage done ... until the loss to Kentucky. Missouri led 14-3 with six minutes to go and still managed to let a signature win slip through its fingers. The offense did not gain a single first down on eight second-half possessions. Hall returned the following week for the Tigers’ game at Florida, but few people gave Missouri a realistic chance to win.

“We talk about teams and what defenses they’re running and what fronts they’re running and what they do on third downs, what they do in the red zone,” Lock said. “But one of the biggest things that people don’t necessarily see on film is, ‘Alright, this team’s backs are against the wall right now. They’re going to come out hot, they’re going to come out swinging.’ And that’s something that you’ve got to factor into the game.

“If you’ve got a team that’s won eight in a row, and you notice a little bit on film that they’re getting kind of lazy and they’re kind of taking things for granted, you know that going into the game. We knew that we were the team that was going to come out swinging.”

The Tigers won the game, and Lock hasn’t stopped swinging since. On Monday, he earned his second SEC Offensive Player of the Week award in three games for a 257-yard, two-touchdown performance against Tennessee, during which he completed 70 percent of his passes. The quarterback is 67-of-75 (70.5 percent) for 760 yards and seven touchdowns against two interceptions — only one of which was his fault — in his last three games. And it all started with a spark of confidence in that Florida game on Nov. 3

“He stayed the course,” Dooley said. “Probably one of the proudest (times) I’ve ever been as a coach is, here he was, he had his last chance, probably, to shake off the narrative that everybody tries to put on him. And he probably played his best game ever at Florida. And since that time, he’s just been playing at an incredibly high level. He really has. ... It’s a real testament to his character and his grit he’s shown this year.”

Lock might not be piling up the yards and touchdowns like he did last season, but he’s made up for it with steady improvement from efficiency and decision-making standpoints. He might have saved his standing as a potential high NFL Draft pick.

It’s debatable whether Lock’s return helped or hurt him from an NFL standpoint. But his final year in Columbia has benefited the Tigers regardless, especially with that key win at Florida secured and a bowl game in sight. Those are accomplishments the Missouri native can reflect on with pride.

“That win, it really meant a lot to him, and also the seniors,” offensive lineman Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms said. “We’re taking this program in the right direction. The future is looking bright for the Missouri Tigers.”

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