By Kyle Jones
On a day when the weather was dismal and MU’s first half offense was worse, the Tigers relied on a five-star defensive performance to beat South Carolina 34-14 on Saturday.
The day started out nearly perfect for Missouri. Despite rain making things slippery and causing a problem for receivers, the Tigers drove straight down the field all the way to the South Carolina goal line. But MU’s red-zone woes continued as they failed to score a touchdown.
After a failed fourth-down conversion gave South Carolina the ball at their own 7 yard-line, the stage was set for a Gamecock scoring drive.
But hark! For luck was on the side of Missouri this Saturday afternoon.
As South Carolina QB Ryan Hilinski went to throw a pass, the ball was swatted at the line by MU DE Chris Turner. The ball was deflected back into Hilinski’s hands, at which point he proceeded to pass the ball backwards. A backwards pass is, by rule, a fumble, and a heads up play by Cale Garrett to pick up the loose ball in the endzone led to MU’s first touchdown.
If you’re confused by that, don’t worry. It was a once-in-a-lifetime play, the likes of which this world may never see again.
After that stroke of luck, MU seemed to be in control. There were quite a few offensive woes, with QB Kelly Bryant finding it almost impossible to hit his target (3 for 7 in the first quarter), but the Tigers were still able to amass a 10-0 lead at the beginning of the second quarter.
Furthermore, the Tiger defense stood firm. South Carolina repeatedly went three-and-out, with not a single first down in the first quarter. The Gamecocks had 9 total yards at the end of the first quarter. It looked like MU’s defense would help cruise the Tigers to victory.
But then Kelly Bryant threw what may go down as one of the worst interceptions of his career.
Pinned deep in their own half, Bryant opted for a screen pass. It was weak, readable and easily picked off. South Carolina DE D.J. Wonnum snatched the ball out of the air and ran it back to the Mizzou goal line, where he was shoved out by Kelly Bryant.
South Carolina wasted no time, with RB Rico Dowdle marching into the endzone to make it a one-score game.
The touchdown woke up the Tiger offense, as they scored five minutes later through a short pass to the ever-present Albert Okwuegbunam.
Credit must be given to MU head coach Barry Odom and offensive coordinator Derek Dooley who, when faced with a starting quarterback who was having accuracy issues, pivoted to a more ground-based scheme.
In the first half, the Tigers rushed 32 times for 127 yards. The offense thrived off of designed runs for QB Kelly Bryant, who managed 75 yards from 12 attempts. Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie also picked up a combined 39 yards.
In a half where the aerial was unreliable and unpredictable, Odom and Dooley made the right adjustments.
South Carolina opened the second half with a bang. Ryan Hilinski began with a great pass to WR Bryan Edwards, who raced 75 yards to the endzone. It was the biggest lapse the Tiger defense had all game.
In the second half Kelly Bryant regained his accuracy, and the Tigers responded to a long passing touchdown with a passing touchdown of their own. Bryant tossed a short pass to Badie, who sprinted into the endzone for a 21-yard touchdown to extend MU’s lead to 24-14.
South Carolina was only able to earn 5 first-downs in the third quarter, many of which came near the end of the quarter.
The Gamecocks began a drive from inside their own half and systematically moved down the field. For the first time on Saturday, the MU defense looked truly figured out.
But just as the Gamecocks were about to hit pay dirt, Faurot Field witnessed a moment that will go down in history.
Ryan Hilinski threw a weak pass to the front of the endzone. Ronnell Perkins was right there to pick it off. Perkins found some space, got his blocks and went 100 yards for a touchdown. It was, and will forever be, the longest interception return in school history.
Perkins’ historic catch and run turned the tide of the game and, despite there being a whole quarter left to play, the game was over.
MU’s defense allowed another 5 first-downs in the fourth quarter, but no points. The Tiger defense already has a shutout victory this year, but there is a strong case to be made that this was the best defensive performance so far this season.
In his post-game press conference, Odom heaped immense praise on his defense, with extra words being said about Cale Garrett’s “football IQ.” Aside from one play, everything worked for Missouri on the defensive side of the ball.
The offense, on the other hand, still has issues. Bryant, who completed 19 of his 33 passes, has to be better. Such inaccuracy won’t fly against opponents like Georgia or Kentucky. The run game seems to be working, with Rountree earning 88 yards on 23 attempts, but the offensive line has to stay strong to allow for more explosive runs from him and Badie.
Missouri has a bye week this week before taking on Troy on October 5. This is a great opportunity for the Tigers to address lingering issues and prepare for an opponent that is of a slightly lower quality compared to South Carolina.
It will be interesting to see whether Bryant’s accuracy will improve next week, but for now the team deserves a chance to celebrate. For the first time since Odom took over as head coach, the Tigers have beaten South Carolina and the Mayor’s Cup is back in Columbia, Missouri.
Edited by Emma Moloney | firstname.lastname@example.org