COLUMBIA, Mo. — Before Missouri’s game against Florida in 2014, Tigers coach Gary Pinkel gave his team cards that read “Takeaways = Victory!” In that game, the Tigers rode six turnovers to a 42-13 win.
In the 2019 edition of Tigers vs. Gators, a lack of takeaways equaled a fourth consecutive loss for Missouri.
Just as it was in Missouri’s loss last week at Georgia, the defense hardly was to blame for the defeat as the Tigers held Florida to two touchdowns in a 23-6 loss. The only team to give up fewer points to the Gators this season? Georgia, the No. 5 defense in the country.
But Missouri’s defensive performance against Florida wasn’t without its headaches and frustrations.
There were flashes of hope. Missouri sacked Kyle Trask four times. Half of those came from defensive lineman Kobie Whiteside, who got to Trask twice in the first quarter. But two opportunities slipped through Missouri’s fingers as the Tigers failed to secure what could have been game-changing interceptions in the third quarter.
Linebacker Nick Bolton read a slant play perfectly, stepping into the lane and getting his hands on a third-down pass. But he couldn’t hang on to the ball. He was deep in Florida territory and had only green grass between him and the goal line. Instead, Florida punted and Missouri never got closer to the end zone.
Mizzou cornerback DeMarkus Acy nearly had an interception but couldn’t quite make the grab.
“We’re in position,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said. “We’re still playing fast and playing aggressive, it’s just, we’ve got to end up making those plays.”
Another near-miss was more excruciating for Missouri. Safety Khalil Oliver appeared to wrestle the ball from Florida tight end Kyle Pitts for an interception along the sideline. Oliver stood up holding the ball as the Tigers celebrated on the sideline. Florida’s offense started to head off the field, but after a long replay review the pass was ruled as initially called, a 25-yard completion.
“Obviously, I didn’t see all the views that (the officials) did, so whatever they call, that was the ruling,” Odom said. “The rule says if it’s a tie, it always goes to the offense. Their definition of a tie and mine are different, I guess, because I don’t think the receiver ever had complete control of the ball to make a secure catch.”“We all thought it was a pick,” MU defensive lineman Jordan Elliott said. “. . . It kind of looked like It was clear as day, but they saw something different.”
With the Florida series still alive, Trask completed a pass to Trevon Grimes for an 8-yard gain, then Lamical Perine ran for 9 yards. The Gators then scored their second touchdown of the game, on a 15-yard reception by Perine in the corner of the end zone. It was Bolton in coverage on the completed catch.
“If I got an interception and turned into a touchdown, it’s a walk-in touchdown, (and) the complexion of the game is completely flipped,” Bolton said. “Then also giving up a touchdown in the back of the end zone, that also changed the complexion of the game. ... If I consider myself a playmaker, I’ve got to make those plays.”
Before what now is the Tigers’ four-game losing streak, Missouri was having success creating turnovers. The Tigers had three interceptions in their home opener, against West Virginia, before which Odom reused Pinkel’s motivational tactics and busted out the “Takeaways = Victory!” cards. Missouri then had at least one interception in its next three games. In the past five games, however, the Tigers have managed just one.
Missouri came into the game leading the Southeastern Conference in pass defense, giving up an average of 147.7 yards per game. Florida, the No. 3 pass offense in the conference, put up 330 yards through the air.
Missouri has looked like a different team in its past five games than it did in its first five. Quarterback Kelly Bryant’s return was expected to help stop the bleeding. Or maybe the end of a long road stretch was meant to be the remedy.
Elliott said he didn’t know what to blame for the shift. Odom blamed himself and his coaching staff. Defensive back Christian Holmes said it’s everyone’s problem.
“The biggest difference is, people have got to look in the mirror,” Holmes said. “We built the culture around ‘We don’t lose in November.’ We built the culture around ‘We don’t lose at home.’ So it’s really hard to see everything unfold. People have got to look in the mirror.”