COLUMBIA, Mo. - With momentum starting to shift the wrong direction, Missouri’s defense proved it’s no one-man show Saturday at Memorial Stadium. In the Tigers’ first game since losing leading tackler and senior middle linebacker Cale Garrett to a season-ending injury, the first major test came in the worst spot on the field.
Backed up on their own goal line, the Tigers were inches away from falling behind Ole Miss. Instead, Barry Odom’s defense swarmed.
Fourth and goal from the 1, final play of the first half and the Rebels went nowhere.
“Defensively,” Odom said after his team’s 38-27 homecoming victory, “we’ve taken the philosophy, give us a place to stand and we’ll try to do something with it.”
A quarterback change had sparked the Rebels all the way to Mizzou’s 1-yard line in the final seconds of the first half, and after Ole Miss called one last timeout to set up the final play, the Tigers smothered Snoop Conner’s fourth-and-goal run out of the shotgun.
Linebacker Nick Bolton got there first, soon followed by defensive end Tre Williams, safety Tyree Gillespie and linebacker Cameron Wilkins, making his first start in place of Garrett, knocked out last week with a torn pectoral tendon.
Coming out of the timeout the Tigers weren’t certain the Rebels would run the ball for the potential go-ahead score. Matt Corral, the better passer of Ole Miss’ two quarterbacks, was in the game, flanked by Conner in the shotgun. With two tight ends on the line, Bolton sensed a run, a keeper for Corral or an inside zone run by Conner. Gillespie thought otherwise.
“I thought it was going to be a throw,” Gillespie said. “They ran it. We stuffed it.”
“We liked the play,” Rebels coach Matt Luke said. “You can’t win on the road if you can’t punch it in from there.”
It was only one of 156 snaps from scrimmage in a game that lasted nearly four hours, but the significance was immeasurable. As the Tigers converged on Conner, the game was only halfway over, but Odom’s team had survived a scare from the most potent offense they’ve played to date and took a 12-7 lead into halftime.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Gillespie said. “If the defense can stand out there, wherever they’re at, we can hold them.”
In Mizzou’s first home sellout in five years, the Tigers had more than enough firepower to outlast the Rebels in the second half — and needed every flicker of offense to survive their first challenge deep into the second half during this five-game homestand. Flipping between quarterbacks, the Rebels did just enough to keep most of the capacity crowd of 62,621 hanging around on a chilly night, but the Tigers (5-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) had a counterpunch for every Rebel jab.
In four previous wins over West Virginia, Southeast Missouri, South Carolina and Troy, the Tigers led after three quarters by 31, 47, 17 and 32 points, respectively. This time, a bit of suspense still lingered.
“We knew it was going to go down into the fourth quarter,” Odom said. “Our past games have kind of been over and we’ve been trying to run out the clock in the second half. I’ll take that any time we can get it, but we also know the truth of what it’s going to take to win down the stretch.”
The Tigers next take their five-game winning streak on the road, facing hapless Vanderbilt (1-5, 0-3) on Saturday. Mizzou should find itself ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 on Sunday, thanks to losses by a handful of teams ranked in the bottom half of the poll.
Plus, with Saturday’s losses by Georgia and Florida, Mizzou will head to Nashville all alone in first place in the SEC East Division, a fact that wasn’t lost on the Tigers late Saturday night.
“We can only control what we control and don’t worry about anything that’s outside,” quarterback Kelly Bryant said. “Nothing’s really changed for us.”
Just a week after Mizzou fans held their breath watching Bryant writhe in pain on Faurot Field against Troy, his offense outgained Ole Miss (3-4, 2-2) in total yardage 562-440 and converted a fourth-down run in the closing seconds to seal the win. Earlier in the week, Odom had challenged his offensive and defensive lines, sensing this matchup would be decided along the trenches.
“It was all on us,” left tackle Yasir Durant said. “Everybody has a part to play, but in the SEC it’s all about the line of scrimmage. If you win the line of scrimmage you’re going to win. As an O-line, we talked about it all week. … We were going to have to run to win.”
With Bryant wearing a brace to protect his sprained left knee, the Tigers needed more from his supporting cast, especially on the ground. The Tigers slugged away at the Rebels with 43 runs for 233 yards, powered by Larry Rountree’s 126 yards and two touchdowns. Third-stringer Dawson Downing got in on the act, too, scoring his first career touchdown, a 54-yard rampage in the third quarter.
Any mystery about Bryant’s status was put to rest before kickoff when the quarterback went through pregame drills as usual. A week after hurting his knee against Troy, Bryant played the entire game and absorbed his share of contact from the Rebels, including two late hits that were ruled as targeting fouls. Bryant completed 23 of 35 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown and earned even more respect from his head coach.
“Talk about a competitive son of a gun,” Odom said. “I don’t know if I’ve been around a tougher dude.”
In a plodding, methodical first half, the Tigers managed only four extended possessions as Bryant connected with running back Tyler Badie for MU’s only touchdown, a 17-yard pass.
The injury that first proved costly for Missouri was Richaud Floyd. With the senior punt return specialist sidelined with a hamstring injury, MU went back to Johnathon Johnson in that role, and just like most of last season, bad things happened when he lined up deep for a punt. Missouri’s defense held its ground on the game’s first series, but Johnson botched the Rebels’ punt, giving Ole Miss the ball right back in Mizzou territory. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee connected with running back Scottie Phillips on a 22-yard touchdown for the game’s first score and a 7-0 lead.
After having to punt, Mizzou got tricky on its next series inside the red zone. From the 17-yard line, the Tigers lined up in a four-wide formation with Durant split outside in the right slot. The 6-7, 330-pound target did his best to sell a pass his direction, waving his arms wildly in the flat, but Bryant looked the other way with a toss to Badie that went for a 17-yard go-ahead touchdown.
“Basically, if everything was covered, I was the check-down and I was going to score,” Durant said. “I was kind of a decoy. Obviously everybody knew I wasn’t going to get the ball.”
Mizzou didn’t waste any time extending the lead in the second half. On the fifth snap of the third quarter, Rountree found a crease up the middle and zoomed through the Rebels on a 41-yard touchdown run.
Trading snaps with Corral, Plumlee made things interesting in the second half. He unloaded a 28-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Moore to get Ole Miss back within two scores, then answered a Rountree touchdown with a 9-yard scoring run early in the fourth quarter, chipping Mizzou’s lead down to 35-21. Plumlee added a 40-yard TD run in the fourth quarter, but it was far too little in a game that turned for good on the Tigers’ game-changing goal-line stand.
Mizzou’s defense wasn’t the overpowering unit that visited the end zone five times in the previous four games, but when it mattered most, Odom’s unit pounced.