COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri came into Saturday’s home finale ranked sixth nationally in pass defense, but a secondary ransacked with injuries looked unusually mortal in a 24-20 loss to Tennessee.
Senior DeMarkus Acy, the team’s best and most experienced cornerback, missed his first start in two years, unable to play in what would have been his final home game because of a hamstring that limited him in practice last week.
Things got worse from there. On the Vols’ second series, sophomore starting cornerback Jarvis Ware went down with an injury to his head and neck area and wasn’t cleared to return. That left the Tigers with junior backups Christian Holmes and Adam Sparks at cornerback for the rest of the game — until Sparks left for a stretch because of an injury.
With two standout receivers in Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, Tennessee didn’t hesitate to exploit the matchup advantage. By game’s end Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw for 415 yards and the Vols (6-5, 4-3 SEC) produced three 100-yard receivers. That’s the most passing yards the Tigers (5-6, 2-5) have allowed since last year’s win at Purdue.
Holmes, a part-time starter each of the last two years, was flagged for pass interference four times through the first three quarters as the Vols consistently attacked the sideline on downfield throws. Just before the end of the third quarter, Callaway made a leaping grab in the end zone for a 17-yard TD, even while Holmes interfered on the play.
The injuries at cornerback were an obvious factor, but Tigers coach Barry Odom wasn’t happy with his team’s coverage breakdowns.
“Some of the three-deep zone stuff we did we didn't reroute underneath well enough,” Odom said. “There's a number of things that go into running the coverage in your zone responsibility. You've got to get a reroute to try to help the guy on the vertical pass game. We didn't do that. We lost one-on-one battles in jump-ball situations. Credit to them, No. 1. But we didn’t play very well against the pass.”
“It’s difficult when you got guys especially like Acy go down and then Jarvis, but it’s always got to be next man up,” safety Khalil Oliver said. “Somebody’s got to be ready to come up and be ready.”
Acy was one of three seniors honored during the traditional senior day pregame ceremony who didn’t play because of injury. Slot receiver Johnathon Johnson missed his third straight game because of a shoulder injury. Linebacker Cale Garrett, out since the season’s fifth game because of a torn pectoral tendon, was the final senior introduced and received the loudest ovation from the crowd.
A disappointing junior season hit a new low for Mizzou tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who wasn’t in uniform while nursing what was described as a shoulder injury. Odom said he expected the tight end to be available when the Tigers play on Friday at Arkansas.
For the first time in four years, the Tigers blocked two field goals in the same game. Kobie Whiteside got his hand on a 34-yard attempt in the first quarter, and in the third quarter his fellow defensive tackle Jordan Elliott did the same on a 48-yard try. It was the first time since Mizzou’s 2015 home victory over Connecticut that the Tigers blocked multiple field goals.
It’s been a busy stretch for Mizzou punter Tucker McCann over the last month, but the senior specialist was a decoy on a first-quarter punt when the Tigers snapped to blocking back Jamal Brooks, who churned forward to convert the first down.
For the first time this season, MU offensive coordinator Derek Dooley coached from the sideline instead of on the sixth floor of the press box in the coaches’ booth.
“He told us he felt like he needed to be down there,” center Trystan Colon-Castillo said. “He wanted to be in the fight with us. He wanted to kind of feel his presence. It was good for sure, to have your offensive coordinator there with you and you can feel his energy.”
Dooley, Tennessee’s head coach from 2010-12, had better luck against his former team last year, when the Tigers ran up and down the field at Neyland Stadium in a 50-17 victory. The Tigers broke out of their offensive slump at times Saturday but still punted seven times and four three-and-out series.
Mizzou honored 18 seniors before kickoff to commemorate their final home game at Memorial Stadium as Odom greeted each player as he was introduced to the crowd. The group included six players from the St. Louis area: McCann (O’Fallon, Ill.), safety Ronnell Perkins (University City) and offensive linemen Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms (East St. Louis) and Thomas Grossman (Chaminade Prep).
• Mizzou has a shorter week to prepare for Friday’s regular-season. The Tigers and Razorbacks play the Battle Line Rivalry game for the first time in Little Rock, Arkansas, at War Memorial Stadium. The Tigers are 3-0 against Arkansas under Odom.