LEXINGTON, Ky. — Two weeks ago Missouri was a nationally ranked football team. A lot has changed since then. None of it good.
If you thought last week’s loss at Vanderbilt was rock bottom for Barry Odom’s Tigers, you underrated this team’s ability to find new ways to disappoint.
The Tigers went back on the road Saturday and played what might have been the ugliest game of the Odom regime, a 29-7 loss to Kentucky in the pouring rain — but not enough rain to wash the stink off another foul performance.
Mizzou (5-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) allowed four sacks, lost two of its five fumbles, dropped seven passes, moved the ball only on occasion and played another undisciplined game racked with late hits and needless penalties.
Soaked to the bone as he looked over a stat sheet, Odom didn’t bother with positive spin.
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“We’re 5-3 and we’ve earned 5-3,” Odom said. “It’s not where anybody wants to be. Right now that’s who we are. You work, you stay positive within the organization because there will be plenty of negativity about where we are and how we’ve played the last couple of weeks. I’ve also learned to fight through adversity and rally the troops with the group we’ve got.”
“If we start to fracture we don’t have a chance the next four weeks,” he added. “Nobody wants to hear that, but that’s reality.”
Two weeks ago, after mauling Ole Miss for their fifth straight win, all at home, the Tigers sat alone in first place in the SEC East Division. Two weeks later, the stakes have changed drastically.
“Right now we’re probably out of the East,” center Trystan Colon-Castillo said. “We have to call it what it is.”
Fortunately for the Tigers, they can’t lose next week — only because it’s a bye in the schedule. From there, they bite into the meat of the schedule, a Nov. 9 trip to No. 10 Georgia and a Nov. 16 visit from No. 7 Florida. Games that once seemed winnable for a team that was ranked No. 22 at last week’s kickoff now look like mismatches.
Oddsmakers made Mizzou favorites every week this season and Saturday’s loss was MU’s third when favored by double-digit points. Kentucky (4-4, 2-4) was a 10 ½-point underdog but ran its winning streak over the Tigers to five games.
In this proud Southern city where greatness is bred and born — in the form of thoroughbreds, bourbon and future NBA millionaires, not necessarily in that order — Wildcat football has made itself relevant under Stoops with three straight bowl appearances and last fall’s 10-win season. The NFL draft and injuries have tested UK’s depth this year, but Saturday’s win proved the Cats aren’t going away quietly.
“Victories are tough to come by in this league,” Stoops said. “There is a lot of parity. You got some guys at the top and then after that there are some really good teams that are all banging around each other — and it’s tough.”
Like Vandy a week ago, the Wildcats did their damage with a backup quarterback. Lynn Bowden Jr., a converted receiver playing QB, carved through the Tigers like a chainsaw through tissue paper, finishing with 204 rushing yards and two TDs.
Speaking of backup quarterbacks … with six minutes left in the third quarter Saturday, Odom made a change at quarterback, pulling Kelly Bryant in favor of backup Taylor Powell. Bryant visited the medical tent in the first quarter after grabbing his right hamstring at the end of a long run, but he returned to the game for the next seven possessions. Odom said Bryant strained his hamstring. Bryant wasn’t available for interviews after the game.
“He was very limited,” Odom said. “He kept saying he could go, he was all right. But it was not wise to keep him in there. He couldn’t move the way he needed to (move) to function.”
When Powell entered the game, Bryant watched from the sideline, standing behind Mizzou’s coaches. Bryant completed 10 of 19 passes for a season-low 130 yards, 74 coming on a screen pass to Tyler Badie to open the second half.
While the rain clearly threw off Mizzou’s passing game, Kentucky was content to keep the ball on the ground and completed only four passes all night. With another listless game from the rushing attack (3.7 yards per carry), the Tigers didn’t have the luxury of being one-dimensional. They had to throw because they couldn’t run — and on this night they couldn’t catch.
“You gotta catch the ball, even in the rain,” wideout Jonathan Nance said.
“The other side had to play in (the rain), too,” Odom said. “We’ve got to be mentally tough enough to overcome things we don’t control.”
This was the second straight week the Tigers struggled along the offensive line and couldn’t generate a consistent running game. Mizzou’s three running backs combined for 116 yards on 25 carries and rarely gained timely yards to keep possessions alive.
“We really pride ourselves since I've been here on running the football,” Colon-Castillo. “So you go back-to-back, two weeks in a row laying eggs in the run game and not being able to run the ball whenever and impose your will. That’s not our identity as an offense, especially our offensive line. Something doesn’t add up. I don’t know what it is but it’s definitely demoralizing.”
Trailing 22-0 at halftime, Tigers showed the rare sign of life to open the third quarter and (finally) put some points on the board when Badie took a screen pass to the end zone for the Tigers’ first score, cutting into UK’s lead at 22-7.
After three straight stops by the Missouri defense, Powell entered the game with 6:27 left in the third quarter and led the offense into the red zone, but the Tigers sputtered just inside the 20. Powell couldn’t convert a 4th-and-2 slant to Dominic Gicinto.
“I could have delivered a better ball,” said Powell, who completed 4 of 10 passes for 34 yards. “We should have scored there. That was on me.”
Mizzou stopped Kentucky again to force another punt, but UK punter Max Duffy zipped through a hole down the sideline for a 26-yard gain to extend the drive. Bowden finished it off with a 33-yard touchdown run, essentially sealing the door shut on a Mizzou comeback.
After a scoreless first quarter, Kentucky took a 22-0 lead into halftime, feasting on a Mizzou offense that went from struggling to dysfunctional to incompetent in a matter of possessions. The offense came completely off the rails in the final minute of the half. After a Kentucky field goal pushed the lead to 15-0, Mizzou took over with 44 seconds on the clock. Odom and offensive coordinator Derek Dooley thought they could get a hapless offense untracked. Instead things got worse.
The Tigers called timeout after Nance’s 7-yard catch, then called another timeout after a sack put the offense in third and 8. With 30 seconds on the clock, defensive end Jordan Wright raced around left tackle Yasir Durant and knocked the ball loose from Bryant then managed to recover the fumble. The Cats took over on the Mizzou 20-yard line, and thanks to Odom’s timeouts still had 22 seconds left. Tigers defensive tackle Jordan Elliott gave UK a favor with a facemask penalty on first down. Bowden broke through the Tigers on the next snap and crossed the goal line for the touchdown.
On the sack and fumble, Durant said, “That was all on me. I take pride in nobody getting to the quarterback. I did a (lousy) job on that play. I cost us seven points.”
“Looking back now, shouldn’t have taken (the timeout), right?” Odom said. “But in the moment when we took the timeout, I felt like we had an opportunity before (halftime) to try and get some momentum.”
Momentum. That’s something this team had just a few weeks ago. On Saturday it was washed away for good. Maybe the season, too.
“Every loss stinks. I hate losing. I hate losing with a passion,” Colon-Castillo said. “The (phrase) everybody says is, ‘I hate losing more than I love wining.’ That’s true for a lot of people on this team. And now, coming out here these two weeks in a row, something’s got to change.”