COLUMBIA, Mo. • Silence. Stunned, unbelievable, angry silence.
This is not how any Senior Night should ever end. No, nothing ever like this. It can’t end with your stomach in your throat. It can’t end with your heart sinking to the floor. It can’t end with the collective hush of more than 63,000 stunned spectators who thought the game was finally safely in hand, only to see the whole thing slip away like sand through a screen.
Syracuse 31, Mizzou 27.
That was the hideous sight that kept glowing from every scoreboard at the close of business late Saturday night in Faurot Field. It was preceded by the sight of a long trail of red taillights glowing in the distance as angry fans flooded out of the stadium before the game was over, too many resigned to its inevitable conclusion before the final whistle blew.
The most heartbreaking sight of all was seeing all those Mizzou senior football players who just milled around the middle of the field aimlessly as the gun sounded, knowing that they had been robbed of the tradition of being carried off the field on their teammates shoulders at the final home game of their college careers to the cheers of the home crowd.
So come up with any negative words and they’ll certainly apply. Shock. Anger. Embarrassment. Disgust. In a season already chocked full of hair-pulling setbacks and unsightly disappointments, this may have been the worst unsightly turn of them all.
It’s hard to know where to begin to describe how badly this night went, but this is as good a place as any. So let’s start with star junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was somewhere back in St. Louis, suspended for the game because he violated team rules. This enormously talented, but tremendously immature young man is costing himself money every time he strays off the path, and it’s a shame he doesn’t even know it. There were a half-dozen NFL scouts in the press box on Saturday, probably most of them here to watch Richardson. But that didn’t happen because he was too selfish to take his proper punishment for missing classes, and hurt his teammates by not being in that very winnable game.
And what does Richardson do on Saturday night? Instead of making himself as small as possible, he lacked the good sense to know what bad taste it was to tweet out a semi-vulgar and completely inappropriate message seconds after Syracuse took the lead (@Godforshort: “Wtf!!!!!”). Seriously, Sheldon, what were you thinking?
NFL scouts are going to start stringing together all the inappropriate pearls you’ve strung together and you might not like how it affects your draft status. You’re entirely too gifted a talent, but this sort of stuff can stick to you. Even if Gary Pinkel refused to admit it, the Tigers missed Richardson’s disruptive presence in the heart of their defense, but the coach was 100-percent correct in suspending him.
Now let’s deal with the things that happened on the field. Mizzou quarterback James Franklin, who had started the night flinging precise darts all over the field (the much-abused junior completed his first seven passes and 12 of 16 for 237 yards and two TDs in the first half), spent the final quarter on the sideline in a concussion-induced fog, unable to put the finishing touches on a game Mizzou had to win.
But worst of all, on the biggest play of the night when the Mizzou defense just had to hold, somehow the most dangerous man on the football field — Syracuse receiver Alec Lemon — was galloping into the end zone for the game-winning score with 20 seconds to go.
And I want you to understand one crazy inexplicable thing about this play.
Lemon was wide open.
I mean WIIIIIIIIIIDE OPEN. Undetected, untouched and cruising into the end zone with no Missouri defender within 10 yards of him.
How does a receiver who already had caught 11 passes for over 200 yards end up THAT wide open?
“It was a mix-up in coverage,” cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “Some of us were in man (coverage). Some of us were in zone.”
So which coverage should you have been in, he was asked.
“Well I’m not really sure to be honest, still.”
How about that? On the biggest play of the night, your defense is a house divided. And one more time for emphasis: How does that happen?
Is it any wonder this season has disintegrated in such spectacular fashion?
And now a season that was already as bad as can be just got even worse. The Tigers are 5-6 with one game to go and it’s going to take a miracle to get bowl eligible on the road against a rugged Texas A&M team.
And even if they do end up with one more victory, a 6-6 record is not what anyone imagined when this season began. A Mizzou program that has built itself up to be so much better than this doesn’t really want to extend its seven-season bowl streak to eight with a 6-6 record and the sort of bowl bid that by any sense of pride would be delivered on a hum bug.
The way the game started, with Franklin flinging the ball all over the field to near perfection, Mizzou built a 17-3 second-quarter lead that probably could have been — should have been — a 24-3 lead. Yet slowly but surely, Syracuse climbed back into the contest, and with the fourth quarter barely two minutes old, it was a 17-17 tie and a lot of things about this odd and disappointing football season were on the verge of unraveling even further.
There’s just no way Mizzou should have lost this game. Period. No excuse. No way at all. It should have been over long before Franklin’s concussion knocked him out of the game. It should have been over because the Tigers should have converted critical plays and gotten into the end zone, but instead kept settling for field goals.
They allowed Syracuse to hang around, played soft coverage on Lemon all night long and just turned this Senior Night that should have ended in a teary-eyed celebration into a Senior Night that was full of nothing but teary-eyed disappointment.