Monday, September 29, 2014

Missouri rallies for improbable win at South Carolina

For most of the game, Missouri had pretty much nothing on offense. Then, over the course of a few frantic moments of exquisite drama, the Tigers (4-1, 1-0 in SEC play) had everything, snatching a 21-20 win at South Carolina (3-2, 2-2 in SEC) last Saturday.

It was a game with massive implications for the SEC East Division race, and South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium was ready for the occasion. It was one of the loudest venues in which I’ve seen Missouri play a football game.

When South Carolina’s fantastically named Pharoh Cooper reeled in an outstanding touchdown catch with 7:25 to go, Missouri trailed 20-7 and the situation seemed largely hopeless. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier didn’t decide to go for two after the touchdown to go up 14, but it didn’t really seem like it would matter.

Missouri’s defense had hung on all night long, stopping the Gamecocks again and again while the Tiger offense did very little. But after that Cooper touchdown catch, it seemed like a great effort was going to come up short.

When Maty Mauk and the Missouri offense took the field down 20-7, the Tigers had punted on 10 straight possessions, not counting a kneel down to end the first half. None of those drives had advanced more than 21 yards. Injury problems had hurt the depth at receiver. Mauk had completed just 9 of 29 passes at that point.

And somehow, shockingly, Missouri found a way.

As you should expect when the team is in trouble, Mauk hit Bud Sasser with a long pass, then completed another to Wesley Leftwich. Russell Hansbrough plunged into the end zone from the one, and Missouri had life.

The Tiger defense forced a three and out, and a 22-yard punt return for Marcus Murphy gave Missouri the ball just 51 yards from the end zone.

The Tigers then embarked on a drive for the ages, and for hand-wringing, converting two four downs along the way, the first a breathtaking four-and-one pass to Sean Culkin, the second a Hansbrough one-yard touchdown run that will live on in Tiger lore. Hansbrough and the offensive line just kept pushing and pushing and pushing until the officials signaled touchdown. Tiger fans in the nearby corner of Williams-Brice were delirious with celebration.

Missouri’s defense, iron-fisted so much of the evening, forced four straight Dylan Thompson incompletions, sealing one of the most improbable Tiger wins I have ever seen.

The gritty win at another SEC East contender was a big step toward Missouri defending its East Division title. After a much needed bye this Saturday, Missouri has another huge game on Oct. 11, against Georgia at Faurot Field.

How that game and the rest of the season will play out is anyone’s guess. But as South Carolina’s band played “Amazing Grace,” its traditional closing song, and Tiger fans filed out into the South Carolina night, they knew one thing: Missouri was alone in first in the SEC East.

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