In the fourth quarter of Missouri’s game at Tennessee last Saturday, the Tigers were clinging to a 16-13 lead and facing a third-and-eight at their own 28-yard line. The crowd of nearly 96,000 had been hot all night, cheering and singing “Rocky Top” with vigor.
The crowd was thunderous, willing the Volunteer defense to make the stop, the sound echoing out of the massive, 93-year-old stadium, across the Tennessee River and into the Appalachian Mountains.
Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk dropped back and heaved a pass into the chilly Tennessee night. Deep down the field, Tiger receiver Jimmie Hunt leapt up, caught the pass, and outran the Volunteer defenders into the end zone for the touchdown. The big crowd fell silent, except for a pocket of black-and-gold clad Missouri fans celebrating in the corner.
Missouri (9-2, 6-1 in SEC play) added another touchdown, then held off a late Tennessee (5-6, 2-5 in SEC) rally to win, 29-21, and move within one victory of winning the SEC East Division.
Missouri’s defense was brilliant, holding the surging Tennessee offense to just 279 yards. When Missouri’s offense and kicking game sputtered, the defense just kept digging in. The Tiger defensive line was especially dominant. Missouri sacked Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs six times. Markus Golden was tenacious, recording two sacks, two and a half tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery.
The Tiger offense struggled at times, as it has this season, but all five of Missouri’s scoring drives went at least 65 yards.
Missouri kicker Andrew Baggett missed a field goal and two extra points. He’ll need to be much sharper in what should be a pretty competitive game with Arkansas to end the regular season.
This wild season has come down to this: if Missouri beats Arkansas, the Tigers are going to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. If they lose, Georgia goes instead.
Simply getting here has been an impressive feat for the Tigers. After a humbling 34-0 home loss to Georgia, Missouri has won five straight. Saturday’s win was Missouri’s 10th straight road win, a school record. Missouri was an underdog in all four of its SEC road games this year, and they won all four.
Can the Tigers beat Arkansas on Friday (1:30 p.m. on CBS) at Faurot Field? The Razorbacks (6-5, 2-5 in SEC) broke a 17-game SEC losing streak with a 17-0 win over LSU, then backed that up with a 30-0 win over reeling Ole Miss last Saturday. Arkansas has played a rugged schedule, but the Hogs seem to be moving in the right direction. Arkansas has a wobbly passing attack, but a very good running game in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
Whatever happens, this will be a memorable day at Faurot. With the division title on the line and the newly named “Battle Line Rivalry” in place, this is sports full throttle. On Friday, Missouri, now ranked No. 17, will either experience a soaring win or an agonizing loss. There is no middle ground on this day after Thanksgiving.