Sunday, January 4, 2015

Tigers hold off Vandy, host Kentucky next

It wasn’t until late in the game on Saturday, as a warm October day yielded to the soft glow of twilight, that Missouri (6-2, 3-1 in SEC play) finally put away its game with Vanderbilt. Bud Sasser reeled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Maty Mauk with 2:05 to go, the final score in a 24-14 Tiger win on Homecoming.

Vanderbilt (2-6, 0-5 in SEC) is not a good team, but the Commodores hung tough all afternoon, aided in that endeavor by a laboring Missouri offense. When Vanderbilt scored a touchdown to pull within three with 6:53 to play, a hush fell over the crowd at Faurot Field, which was wearing black and gold in alternating sections for a Tiger stripe effect.

But the Tigers’ 70-yard drive to clinch the win was in many ways a depiction of Missouri’s season, which is somehow already two-thirds complete. The Tigers are not dominant, but they have found ways to win most of their games. This is not Gary Pinkel’s best team or even his fourth best team, but the Tigers could still realistically get to nine or 10 wins.

Part of this is certainly schedule driven. I know it’s the big, bad SEC, but Missouri’s schedule is one of the softer ones I can remember. The Tigers have played one team that is currently ranked, and they likely won’t play another in the regular season. Life in the SEC East simply isn’t that hard right now, and Missouri just might be playing the two worst teams in the SEC West.

If Missouri is going to play a weak schedule, this is a good year for it. Missouri still struggles on offense, especially when it tries to pass. In the four SEC games this season, Mauk has completed just 38 of 96 passes (39.6 percent) with two touchdowns and five interceptions. His two touchdown passes to Sasser against Vanderbilt were his first since Sept. 20 against Indiana.

Still, Missouri has gone 3-1 in those games. Credit the Tigers for finding ways to win, and for maintaining a respectable program while most of the rest of the SEC East burns.

However, Missouri’s next opponent, Kentucky (5-3, 2-3 in SEC), is an SEC East team heading in the right direction. The Tigers host the Wildcats on Saturday (3 p.m. on SEC Network).

Kentucky snapped a 17-game SEC losing streak with wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina, got hammered at LSU, and then last week gave a game effort in a 45-31 home loss to No. 1 Mississippi State. Wildcat coach Mark Stoops is the younger brother of Bob Stoops, the longtime Tiger tormenter at Oklahoma.

Kentucky’s sophomore quarterback, Patrick Towles, is rapidly developing. Against Mississippi State, he threw for 390 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 76 yards and two more touchdowns. Slowing Towles starts with Missouri’s talented defensive ends, Shane Ray and Markus Golden, getting some heat on him.

This should be a very competitive game. Missouri will need more from its offense to win this one.

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