Monday, August 26, 2019

Mizzou 50: 2014 Tigers were a fun, resilient team

Missouri began the 2014 season as defending SEC East champs. This was one of those times where the sequel was actually as good as the original (the 2013 season), if not better.

The 2014 Tigers were not Gary Pinkel’s best team, but they embodied a scrappy competitive excellence as well as any team from the Pinkel era. They weren’t a juggernaut that just blew teams out, but they often just found ways to churn out wins. Missouri won all four of its SEC road games in 2014, each time as an underdog.

In the offseason, Pinkel dismissed star receiver Dorial Green-Beckham from the team, but the Tigers still had Bud Sasser. Bud had to fend off Vanderbilt defenders he couldn’t outrun on a 2012 touchdown reception, but he was the type of gritty competitor who was the embodiment of this team.

Missouri started with a home game against South Dakota State, a good FCS team. The Tigers won 38-18. Missouri then followed that up with a 49-24 win at Toledo in the interestingly named Glass Bowl, and then a Sept. 13 home win over UCF, in a game that somehow only took right at three hours, a rapid pace for modern college football.

The Tigers were 3-0 when they welcomed Indiana to Columbia. The Tigers had won big at Indiana the year before. But this year was different. Tevin Coleman had a big game, and the Hoosiers left Columbia with a 31-27 win. It was a pretty stunning loss for the Tigers, who had been favored by 13.
But the show goes on, and Missouri kicked off SEC play with a Sept. 27 trip to No. 13 South Carolina. I was there on a road trip with some friends, and Friday night while out and about in Columbia (South Carolina edition), we saw highlights of the Royals clinching their first playoff berth since 1985.

College GameDay was there for the game, a night kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium, which be one of the loudest and most raucous atmospheres in the SEC. The crowd was fired up for this one, frantically waving white rally towels to “Sandstorm” before kickoffs, and the loudspeakers shrieking a chicken crowing on third downs.

The Gamecocks gradually built a lead. After an early touchdown, Missouri’s offense was doing nothing.

In the fourth quarter, with South Carolina up 13-7, Pharoh Cooper caught a touchdown pass to put the Gamecocks up 20-7 and seemed to put the dagger in the Tigers. Spurrier oddly did not go for two after the score to go up 14, but it seemed like a moot point.

But then, unable to yield another inch, the resilient Tigers made a charge. Missouri ripped off a shocking, three-play touchdown drive to draw within six. The Tigers got the ball back and embarked on a madcap, nine-play, 51-yard drive that saw two do-or-die fourth down conversions, the second of which was a Russell Hansbrough one-yard touchdown run. The pocket of Mizzou fans in the corner of the stadium erupted. I hugged my friend Brent and lifted him off the ground, only later learning I’d knocked his sunglasses off his head in the process and they had been broken.

The defense held one more time, and the Tigers had completed the heart-stopping 21-20 win.

That set up a big game in Columbia after a bye week, with No. 23 Missouri hosting No. 13 Georgia on Oct. 11. It was part of a big Missouri sports tripleheader, with the Mizzou game, and then Royals and Cardinals playoff baseball games.

There was tremendous excitement at kickoff, but it dissipated quickly. Georgia annihilated Missouri. After Todd Gurley was ruled ineligible for supposedly getting money for autographs, Nick Chubb filled in for the Bulldogs, carrying the ball roughly a bajillion times for over 100 yards.

How about this stat: Missouri ran four plays in Georgia territory THE ENTIRE GAME, and three of them resulted in turnovers. Good grief. Georgia won 34-0.

Georgia had lost to South Carolina earlier in the season, but Missouri’s loss to the Dawgs was a big blow to their SEC East chances. It felt like the Tigers needed to win out to have a shot, and in hindsight, that’s exactly what was required for Missouri to make it back to the SEC title game. Six games, and they needed them all.

Missouri got started on that with a 42-13 win at Florida, a crazy game where Missouri dominated despite on having 119 yards of offense. But the Tigers had a kick return touchdown, punt return touchdown, fumble return touchdown, and interception return touchdown. That’ll play.

Marcus Murphy had kick return, punt return and rushing touchdowns in the game.

Missouri returned home for a generally uneven and grinding 24-14 win over Vanderbilt on Homecoming, but it got the job done. The Tigers then hosted Kentucky on Nov. 1, in a game that was remarkably colder for being just one week later, and Missouri won 20-10 to improve to 7-2. At about the same time, Florida rose up and beat Georgia in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party game, making it official, if Missouri won out, they won the East.

On Nov. 15, again as a slight road underdog, Missouri churned out a 34-27 win at Texas A&M, before the biggest crowd to ever see Mizzou play football.

Then came a trip to Rocky Top to take on Tennessee, which had posted back-to-back wins and was getting things going under Butch Davis. The Volunteers were a slight favorite.

It was a hot crowd on a Saturday at Neyland Stadium, that massive and storied old structure by the Tennessee River. Every third down, the speakers blasted “Turn down for what!” as the crowd got loud. But Missouri scored on their opening drive, and a Mizzou fan/American hero yelled “Touchdown for what!”

The teams traded leads, with The Vols taking a 10-7 lead on a fake field goal touchdown, which led to one Tennessee fan falling out of ht stands celebrating behind the end zone. Defensive lineman Markus Golden had a big game for the Tigers, and the Missouri defense played well most of the game.

Then, with Missouri leading 16-13 early in the fourth quarter and the crowd going bonkers on another third down, Maty Mauk heaved a deep pass through the Tennessee night, which Jimmie Hunt caught for a long touchdown. Missouri had a much more comfortable lead, and held off a late charge by the Vols, which was aided by a maddening missed extra point by the Tigers. Still, Missouri held on for a 29-21 win, moving within one win of another trip to the SEC Championship Game.

That game was at home against Arkansas, a team that was getting some momentum of its own and playing great defense. It was played on Black Friday, a game that started during the day and finished in the twilight. The Razorbacks defense was showing its mettle early, but thankfully Andrew Baggett hammered home two 50-plus-yard field goals, and Arkansas led 14-6 at the half. That lead held up into the fourth quarter. After coming so far, the adventure and achievement of a return trip to Atlanta seemed to be fading with the last of the late autumn day’s sunlight.

Then, Missouri came alive. As the team had done many times this season, they got up off the mat, kept digging, and found a way.

As a gorgeous sunset lit up the sky above Faurot Field, Missouri embarked on a drive for the ages. The Tigers went 98 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown. They completed the two-point conversation on a trick play wide receiver pass, with old reliable Bud Sasser tossing it to Darius White to tie the game at 14.

The long drive and score got the fans fired up, and the sellout crowd was roaring as the Tiger defense, strong all day, forced a punt.

The crowd was delirious, part rock concert and part tent revival.

Missouri’s suddenly hot offense reeled off a 12-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to take the lead with 4:38 to go. Faurot was rocking, a tempest of sound and hope. Writing about it years later, I still get goosebumps.

Missouri got one more stop, when defensive end Markus Golden, maybe the MVP of this stretch run, recovered a fumble by Alex Collins to seal the 21-14 win. The clock hit all zeroes.

Fans poured out onto the field, fireworks exploded above the stadium, and then the sweet sounds of Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” drifted out from the stadium speakers. For the second year in a row, Missouri was headed to Atlanta.

It was possible for Missouri to face Alabama or Mississippi State in the SEC title game, but State lost the Egg Bowl, meaning Alabama’s crushing revenge win over Auburn was purely ceremonial and for hate. It was Missouri against the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide for the SEC championship.

Again, the crowd was heavily pro-Alabama, but the Tiger fans there were vocal and hoping for one more stunning victory. Big Al and Truman the Tiger led their respective schools out on the field at the Georgia Dome.

Lane Kiffin had Bama’s offense humming along, and the Tide led 21-3 at the half.

Missouri did battle back, like they had all season, standing up to the No. 1-ranked Tide. A touchdown and a field goal made it 21-13. The big underdog Tigers were within a score, late in the third quarter.
But Alabama put together a long drive. It was still 21-13 at the start of the fourth quarter, but Bama score early in the final period, the first of three touchdowns in the final quarter to turn a tense contest into a blowout. Alabama won the game 42-13. Missouri was denied a conference title again, falling to 0-4 in conference championship games under Pinkel.

But it had still been a remarkable season, and the Tigers got to play in a New Year’s Day bowl game, facing No. 25 Minnesota in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Minnesota scored the first touchdown to go up 7-0, but Missouri took a 10-7 lead at the half. The Golden Gophers (great mascot name, by the way), retook the lead in the third quarter, but the Tigers retook the lead for good on an 18-yard touchdown run by Mauk in the third quarter. The fourth quarter was all Tigers, and Missouri won 33-17 to cap an 11-3 season. Markus Golden was the bowl game MVP.

Missouri finished No. 11 in the final coaches poll, and No. 14 in the final AP poll. It was yet another memorable season for the Tigers, and a fun team to root for.

2014: 5 years ago, 1st in SEC East, lost SEC Championship Game

Record: 11-3, 7-1 in SEC

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