ATHENS, Ga. — As the seconds ticked down on Mizzou’s electrifying, groundbreaking 41-26 victory at No. 7 Georgia on Saturday at Sanford Stadium, MU senior receiver L’Damian Washington with fury in his voice repeatedly yelled to no one in particular, “Tell me that win ain’t good enough!”
By VAHE GREGORIAN
The Kansas City Star
Some still might, even after No. 25 MU’s first win over a top-10 team on an opposing campus since 1978 and, really, one of the most meaningful wins in school history: the declaration of arrival in the Southeastern Conference after the unsightly 2-6 debut in 2012 that had made the move seem suspect.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to get that ‘Georgia was banged up’ right after the game,” Washington said.
And, yep, Georgia was.
But … so what?
No one seemed to cut Mizzou much slack when it was ravaged by injuries last season.
And, for that matter, Mizzou was contending with substantial losses of its own on Saturday, when its best defensive player, E.J. Gaines, was hurt in the second quarter and its best offensive player, star quarterback James Franklin, was knocked out with the game in the balance in the fourth quarter.
No, the story of the game isn’t what Georgia lacked.
It’s what Mizzou demonstrated, especially in the crucible of the fourth quarter.
Georgia had rampaged back from a 28-10 first-half deficit to cut the lead to 28-26, Franklin had been lost for the game (and at least the next few weeks) because of a separated shoulder and 92,746 people were so riled up that MU coach Gary Pinkel couldn’t hear voices on the other end of his headset.
“We’ve been tested by fire now, and we know that,” MU guard Max Copeland said. “We know what we do under pressure. And you can only have that stuff revealed in these kinds of (moments).”
What was illuminated Saturday? Under intensifying pressure, Mizzou flourished and played boldly instead of shriveling.
In for Franklin came freshman Maty Mauk, facing third and 6 at the Georgia 45. And Mauk barged for 6 yards and an inch or so more for a first down.
Two plays later, offensive coordinator Josh Henson ordered up “Colt 45,” a lateral from Mauk to receiver Bud Sasser, who would throw deep for Washington.
What could possibly go wrong?
“The 14 things that could go wrong all flashed through my head right after I called the play,” Henson said, smiling. “It’s a dangerous call … but I felt like we had to be aggressive to try to go score and win the game on the road.”
And Washington outleaped freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins, and the most improbable of 40-yard touchdown passes gave MU some space.
That wasn’t enough to make it safe after kicker Andrew Baggett simply missed the extra point to keep it a one-possession game at 34-26.
Mizzou, though, made that a moot point by shutting down the Bulldogs from there, forcing a three-and-out after Markus Golden sacked Aaron Murray, then setting up a backbreaking TD by Henry Josey with Randy Ponder’s interception.
And that was that.
A Mizzou team that last season had its first losing record since 2004 suddenly is a transformative 6-0, bowl eligible and 2-0 in SEC play with three straight home games coming up.
“It was kind of cathartic for us,” Copeland said. “I’ve been reading a lot about (Gen.) William Tecumseh Sherman … (saying), ‘I intend to make Georgia howl,’” Copeland said, smiling. “That’s something we really took to heart as an offense and a team.”
If that wasn’t exactly how it played out, it still was a win to holler about.
Depending on how you weigh such things, Mizzou has had more significant victories in and of themselves.
Only three years ago, the unbeaten Tigers beat then-BCS No. 1 Oklahoma for the school’s first win ever over a top-ranked team.
In 2007, MU’s victory over Kansas at Arrowhead Stadium propelled the Tigers to the top spot in the polls for the second time ever and first since 1960.
And Mizzou football in the 1960s and ’70s was almost defined by its ability to beat top-10 teams.
But it’s hard to put a ceiling on what this one stands for after all the turmoil over the move from the Big 12 to the SEC, a calculated gamble, but a gamble nonetheless, that the football program could sustain its winning ways against the best of the best.
Especially after the dud first season.
“Sometimes, you need to be knocked down to be brought back to reality,” Washington said.
This season, and even the SEC move, is still a work in progress.
But here on Saturday was a dividing line in the SEC move. There always will be Mizzou before the win at Georgia … and Mizzou after the win at Georgia, which left the Tigers alone in first place in the SEC East.
That’s for the history books, though.
Now there is this: MU simultaneously will have to contend with a new adversity (minus Franklin for weeks) and new prosperity that it already was girding against on Saturday.
“Momentum’s a cruel mistress,” Copeland said, “and she can turn on a dime.”
She did in 2010, when Mizzou’s victory over Oklahoma made for a 7-0 start that was rendered an afterthought in a 31-17 loss at Nebraska as the Tigers lost three of their last six.
Pinkel recalled speaking late the night of the Oklahoma win with mentor Don James, who “put a douse on the flame” by pointing him to the next game.
“I didn’t listen to him very well; I was kind of mad at him when I hung up,” Pinkel said. “Because I didn’t want to hear that. Are you kidding me?”
Now, Pinkel said, it’s already time to “get rid of all this stuff” and move on to preparing for Florida to begin a three-game home stand.
How MU performs in those games will really define the season.
Still, this one was “good enough” in plenty of ways.
On Friday night, Washington and other seniors presented a video of Georgia celebrating in Columbia, with chants and signs of “Grown Man Football” in response to former Tiger Sheldon Richardson’s “old man football” quip.
When the video ended, the seniors walked out of the room to punctuate the point.
“Our team answered: ‘grown man football,’” Washington said, adding, “We can compete in the SEC. Period.”