Sam Mellinger

Dream season is over, but Missouri still has much to play for

Updated: 2013-10-28T01:32:35Z

By Sam Mellinger

The Kansas City Star

— The ball banged off the goal post and the sound was something like a million stomachs dropping. A lot of cussing. Heads hanging. On TV, the announcer screamed, “ OH NO!!! Again?”

This was going so well. This Missouri football season was playing out like a dream, more than halfway through and still perfect. Anything was possible. More than that, anything felt possible. Up three scores into the fourth quarter and half of the SEC being turned on its head. Atlanta, at least. A BCS bowl, maybe. A spot in the national championship? Hey, stranger things have happened.

Then, something all too familiar happened here. The lead trickled away … then disappeared … then all of a sudden a chip-shot field goal crashes off the goal post and No. 5 Missouri is trying to make sense of a 27-24 double overtime loss to No. 20 South Carolina.

“This is a tough one to swallow,” Mizzou senior Justin Britt says. “But I know that this team will overcome it.”

All because a ball bounced off a round post the wrong direction. The snap came in a bit high. The hold could’ve been better. Whatever.

This is what a lot of Mizzou fans had been terrified would happen. Mizzou fans have come by their skepticism honestly, you know, a proud sports history with thrilling highs interrupted every so often by a Fifth Down or a Flea Kicker and so here’s one more heartbreaking finish in that cursed north end zone — The Upright Game? The GameFlop?

A sad and layered narrative, now updated.

There is still a lot for Mizzou to look forward to, actually. The Tigers still lead the SEC East by a game over the Gamecocks. Win out, and the Tigers will play in the conference championship. They can still do so much. They have already beaten two traditional SEC powers. All is not lost.

But, man. This is a rotten way for the dream season to end.

Mizzou had this game, too. Had it gripped by the neck, a 17-point lead and rocking crowd and national, prime-time television audience watching the rise of a team that couldn’t even make a bowl game last year now sitting among the sport’s best teams. Close this out, and Mizzou was a virtual lock to win the division and play (against Alabama, presumably) for the conference title in Atlanta.

Now? It’s still possible, of course.

But it feels a lot different now.

The autopsies of a collapse have already begun and will pick up speed this week. Blame Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel. Or defensive coordinator Dave Steckel. Maty Mauk, making just his second start, completed just 10 of 25 passes. Andrew Baggett, who made five field goals against Florida a week earlier, missed two. Ian Simon got beat for a touchdown on fourth-and-15 in the first overtime.

The blame can go a thousand directions. This is how it goes with gut-punch losses. And this was Pinkel’s message after the game, both to his players and the media.

“This loss will not define us,” Pinkel says. “What will define (the season) is how we deal with it.”

Technically, he is correct. Mizzou still controls whether it wins the division championship. This is still a team that scored 51 at Vanderbilt, won by 15 at Georgia, and beat Florida without its star senior quarterback and best defensive back. Michael Sam is still wrecking interior offensive lines, Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy are still running hard, and the receivers are still mismatches.

But this feeling will linger. There is no other way. Pinkel acknowledged as much after the game, and it’s his job to somehow turn that into a positive. The dream season is ruined, but a great one is still possible.

The Tigers have come a long way in a year to be disappointed while still holding first place in the division, but that’s reality. Maybe in a day or a week this team will think more about pushing around Georgia and Florida than collapsing against South Carolina.

But that’s what this was. A collapse. Mizzou was outgained 178 to 41 in the fourth quarter, undone by the same screen plays and underneath passes that South Carolina used in a blowout that came to define last year’s slide. A defense that made all the plays for three quarters couldn’t find one in the fourth. And an offense that could’ve cinched in late in the fourth quarter couldn’t manage a first down when it needed one.

Pinkel’s message is true. In the bigger picture, he’s absolutely correct. The Tigers will have every opportunity to make this a great season.

It’s just that a day ago, they had every opportunity to make it a dream season.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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