The key: On the first play from scrimmage, Arkansas junior quarterback Austin Allen ran a bootleg and spotted senior wide receiver Keon Hatcher all alone 15 yards downfield. Hatcher was finally tackled at the Missouri 1-yard line. Coach Bret Bielema’s squad punched it from there one play later for a lead only 55 seconds into the game.
The key: Arkansas had three first-half scoring drives that lasted at least 5 minutes and 22 seconds. Meanwhile, Missouri only had 5:40 in time of possession during the entire opening half, running 19 plays compared to 49 for the Razorbacks.
The key: Backed up against MU’s own goal line, coach Barry Odom ran a gutsy fake punt from the Mizzou 7. Junior safety Anthony Sherrils gained 14 yards after taking a direct snap and cut into a 10-point lead with a 67-yard touchdown to redshirt freshman Johnathon Johnson a few plays later.
The key: Protecting a four-point lead, Missouri senior cornerback Aarion Penton broke in front of Arkansas senior wide receiver Dominique Reed for an interception in the end zone with 4:02 remaining. The Tigers’ defense still needed to make one more stand, but it was a potentially game-saving play.
Missouri still only had 399 yards against an Arkansas defense that had been getting shredded. Dropped passes probably cost the Tigers a few more touchdowns, but sophomore quarterback Drew Lock didn’t throw any interceptions. Mizzou won the turnover battle after being minus-6 during the last three games.
The Tigers still gave up more than 500 yards, but it’s hard to do better than a second-half shutout. The interceptions by freshman linebacker Cale Garrett and Penton in the end zone were game-altering plays and offset the difference in yardage allowed.
Sophomore Corey Fatony shanked his first punt and the return game remained a nonfactor, but freshman kicker Tucker McCann was flawless on extra points. The plus is for Missouri’s fake punt from its own 7, which included an Oscar-worthy sell job by Fatony, that kept momentum with Odom’s crew.
After sleepwalking through the first half, it’s hard to give Odom and his staff a perfect grade, but the comeback speaks volumes about the team’s fight and desire at the end of a lost season, which was capped by a particularly tumultuous week. Damarea Crockett’s suspension, Jackie Shipp’s firing and a looming NCAA investigation didn’t derail the Tigers from reclaiming the Battle Line Rivalry trophy.
Player of the game: Senior cornerback Aarion Penton finished with six tackles, including a half-tackle for a loss. He also broke up two passes, but it was his pressure against Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen on a blitz that forced a bad throw that was intercepted by freshman linebacker Cale Garrett and ignited the comeback. Penton then preserved the win with an interception of his own.
Reason to hope: Missouri won two of its final three games, closing the season on an upswing. Most of the Tigers’ record-setting offense returns and it’s a good bet coach Barry Odom will take great pains to improve a struggling defense during the offseason. It was an inauspicious start, but the Arkansas win should be a nice springboard into the offseason.
Reason to mope: Mizzou trailed 24-7 at halftime after a lifeless first half. That’s hard to simply dismiss. The Tigers also lose several key contributors — Penton, fellow cornerback John Gibson, linebacker Michael Scherer and defensive tackles Josh Augusta and Rickey Hatley along with defensive end Charles Harris, who might declare for the NFL Draft — on a defense that already had significant issues.
Looking ahead: Missouri’s season is finished and Odom’s attention now turns to recruiting as he and his staff hit the trail Sunday when the open recruiting period begins.