Missouri fans can’t pin a 31-13 loss Saturday against South Carolina on a leaky defense.
Crippling special-teams gaffes gave the Tigers no chance in the SEC opener for both teams under the lights at Memorial Stadium.
Mizzou had missed field goals, coughed up a game-changing touchdown on a kickoff return, misplayed several punts and even muffed one, got a field goal blocked, and hemorrhaged field position with special-teams penalties.
An ineffective offense, which was without sophomore running back Damarea Crockett for most of the second half, further doomed Mizzou’s hopes with two interceptions during a sad-sack performance reminiscent of last season’s conference struggles.
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“Our margin of error is absolutely zero,” agitated second-year coach Barry Odom said. “If we don’t win the turnover margin and we play horrific in special teams, we’re not going to win a game.”
That was true for the Tigers (1-1, 0-1 SEC) against the Gamecocks (2-0, 1-0 SEC) on this particular night despite MU building an early 10-0 lead and owning a 423-359 edge in total offense.
“We came out strong and had the momentum, but we just started making dumb mistakes and the momentum swung the other way,” said junior linebacker Kaleb Prewett, who finished with seven tackles. “They held onto it and we weren’t able to answer.”
The game wasn’t over when junior quarterback Drew Lock threw his second interception with 9:34 remaining in the fourth quarter, but it may as well have been.
The Gamecocks’ 18-point lead sure seemed, and ultimately proved to be, insurmountable.
Senior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, who snagged Lock’s deflected pass along the visiting sideline, knew it — along with most of the crowd of 55,023.
Williams stood on a visiting-team bench and blew goodbye kisses toward the Tigers fans streaming toward the exits.
“I’d take that one back and throw it away,” said Lock, who finished 14 of 32 for 245 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Missouri led 10-0 in the second quarter before South Carolina junior Deebo Samuel’s 97-yard kickoff permanently changed the game’s momentum.
Lock’s first interception on the Tigers’ next play set up the go-ahead score, and the Gamecocks never looked back.
Sophomore kicker Tucker McCann’s 24-yard field-goal miss, a scuffed line drive off a suspect snap that was blocked despite little penetration, prevented Missouri from cutting into a 14-10 halftime lead in the closing minutes of the second quarter.
The miscues kept adding up.
Senior Anthony Hines’ illegal motion negated a Corey Fatony punt that was downed at the South Carolina 5-yard line.
The do-over bounded into the end zone, and South Carolina sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley engineered a nine-play touchdown march, capped by a 39-yard touchdown pass to junior Hayden Hurst.
McCann added a 22-yard field goal, but South Carolina answered with redshirt freshman Alexander Woznick’s first career field goal, a 32-yarder in the closing seconds of the third quarter.
After trading three-and-outs, the dagger for Missouri was Johnathon Johnson’s muffed punt, which kept Bentley and company on the field.
Hurst capped the ensuing drive with a 2-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep, the final nail in the Tigers’ coffin on this night.
“It was shocking,” said Missouri senior cornerback Logan Cheadle, who finished with five tackles. “You never expect that out of anybody, especially as much time as we put into our special teams work and as much as coach Odom emphasizes how important special teams is. You never want to see that, so, yeah, it was a surprise to me.”
Odom also cited dropped passes — there were at least four, including a 13-yard fourth-quarter touchdown by Johnson — among the endless mistakes that gave the Tigers no chance to win.
Crockett, who finished with 18 carries for 97 yards, only had two touches for 7 yards in the second half after suffering a bruised tailbone.
“Mine’s bruised too,” Odom said. “It’s called a (butt) kicking.”
It didn’t always look that way.
Missouri led 3-0 after the first quarter on McCann’s season-long 43-yard field goal and went up 10-0 when Lock lobbed a 61-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Jason Reese, who dashed past South Carolina middle linebacker T.J. Brunson and won a footrace to the end zone.
The next 30 seconds — which brought Samuel’s kickoff return, Lock’s first pick and Samuel’s TD run — eviscerated that lead and, seemingly, all the good vibes on Faurot Field.
“It’s the game of football; it’s a game of emotion,” Odom said. “Obviously, we had it and it went away really quick in those 30 seconds. We’ve got enough competitors and enough maturity on our team, we’ve got to keep fighting and find a way to get it back.”
If there’s one positive, it’s that the defense showed a pulse after flatlining in the first half against Missouri State last week.
“We practiced hard this week … and it showed up, but we still didn’t get a couple of key stops,” said senior defensive end Marcell Frazier, who voluntarily ended a three-month media blackout to speak with reporters after the game. “That showed up on the scoreboard.”
Things won’t get easier against Purdue at 3 p.m. Sept. 16 at Memorial Stadium.