Missouri had not played a close game in weeks coming into this nationally televised contest on Friday. Its slimmest margin of victory entering the weekend was 28 points.
So it was unfamiliar territory for Missouri (7-5, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) to have to trade scores with Arkansas (4-8, 1-7) for the entirety of its 48-45 win over the Razorbacks. That’s something it had not done since losing to Kentucky, two weeks before the Tigers began what is now a six-game winning streak.
Coach Barry Odom would have preferred to keep it that way.
“I like the uncompetitive ones,” he said afterward. “I’m tired.”
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Mizzou players had said they would be ready to face adversity when it hit again. They had seen a lot of it to start the season, but almost none in more than a month.
For much of this game, some of the same problems that ailed the Tigers early this season presented themselves again. Mizzou’s secondary was porous. The Tigers failed to tackle. Missouri fell behind after Drew Lock threw an interception on the fourth play of the game, and Arkansas scored on the subsequent possession.
The Tigers’ offense responded to early struggles soon after that first Lock interception and finished with 696 yards of offense, the team’s most since its season-opener against Missouri State. Mizzou’s defense took a bit longer to come up with a big play.
On Arkansas’ penultimate possession, MU held the Razorbacks to a 42-yard field goal that tied the game at 45-45 with five minutes remaining.
“That was somewhat of a win,” Odom said.
That defensive stand allowed Missouri to bleed the clock during a 14-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 19-yard field goal by Tucker McCann. Before the kick, Missouri was facing third down and 3 from the Arkansas 8-yard line. Ish Witter, who finished with 172 yards and a touchdown in a career high 39 carries, ran for 4 yards and a new set of downs. Arkansas was out of timeouts.
“We, every single game, have gotten tougher,” Lock said when asked how the Tigers had changed since their last close game, that loss at Kentucky. “It was just this time where we fought through enough. … We’ve fought through all the different situations (thrown) at us.
“It was time for us to come out on top. It was time for us to be the better team. It was time for us to be the tougher team.”
Only once during its winning streak, against Tennessee, did Missouri finish the first half leading by fewer than 22 points. The Tigers were ahead against the Volunteers by seven at the break, and they scored 26 unanswered points in the second half to bury Tennessee.
So Arkansas was unlike any opponent Missouri has faced during its resurgence. The Razorbacks hung around. Missouri took a 31-28 lead into halftime, and there were five lead changes after that.
After a 28-yard run gave Arkansas a 35-31 lead, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam caught his second touchdown pass of the game and 11th of the season, an 8-yarder from Drew Lock with just under 13 minutes left.
The Razorbacks responded with a 6-play, 49-yard drive that ended with a 24-yard screen-pass TD reception by David Williams, who also led Arkansas with 75 rushing yards. MU safety Kaleb Prewett missed a tackle this time.
An 8-play, 89-yard drive that featured two big catches by J’Mon Moore, including a 24-yarder for a score, gave Missouri a 45-42 lead before a 42-yard Arkansas field goal tied it with 5 minutes remaining.
Moore’s score came on the left sideline, where he pushed an Arkansas defender in the back before making the grab.
“I felt like he was trying to bump up against me,” Moore said. “I’m going to get the best of him.”
Lock, who finished with 448 passing yards while throwing for five touchdowns and two interceptions, surpassed the program record for touchdowns in a season (39) and the SEC record (40). He now has 43.
Okwuegbunam broke MU’s freshman record of nine touchdown receptions, set by Jeremy Maclin in 2007.
Moore surpassed Maclin for fourth all-time on the program’s career receiving yards list. He finished the game with 160 yards on 10 catches to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards for the second consecutive season.
A problem for Mizzou: Arkansas posted some gaudy statistics, too.
Quarterback Austin Allen completed 14 of 29 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns. The Razorbacks had not thrown for more than 264 yards in a game this year. Wide receiver Jordan Jones had 122 yards receiving and one touchdown.
Arkansas’ 446 yards of total offense were the most against the Tigers since Mizzou played at Georgia on Oct. 14.
Arkansas went up by 14 points twice in the first half. Screen and play-action passes gave the Tigers trouble.
“It was ugly in most every part of it,” Odom said of the game.
Missouri had not played from behind since its first possession against Connecticut on Oct. 28, when the Tigers gave the Huskies two points on a safety in the game’s opening possession.
But this is a different team than even that one, which was 2-5, winless in the SEC and only coming off of a win against Idaho. That was just the beginning of this winning streak, and Odom believes MU has “matured as a team.”
“It’s a process of really working together over the course of 60 minutes and then trying to put yourself in position to win a game in the fourth quarter,” Odom said. “Have we grown up? Absolutely. We’re not there yet, but making a lot of progress.”
Lock and the offense kept Missouri in it in the first half with touchdown passes of 55 and 56 yards to Emanuel Hall — who left after the second one because of a right hamstring injury — and a 10-yard scoring toss to Okwuegbunam.
And by the end, the Tigers would all come together. Lock said Mizzou talked about “out-teaming” Arkansas — and cliché as that is, that’s what happened to end the game. The defense held the Razorbacks to a field goal, the offense drove down the field, and the kicker made a short but important field goal.
A few seconds after that field goal, McCann’s second of the game, the Tigers stormed the field and looked perhaps more excited than after any other win this season. Lock darted toward the end zone near the Missouri locker room, where some of the small contingent of MU fans awaited.
The quarterback has lost big during this season, and he has won big – but Lock had never won a shootout like this one during a wacky year in which the Tigers have become just the fourth Power Five school to go from 1-5 to 7-5. No SEC school had accomplished it prior to MU.
Lock wasn’t looking for a specific person as he ran toward those fans. He said he was just the most excited he has ever been after a game.
“I had to get my time in,” he said, “and feel that for once.”