Shane Ray popped up after sacking Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles in the closing seconds Saturday at Memorial Stadium and took a left-handed swing as if socking a baseball over the fence for a home run.
Ray, a junior defensive end and Bishop Miege graduate, was celebrating a record-breaking 12th sack this season, but it also served as a fitting exclamation point after the Tigers’ defense figuratively knocked one out of the park in a 20-10 victory.
It was a good way to head into a bye week before playing Texas A&M.
“Our next goal is to be 2-0 in November,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “November’s a big thing around here and A&M’s a very good football team. We get a bye week and get some rest, which is nice. You probably couldn’t create it any better than we have right here.”
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Towles and the Wildcats entered the game averaging more than 425 yards per game, but managed only 258 against Ray and company, going two of 16 on third down and gaining a meager 3.6 yards per play.
Missouri came up with four fourth-down stops, none bigger than sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer smacking Towles for a 2-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 read-option keeper with 1:32 remaining.
“They’re huge plays, because they’re almost like turnovers a little bit,” Pinkel said.
It blunted Kentucky’s desperation comeback bid and as a result, Missouri, 7-2 and 4-1 in the SEC, sits alone atop the East division standings.
Six weeks ago, the Tigers lost to Big Ten doormat Indiana at home.
Three weeks ago, Missouri was shut out by Georgia at home.
Now, the Tigers — for all their warts, particularly on offense — control their fate in the quest for a second consecutive division crown and SEC Championship Game after Georgia’s shocking loss to Florida in the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville, Fla.
Missouri led 20-3 before Kentucky mounted a 12-play, 80-yard drive capped by Javess Blue’s 1-yard touchdown from Towles with 3:26 remaining.
The Wildcats, 5-4 and 2-4 in the SEC, then recovered an onside kick when MU redshirt freshman Jason Reese and sophomore John Gibson collided going for the ball.
Four plays later, senior safety Braylon Webb was ejected for targeting, a penalty that will end his 35-game streak of consecutive games started when he’s forced to sit out the first half Nov. 15 at Texas A&M.
“It’s amazing all the anxiety that one play causes when you don’t execute it right in the kicking game,” Pinkel said.
Fortunately for the Tigers, Scherer (who tied Kentrell Brothers with a team-high 13 tackles, a career-best for both players) helped make certain the defense answered the bell and snuffed out the drive before it produced points.
Kentucky got one final drive, but Ray put an exclamation point on the victory with his second sack — the fifth time he’s done that this season — to the delight of what remained from a crowd of 62,004.
It was Ray’s second sack of the game and 12th of the season, which is a new Tigers single-season record. The old record had been 11 1/2 sacks by Aldon Smith (2009) and Michael Sam (2013).
The offense also did its part in the first half as Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk finally found his groove again after a month of struggles.
Mauk and the Tigers’ passing game bottomed out with a 20-yard performance two weeks ago at Florida.
Things improved against Vanderbilt last week, but Mauk still completed only 11 of 23 passes for 141 yards.
During the first half against the Wildcats, Mauk completed 13 of 18 passes for 126 yards with two touchdowns and, at one point, completed 11 straight passes.
He only finished 18 of 33 for 164 yards, but he also added 14 carries for 75 yards.
Mauk threw 3- and 26-yard touchdowns to senior Bud Sasser, who finished with six catches for 67 yards, sandwiched around a 47-yard Austin MacGinnis field goal as Missouri took a 14-3 halftime lead.
Missouri added a pair of field goals from junior Andrew Baggett, a 41-yarder late in the third quarter and a 21-yard with roughly 5 minutes remaining that made it a three-score game.
The game was dedicated to John Kadlec, better known as Mr. Mizzou.
Kadlec, who played and coached at MU, later served as an administrator and also did color on the Mizzou Radio Network, died Wednesday at age 86 and funeral services were Saturday in Columbia before the game.
“We gave the family a game ball,” Pinkel said. “He’s just a great person, a guy that had touched thousands of people — players and all the people he’d been around, everybody who knew the guy.”