Missouri stands one win from a chance at redemption in Atlanta.
The 19th-ranked Tigers, who were shellacked by Auburn in the Southeastern Conference championship game last season, dispatched Tennessee 29-21 on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Missouri, 9-2 overall and 6-1 in the SEC, finished with six sacks, including two by senior Markus Golden, and racked up 12 tackles for a loss, including two by senior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent, in what’s become a familiar formula: play good defense and do enough on offense to emerge victorious.
The Tigers’ vaunted defensive line proved too much for the Volunteers’ patchwork offensive line, which was without starting center Mack Crowder.
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“We take pride in playing hard and I told the guys all week, ‘Let’s just get out there and play hard,’ ” said Golden, who was credited with 2 1/2 tackles for a loss. “That’s what we did tonight.”
Tennessee started three drives in Missouri territory, while the Tigers’ offense bogged down under the weight of poor field position.
But MU’s defense never buckled, and it held strong long enough for the offense to put the game away in the fourth quarter — after surviving two onside-kick recoveries by the Vols that were negated by penalties.
“They threw a lot of different things at us and tried to neutralize our pass rush, leaving guys into chip and do things like that,” said junior defensive end Shane Ray, who added a half-sack to his single-season record (13 1/2). “It’s expected now, but we played good and hard and physical as a defensive unit, and the outcome was the outcome.”
The first recovery was wiped away by an offside flag and the second was erased when Tennessee senior cornerback Justin Coleman touched the ball before it went 10 yards.
“There’s certainly things I’m disappointed in that created a lot of drama there at the end of the game, but … you talk about a team that battles and a team that makes plays and works off of each other,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “We’ve been doing it more and more.”
Missouri has won a program-record 10 consecutive road games, including eight straight in SEC play. It’s the third-longest streak in the nation behind Ohio State (16) and Florida State (12).
The Tigers clinched at least a share of a second straight SEC East division crown but must beat Arkansas to earn a return trip to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome for the conference title game.
“There’s no other scenario you’d want,” MU sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk said. “We’re in the driver’s seat and we’re going to focus on Arkansas. … I know our guys will be ready to go.”
Georgia, which finished 6-2 in the SEC, owns the tie breaker with Missouri, which was picked to finish fourth in the division in the preseason media poll.
While the defensive line’s dominance was key, it took Mauk and the passing game to put away the win in the fourth quarter.
Up 16-13, Mauk — who finished 12 of 25 for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers — connected with senior wide receiver Jimmie Hunt on a 73-yard touchdown, Missouri’s longest play from scrimmage this season.
Hunt, who finished with three catches for a career-high 106 yards, snatched Mauk’s pass over Coleman, who fell down as Hunt outran sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton the rest of the way for the score.
“It’s a huge momentum play,” Pinkel said. “It’s mammoth. … Certainly, that was a big play that we needed, and it was a good call. They were playing real tight coverage.”
Mauk provided more breathing room with a 13-yard fade to senior Bud Sasser for a touchdown and a 29-13 lead with 6:22 remaining. Junior Andrew Baggett then missed his second extra point.
Tennessee pulled back one score on sophomore Josh Dobbs’ 4-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Jason Croom.
Dobbs’ two-point conversion made it a one-score game, but the Volunteers couldn’t get out of their own way on the onside kicks and the Tigers ran out the clock from there.
The game was tied at halftime.
Missouri got two touchdowns from senior Marcus Murphy, who led the Tigers with 19 carries for 82 yards.
The first Murphy TD, a 1-yard run, capped a 12-play, 75-yard drive to open the game. The second came on a 7-yard run, answered Tennessee’s only touchdown of the first half.
The Vols caught the Tigers on a fake field goal when junior holder Patrick Ashford, a walk-on and former backup quarterback at Carson-Newman, lobbed a 31-yard touchdown over the top for junior tight end Alex Ellis, another walk-on.