Missouri wasn’t supposed to reach the SEC Championship Game last season and certainly wasn’t supposed to return to the Georgia Dome only a year later.
Nonetheless, the Tigers repeated as outright SEC East division champions Friday with a 21-14 victory against Arkansas in front of the season’s second sellout at Memorial Stadium (71,168).
Now, Missouri, 10-2 and 7-1 in the SEC, is ready to march on Atlanta again.
Despite being picked fourth in the SEC East division before the season, MU will play in a second straight conference title game next Saturday against either Alabama or Mississippi State, depending on Saturday’s results.
“It’s huge for this program,” said sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer, who finished with eight tackles for a defense that limited the Razorbacks to 288 yards. “I think people are going to start seeing Mizzou finally as a top-tier program. They made excuses last year about why we won, but I don’t think they can make excuses about a team that does it back-to-back.”
In only its third season as an SEC member, Missouri became the fourth program to win consecutive SEC East division titles, joining Florida (1992-96, 1999-2000, 2008-09), Georgia (2002-03, 2011-12) and Tennessee (1997-98).
The Tigers, who finished the regular season on a six-game win streak, earned the Razorbacks’ respect on the field by clawing back from an 11-point first-half hole and dominating the fourth quarter 15-0.
“This is kind of indicative of this football team that has this makeup of battling and, when things get tough, just being remarkably competitive,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That’s very unique. We kind of became that way as the season went and found out how we were going to have to win games.”
Missouri’s offense had been quiet for three quarters against Arkansas, which had posted back-to-back shutouts against LSU and Mississippi.
Everything changed when MU sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk, who went 25 of 42 for 265 yards with a touchdown and interception, opened the fourth quarter with a 44-yard bomb to senior Jimmie Hunt on a seam route.
“All of a sudden, the whole momentum of the game changed,” Pinkel said. “You’ve got to make plays. You have to have playmakers out there. It’s the law of the playmaker.”
Four plays later, Mauk, who is seven of nine for 201 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions combined in the fourth quarter against Tennessee and Arkansas, beat two Razorbacks defenders for a 28-yard gain to senior wide receiver Bud Sasser, who finished with a game-high nine catches for 127 yards.
Mauk capped a season-long 98-yard touchdown drive a few plays later with a 4-yard score on a back-shoulder fade to Hunt.
Missouri, which had trailed 14-6 at halftime, tied the game with a trick play on the two-point conversion.
Senior Marcus Murphy, one of 21 seniors who played at Memorial Stadium for the final time, took a direct snap as Mauk went in motion and pitched to Sasser as he came around on a reverse.
Sasser fired the game-tying pass to senior wide receiver Darius White.
After a punt by Arkansas, the Tigers jammed the ball right down the Razorbacks’ throat.
Missouri had run for 57 yards on 26 carries against an Arkansas run defense that limited LSU to 36 yards on 32 carries and Mississippi to 63 yards on 33 the last two weeks.
During the game-deciding drive, the Tigers — who racked up 158 yards rushing on 41 attempts — totaled 11 carries for 90 yards, including five carries for 47 yards by junior Russell Hansbrough. The Tigers passed once on the drive, an incompletion.
Murphy, who had 11 carries for 58 yards, delivered the go-ahead touchdown on a 12-yard run, spinning out of senior defensive back Tevin Mitchell’s arms at the 5-yard line and high-stepping into the north end zone.
The Tigers’ defense put a bow on the victory when senior defensive end Markus Golden recovered an Alex Collins fumble with 2:13 remaining.
“I really wanted to do it for the seniors tonight and get back to the SEC championship,” Mauk said.
Arkansas had the halftime lead thanks to a pair of Brandon Allen touchdowns, a 23-yard pass to Jonathan Williams on the Hogs’ first drive and a 12-yard score to Keon Hatcher in the second quarter.
Junior kicker Andrew Baggett delivered Missouri’s only first-half points on a career-long 52-yard field goal and a 50-yard boot on the final play of the first half.