Compare offenses and defenses all you want, but the most overlooked aspect of any football team is its special teams.
Missouri failed to win the special-teams battle on Saturday night against South Carolina, making several crucial mistakes that crippled the Tigers chance at picking up a win. Instead the Tigers fell to the Gamecocks 31-13.
Late in the first quarter, it looked as if Missouri was going to have some solid field position with South Carolina punting from its own own 19. But the Tigers allowed Joseph Charlton’s punt to bounce and roll 73 yards to the Missouri 8.
Then, after Missouri had just seized all the momentum, going up 10-0 after Drew Lock connected with Jason Reese for a 61-yard touchdown, the Tigers made the mistake of kicking to South Carolina receiver and return specialist Deebo Samuel, who took the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
Missouri junior linebacker Kaleb Prewett, who is on the kickoff team, said the ball was supposed to be placed deep left, but instead it went straight down the middle to Samuel.
Prewett said it threw off the coverage, because the return happened faster than expected and players were in lanes expecting the ball to go a different direction.
“We just weren’t ready for that,” Prewett said. “ But we’ve got to prepare better next time.”
Then, with the second half winding down, MU kicker Tucker McCann had a 25-yard field goal blocked. A field goal at that point would have trimmed the South Carolina lead to one point.
Early in the second half, Missouri punter Corey Fatony appeared to have pinned the Gamecocks on their own 5, but an illegal-motion penalty on Missouri’s Anthony Hines forced a re-kick that ended as a touchback.
“We double snapped the ball at the center position,” said Missouri head coach Barry Odom. “That’s sloppy, that’s focus.”
South Carolina then proceeded to march 80 yards on nine plays for a touchdown that extended its lead to 21-10.
In the fourth quarter, Missouri made multiple special-teams blunders.
A false-start penalty backed the Tigers up 5 yards before a punt.
Then, an illegal-touching penalty turned a punt that was downed at the 12-yardline into a touchback.
Then there was the final blow. Missouri’s Johnathon Johnson fumbled a punt and South Carolina recovered in Missouri territory. The Gamecocks turned that miscue into a 7-play, 44-yard touchdown drive that gave them a decisive 31-13 advantage.
“We weren’t very good,” Odom said of his special teams, “and that cost us the game.”
Missouri running back Damarea Crockett carried the offense in the first half before leaving the game with a bruised tailbone.
The sophomore running back picked up 91 yards on 16 carries in the first two quarters but had just 6 yards on 2 carries in the second half.
Mizzou senior running back Ish Witter stepped in and posted 72 yards on 12 carries to help diminish the impact of Crockett’s absence.
The team was not doomed with Crockett out of the game according to quarterback Drew Lock.
“We think both backs can carry the load,” Lock said. “If one goes down, we can go to the other. That’s what’s great about our offense’s game plan.”
Odds and ends
▪ Thomas Wilson got the start at free safety for Missouri in place of freshman Jordan Ulmer. Wilson recorded five tackles in the game.
▪ Ronnell Perkins did return from a hamstring injury this week but played sparingly on Saturday, recording one tackle.
▪ Cam Hilton was suspended for the first half of Saturday night’s game, per rule, after being ejected for a targeting penalty in the second half against Missouri State last week, but did not play in the loss to South Carolina.