Missouri’s only chance at beating No. 4 Georgia on Saturday required testing the Bulldogs’ secondary, the only semblance of a weakness in the country’s third-best defense.
Mizzou did that. The Tigers even had some success, scoring more points against Georgia than any other team this season, more points than the Bulldogs had given up in its other three Southeastern Conference games combined.
But when Georgia made an adjustment to Missouri’s chuck-it strategy, the Tigers had no answer. Mizzou couldn’t run the ball effectively. The passing game faded. The defensive line applied little pressure to the quarterback. Missouri lost 53-28.
“When you’re playing a team as good as they are, you don’t have to be perfect, but you’ve got to be pretty solid in every area,” MU coach Barry Odom said of Georgia, which improved to 7-0 for the first time since 2005, when it won an SEC title.
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The momentum of this game turned when quarterback Drew Lock misread a safety. The junior from Lee’s Summit, who is now 7-19 as a starter, admitted after the game he should have thrown elsewhere. Three Bulldogs surrounded Johnathon Johnson, Missouri’s 5-foot-10 slot man, and Georgia intercepted the pass.
This was after Georgia had just converted a field goal to make it 24-21 with about 7 minutes left in the first half, closer than expected against a Missouri team that is now 1-5.
Prior to Lock’s turnover, the teams had scored on six consecutive drives following a Cale Garrett interception of Jake Fromm that put the ball at Georgia’s 5-yard line to set up Missouri’s first score. Mizzou’s next two drives both ended with 63-yard touchdown passes to Emanuel Hall, who emerged as the Tigers’ greatest deep threat a week ago at Kentucky.
After the second touchdown to Hall, which tied the game at 21-21 with 11:34 remaining in the first half, Lock high-kneed about 40 yards downfield, pointed at his sideline, then leaped in celebration as he neared the end zone.
“We had things rolling,” MU offensive tackle Paul Adams said of the offense. “Shot, after shot, after shot, it was all working out.”
The problem for Mizzou: Its secondary looked even weaker than Georgia’s. After Lock’s interception, Fromm tossed a 19-yard pass to Javon Wims on the following possession before eventually running 4 yards into the end zone off a read option to give Georgia a 10-point lead.
With the Bulldogs then giving more of a cushion to Hall, Lock was unable to find the same success. Missouri only scored once more following the pick, on a 27-yard pass from Lock to tight end Jason Reese that still left Missouri down by at least three scores early in the fourth quarter.
Georgia came into the weekend with a rushing defense that ranked fifth in the country in yards allowed per game, and the Tigers only ran for 59 yards on 24 carries. They offered no threat to Georgia’s strategy of focusing on containing deep passes.
A week after rushing for 139 yards, Ish Witter ran five times for 8 yards. Damarea Crockett only rushed for 32 yards, and he left in the third quarter because of a right shoulder injury. Odom isn’t certain how severe it is.
“That run game, that was unacceptable,” Adams said. “I put that on the front five. I put that on myself.”
Georgia’s running game, featuring seniors Sony Michel and Nick Chubb also struggled — at first. Excluding a 35-yard run on an end-around play by wide receiver Mecole Hardman, Georgia averaged 1.4 yards on 7 rushes in the first quarter.
Then something changed, with Missouri tied at 14-14 after one period against a playoff contender.
“Maybe the adrenaline got pumping and guys tried to make all the plays,” said Mizzou linebacker Terez Hall, who had 10 tackles, including 1 1/2 for a loss.
Georgia finished the game with 370 yards on the ground, with 213 coming in the second half. The Bulldogs scored 13 unanswered points on their first three drives of the third quarter to bury Missouri. Georgia finished with 696 yards of total offense, its most since a 2012 game against Florida Atlantic.
“They’re not looking to avoid contact,” Odom said of Georgia’s running backs. “Especially second level, they’re looking for contact. I respect that.”
Fromm, who took over as Georgia’s starting quarterback after Jacob Eason went out with an injury in the season-opener, threw for more than 200 yards just once during Georgia’s 6-0 start. He eclipsed that mark in the second quarter.
He threw eight passes for more than 15 yards each in the first half and was 7 of 12 on third-down pass attempts, including two touchdown throws. Mizzou sacked Fromm just once. That provided little relief for a Missouri secondary that has struggled this season.
“You look at matchup-wise, there’s not many that you look at true matchup-wise like ‘We’ve got the advantage there,’ ” Odom said.
Instead of pulling off an upset during a weekend that saw four AP top-10 teams lose to unranked opponents, Missouri dropped its 11th straight true road game. The Tigers, whose only victory came against Missouri State, are 1-5 for the first time since 1992, when they went 3-8 in coach Bob Stull’s fourth season.
Near the end of his press conference, while listening to a question about his offense’s struggle to score late in the first half and into the third quarter, when Missouri lost this game, Odom pulled his hat off and rubbed his forehead.
With Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk looking on, Odom said he remains encouraged. He said his players have not quit on one another.
None of Missouri’s remaining six opponents — Idaho, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas — are above .500. None of those games should be more daunting than this one, in which the Tigers showed life early but reverted to many of the bad habits that have plagued them this season.
Odom believes the Tiger football program can eventually be like Georgia’s, “from a game-day atmosphere, to a roster, to all of the above, and that’s my vision on where we’re going.
“It’s going to take time, but that absolutely can be done.”