Missouri returned all but one starter from a top-15 offense last season. One of those players was Drew Lock, a potential first-round NFL Draft pick. One was Albert Okwuegbunam, an All-SEC tight end. One was Paul Adams, a two-year captain whose 315-pound frame has stymied pass rushers for nearly two seasons.
And yet Missouri could not manage a single first down in the second half against No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday. It proved to be the difference in a 15-14 loss that Missouri coach Barry Odom described as one of the most difficult in his career.
“It’s the game of football,” offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton said. “It will break your heart. It will stab you in the back multiple times if you don’t do what you have to do.
“We had time where we could have put it away.”
Odom and his players repeated the word “execute” after the game, all in the context of the Missouri’s inability to do it. The Tigers had just 49 yards of offense in the second half. They took the field eight times, and they trotted off after three plays on each.
With under two minutes left in the game, Missouri faced a third-and-two. A first down would have given the Tigers a win.
Halfback Damarea Crockett had rushed through the Kentucky defense to pick up the first 8 yards of the series, and the offensive coordinator turned to his star quarterback on third down. He called for a Johnathon Johnson route to the right sideline, a play Odom said the team runs “a million times” in practice.
Lock’s pass fell incomplete.
“He’s putting the ball in my hands,” the quarterback said. “He’s putting the ball in JJ’s hands, he’s putting the ball in our O-line’s hands, and I appreciate that from him. That means a lot for him to be able to count on me in that moment, and I’d want him to do it 10 out of 10 times.”
The Tigers — who were without receiver Emanuel Hall (groin injury) and tight end Kendall Blanton (knee) — had to punt, which ultimately allowed the Wildcats’ game-winning drive.
Missouri’s offense scored 14 points in the first half, and Odom said Kentucky didn’t make major adjustments at halftime. His players didn’t execute, and the Wildcats made plays when they needed to. Linebacker Josh Allen sacked Lock twice, forcing fumbles on each, both of which Missouri managed to recover.
Lock chose to return to Missouri instead of entering the NFL Draft this past spring, saying he had more to accomplish with the Tigers. He now has four guaranteed games left in his college career, and he’ll need to win all of them if he wants to improve on his team’s 2017 record of 7-5.
Neither Lock nor Odom has beaten a ranked opponent at Missouri, and next week’s game at No. 9 Florida will likely be Lock’s last chance. None of the Tigers’ opponents after Florida have winning records.
Missouri has now had two losses come down to the final seconds this year. Both times the Tigers held two-score leads in the second half, and both times they couldn’t put the game away.
“We had it in our hands,” offensive lineman Yasir Durant said after Saturday’s game. “We deserved to win that game. We should have won that game.”
The Tigers needed just 2 yards to convert on three of their second-half third downs. Freshman Jalen Knox dropped a pass that would have given Missouri a conversion with nine minutes left in the third quarter, and Kentucky stuffed Tyler Badie up the middle two series later.
The game came down to the offense’s inability to convert.
“We are right there, and I just really hate it for Coach Odom,” Crockett said. “All I can say is it’s going to break through soon. I promise you.”
Crockett said it will be difficult for the Tigers to recover from the loss, and they’ll need to let the pain bring them closer together.
Lock sat on Missouri’s bench as Wildcats quarterback Terry Wilson completed a game-winning, 2-yard touchdown pass. While the Kentucky sideline exploded in celebration, Lock looked for a penalty flag, hoping his eyes would find one. When he didn’t see yellow, he double checked. Still nothing.
All that was left was the result on the field.