When Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur released his final pass Saturday afternoon, the ball hung in the air with a flurry of questions: Would the Tigers find a way to lose another game? Would a promising game end in pain once again?
Two weeks ago, the last time Missouri played at home, No. 11 Kentucky shocked the Tigers with a last-second, game-winning touchdown. Twice in two home games, a visiting team had a chance to win on the final drive, and both times they made quick progress down the field.
There was a key difference from the Kentucky game on Saturday: The quarterback’s final pass hit grass, not gloves.
Drew Lock stared at the ground when the ball landed, a trickle of relief washing over him. Damarea Crockett fell to his knees and thanked God. DeMarkus Acy, whose pass interference penalty against Kentucky set up the heart-wrenching touchdown, looked for a penalty flag. When he saw nothing, he ran down the field in excitement.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t feel like we did last time we played here,” linebacker Cale Garrett said. “We wanted to close this one out.”
With their 33-28 win over Vanderbilt (4-6, 1-5), the Tigers (6-4, 2-4) didn’t just secure bowl eligibility. They showed an ability to win a close game, to not let past errors haunt them again.
“We’ve been on the other side of those,” MU coach Barry Odom said.
Missouri won by three touchdowns against No. 13 Florida a week ago, but offensive lineman Paul Adams stressed during the week that the Tigers couldn’t afford a complacent approach against a Southeastern Conference opponent, even one with a losing record.
Adams’ warning proved accurate: The Commodores did not come out playing like two-touchdown underdogs. Vanderbilt looked like the better team for three quarters. Missouri’s defense couldn’t figure out how to stop running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who rushed for 182 yards, and quarterback Shurmur played like an NFL prospect.
But the Tigers came through in the fourth quarter, and it started with a defensive unit that struggled most of the game. Clinging to a two-point advantage, Vanderbilt went for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal. The Commodores only needed one yard to score, but Missouri’s linemen halted running back Khari Blasingame before the goal line.
“There were a lot of people around the ball, which is something you always want,” Garrett said.
The stop set up a 14-play, 99-yard march that culminated in a rushing touchdown from Lock. The drive included a 25-yard reception by freshman receiver Dominic Gicinto — a two-star recruit — and a 15-yard catch by freshman tight end Daniel Parker Jr., who converted from defensive end before the season.
“There’s no telling who’s actually going to be stepping foot on the field with some of the misfortunes we’ve had with guys getting injured,” Lock said. “When you look at all the young guys that have had to play this year, they step on the field and don’t blink. ... That shows the type of people we recruit here. It’s not necessarily these five-star (recruits) that are going crazy places, but guys that are willing to work really hard and when their time comes they’re going to take advantage of it.”
Injuries tested Missouri’s depth, especially on offense. Star tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (shoulder), receiver Nate Brown (groin), running back Tyler Badie (foot) and tight end Kendall Blanton (knee) all missed the game. Adam Sparks (shin) also sat out.
Lock threw for 253 yards with two passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and two interceptions. During the game, he moved into third place on the all-time SEC passing-yards list, jumping Chris Leak, Peyton Manning and Eric Zeier.
On the ground, Crockett rushed for 122 yards, and Larry Rountree added 92 of his own.
“They’re a two-headed monster,” offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton said. “When they’re on, nobody could stop them.”
After trading touchdowns with Missouri to start the game, the Commodores jumped out to a lead on their second drive. They had help from the Tigers’ secondary. A Tyree Gillespie missed tackle opened up a 30-yard gain for tight end Jared Pinkney, and receiver Kalija Lipscomb beat Joshuah Bledsoe on a third-and-10 play. Vanderbilt traveled 75 yards and scored a touchdown. It didn’t relinquish the lead until the fourth quarter.
After another Commodores touchdown and two Missouri field goals, the Tigers went to halftime trailing 21-13.
“They brought some haymakers that first half,” Lock said. “We were Rocky Balboa today. We stood in there, took the punches and ended up landing the last one.”
Whatever woes the Tigers offense showed in the first half vanished in the second. Lock orchestrated an 80-yard touchdown drive to open the half, hitting an open Crockett, who ran 11 yards into the end zone. Emanuel Hall had a key block on the play. The Tigers failed to convert a two-point conversion. Vanderbilt remained up by two points, then extended its lead with a Shurmur fade pass to Kalija Lipscomb in the end zone.
Parker, a Blue Springs High alum, collected his first career catch last week against Florida. Lock turned to him again Saturday, and this time it led to a touchdown. Parker hauled in an underthrown pass in the third quarter and sprinted to the end zone for a 20-yard score.
With the Commodores clinging to a two-point lead late in the third quarter, Vaughn broke off runs of 20 and 44 yards. The long runs didn’t lead to points for Vanderbilt, though. They set up Byers’ goal-line stop to start the fourth, which tilted the game in Missouri’s favor.
Missouri failed to put Vanderbilt away after the 99-yard touchdown drive, and Tucker McCann missed a 31-yard field goal with 1 minute, 48 seconds left, giving the Commodores a chance at one final drive. As Vanderbilt began to drive, Lock turned to wide receiver Barrett Banister on the sideline.
“We’ve been through a lot here at the university, especially in the four years I’ve been here,” Lock said. “I’m like, ‘Barrett, we’re going to win this game. We’ve been through way too many upsetting things. It’s time for one to go our way.’”
Terry Beckner sacked Shurmur on Vanderbilt’s first play of the drive, but a string of completions and a quarterback run brought the ball to Missouri’s 25-yard line with five seconds remaining.
Odom called timeout with the Tigers lined up for their final play. As his players returned to the field after the break, the coach offered a few pieces of simple advice: Be assignment-sound, and go finish.
“Pretty elementary statements,” Odom said.
They proved to be enough. Unlike two weeks ago, this game ended with Missouri players hugging on the field, not trudging to the locker room in defeat.