DeMarkus Acy claims he didn’t know what he was doing. His teammates suggest otherwise.
In Missouri’s 50-17 win over Tennessee on Saturday, Acy alone stole the Vols’ momentum that the Tigers kept the rest of the game.
With Tennessee driving down field late in the first half, Acy picked off backup quarterback Keller Chryst at the Tigers’ 13-yard line and returned it 76-yards to the Vols’ 11. Missouri scored a few plays later to extend its lead to 26-10 and give the Tigers all the breathing room they’d need.
The interception was the first of two in the game for Acy, who became the first MU player with two picks in a game since John Gibson had two against Florida in 2016.
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“It was huge,” Drew Lock said of Acy’s interceptions. “We weren’t necessarily down. For him to do it, take it all the way down, that makes up for that first field goal that we had punching it in.”
Acy said he was unfamiliar with Chryst, who entered the game in the second quarter after starter Jarrett Guarantano suffered a head-and-neck injury. Acy, a 6-foot-2 cornerback, said he spent the whole week watching film to figure out the quarterback’s hand signals.
When Cryst had a low hand signal below his waist, Acy realized he was likely calling for a blind fade. He determined Chryst was going to aim for the back shoulder of his match-up, wideout Marquez Callaway, and adjusted from there.
After picking off the pass with 44 seconds left in the half, Acy said he wasn’t sure what to do while running downfield because of the running clock.
“I knew it was huge for us,” he said. “I didn’t really know what was going on. ‘What celebration should I do? Should I go out of bounds?’”
He was eventually brought down deep in Tennessee territory, which brought Lock and the offense out. Missouri had had two strong opening drives in the game but had only come away with six points. The Tigers’ defense enabled Tennessee to have minus-16 yards of offense through its first two series, which had Missouri’s offense feeling guilty until Acy’s pick.
“Acy bailed us out,” senior offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton said. “Offense was stalling out. We had great field position our first two drives, came away with six points. You can’t do that if you’re going to win games.”
Lock found Johnathon Johnson on a slant route three plays into MU’s drive for a 3-yard touchdown, 30 seconds after Acy’s interception, to put Missouri up 26-10 at halftime.
Acy added another pick late in the game to up his season total to three. Missouri coach Barry Odom said after the game that Acy’s development at the position has been a gradual rise during the season that has stemmed from wisdom.
“His practice habits have improved,” Odom said. “His understanding of not trying to do too much on every play. He made some huge plays.”
Over the course of the season, Acy said he’s put an emphasis on watching as much film as he can, whenever he has free time. He’s even watching it to get rid of writer’s block when he’s in the middle of an essay.
Before Acy could get his second pick of the night, sophomore safety Josh Bledsoe put the final nail in the coffin for Tennessee.
Off a Tennessee first down from its own 39-yard line, MU defensive end Nate Anderson knocked the ball away from tailback Carlin Fils-Aime on a carry. Bledsoe collapsed on the ball, picked it up and ran it into the end zone, pushing Missouri’s lead to 40-17 with 9:15 left in the third quarter.
“I was like, ‘Hold on, I can score this,’” Bledsoe said. “So I made sure I wasn’t touching the ball while I was down, and I just picked it up and started running.”
Bledsoe’s return for a TD was the first by an MU player since former defensive end Markus Golden returned a fumble to the end zone against Florida in 2014.
Acy’s second pick came with 8:45 left in the fourth quarter at Tennessee’s 37-yard line and only had a 7-yard return. Anderson got ejected from the game after getting called for targeting while trying to block for Acy.
“I just block to death for my guys,” Anderson said. “I just wanted to make a block and help him get to the end zone since he came up a little short the first time.”
In 2017, Missouri’s turnover margin was minus-8 and ranked No. 111 nationally. Saturday’s performance brought the Tigers to even for the season at 12 apiece, which would rank in the 60s. Missouri was No. 89 in turnover margin entering Saturday’s game.
Under Gary Pinkel, Missouri had a 47-game streak where the Tigers forced a turnover, which nearly broke a national record. Anderson said Odom has been trying to get the defense to constantly think about forcing turnovers.
Acy said he’s adopted the thinking himself after a disappointing sophomore season where he had a nose for the ball but wasn’t able to make the big plays with that ability.
“Last year, I feel like I was aggressive getting a lot of tackles, but not really getting the ball,” Acy said. “This year, every week I’m trying to get better and focus on getting the ball and making big plays for my team.”
On Saturday, he did just that.