Missouri’s recent losses to South Carolina have come with a recurring theme.
The Tigers get an early lead, the Gamecocks slowly chip away at it and then MU fails to get the insurance it needs to walk away with a victory.
On Saturday, it seemed to be more of the same, except MU was able to punch back and get the win.
After a first half in which MU’s offense left points on the table numerous times, the Tigers were able to fight through adversity when the Gamecocks began to gather momentum.
Missouri’s first drive didn’t get the Tigers past their own 45-yard line, but the second brought great field position, which stemmed from a 25-yard punt return by Richaud Floyd to midfield.
Kelly Bryant led MU downfield, and showed more of a presence in the run-game with a 21-yard pickup, getting the Tigers to the front door of the end zone. But despite four attempts to run it in, MU failed to get across the goal line.
Two drives later, MU handed the Gamecocks their own good field position when a fumble by Missouri tailback Tyler Badie gave South Carolina the ball at MU’s 29-yard line.
In Barry Odom’s previous three years, the Tigers’ high-scoring offense usually found themselves bailing out the defense, but on Saturday it was the opposite. The Tigers first touchdown came on a recovered fumble by Cale Garrett in the end zone and Badie’s fumble didn’t net any points after the drive stalled with a missed 50-yard field goal attempt.
Bryant’s play at quarterback in the first half was far from stellar. He was 10 for 20 with 120 yards passing, with a lot of his incompletions coming on underthrown passes to an open man. Odom said the former Clemson quarterback was pressing in the first quarter and was trying to come out swinging against his home-state school, which is a rival to his former and now current team.
“It was tough,” Bryant said. I just wasn’t throwing it the way I wanted to. Just trying to press. I had to take a step back and breathe.”
Bryant threw an interception deep in MU territory to set up South Carolina’s first touchdown. Looking for Badie on a screen, Bryant’s pass was picked off by D.J. Wonnum, who returned it to the 1-yard line. The Gamecocks scored the following play and cut MU’s lead to 10-7.
Missouri’s offense rallied late in the first half, setting up a 3-yard touchdown to Albert Okewuegbunam after Bryant and Larry Rountree got going in the run game. MU’s drive went seven plays over 2 minutes, 41 seconds and sent the Tigers into halftime up 17-7.
“We left some points on the field,” said Jonathan Nance, MU’s senior wideout, of the first half.
The Tigers first real test came on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, when Gamecocks star wideout Bryan Edwards scored on a 75-yard touchdown, trimming MU’s lead to 17-14. In 2017, MU gave up two touchdowns in less than a minute in blowing a 10-point lead in a 31-13 loss and dropped numerous passes in the 2018 game where MU lost in the final minute.
As the Missouri offense prepared to take the field following Edwards’ score, center Trystan Colon-Castillo said the conversation on the sideline all revolved around the same issue: “We cannot let them back in this game.”
“We’ve been there before,” Badie added. “It was very important for us to score. Just to shift the momentum back to us.”
In MU’s season-opener at Wyoming, the Tigers went into halftime down 27-17, but got the ball at the start of the third quarter. MU failed to capitalize on the drive and ended up losing. Odom said the following week he thought his team would respond to adversity well, but admitted he was wrong.
On the ensuing drive after South Carolina’s score on Saturday, MU started at its own 25 and immediately picked up 10 yards on a run by Larry Rountree.
Two plays later, facing third-and-10, Okwuegbunam muscled his way between a pair of defenders for another first down and got MU to midfield. Bryant’s next two plays were to Nance, who picked up 24 yards on two catches, setting up a 15-yard gain for Rountree. Two plays later, Bryant found Badie on a screen. Badie had the sideline open up for him from a huge block by Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms for a 21-yard score.
Missouri used up four minutes of the clock and gave itself a 10-point lead. More importantly, it showed it could respond after taking a hit.
“We needed it,” Odom said. “We knew coming out of the half offensively they’d respond.”
Bryant’s second half was better than his first. He went 9 for 13 for 107 yards. On the Tigers’ first drive of the fourth quarter, MU only netted a 25-yard field goal by Tucker McCann but managed to use seven minutes over the course of the drive.
When MU’s offense was being run by Josh Heupel, who is now the coach at Central Florida, the Tigers air-raid spread offense often hurt MU when it led because the Tigers’ tempo never slowed down. Missouri would go three-and-out on a drive that barely lasted a minute, giving the opponent plenty of time to come back.
Missouri goes into its first bye week 3-1 with its defense playing the best it’s looked in Odom’s tenure. The offense showed on Saturday that it can hit back and show and maintain a lead. Tigers safety Josh Bledsoe said MU proved on Saturday that the Tigers don’t need to overdo things in order to win big games.
“Everyone did their job and handled their business,” he said.