With the Missouri Tigers down a touchdown and driving deep into Vanderbilt territory, they were gifted a second chance. A missed field goal turned into a running-into-the-kicker penalty on the Commodores, giving Mizzou first-and-goal.
For a Tigers offense struggling all day, it was the perfect opportunity to right some wrongs and shift the game. After a run play went for no gain, MU quarterback Kelly Bryant turned to his trusty, season-long weapon: Albert Okwuegbunam.
But the 6-foot-5 tight end had two defenders on him, and Bryant never picked that up, lofting the ball into coverage. What was supposed to be a momentum-swinging, game-tying touchdown turned into an interception.
“Just a bad read by me, simple as that,” Bryant said. “Shouldn’t have forced it, just check it down.”
The play was a microcosm of the game for coach Barry Odom’s team. Just one of many missed opportunities on a Saturday the Tigers were dealt a sloppy 21-14 road loss to struggling Vanderbilt (2-5), which won its first SEC game.
Earlier in the game, a false start followed by a sack eventually led to a missed 50-yard field goal from Tucker McCann. The Tigers squandered the red-zone trip in a game where they needed all the points they could get.
Tack on 12 penalties for 120 yards and it was a recipe for another demoralizing loss, much like the season-opener to Wyoming. The No. 22 team in the nation lost just one week after claiming the top spot in the SEC East and saw a five-game win streak end.
“We didn’t play winning ball,” Odom said. “We didn’t coach winning football. So not good in any area.”
Bryant danced in and out of pressure all day, struggling to generate a consistent rhythm. When he couldn’t find a downfield option, he abandoned the pocket and ran. Larry Rountree III and the running game produced varying results, the numbers aided by the many Kelly scrambles. When the Tigers did have the ball, they couldn’t convert on third down, finishing 3 for 15.
As a whole, the offense never clicked. The Tigers came into Saturday averaging 38.8 points per game, one of the best marks in the SEC. They did so by relying on Bryant’s arm and a consistent run game to move the chains. But when neither phases of the game produced consistently, the 14 points scored represented a season-low by far.
“When we had opportunities, we didn’t make them,” Odom said. “You feel like you’re so close to making a play or doing this, but we had pressure or had a breakdown. But that’s just not winning football.”
While Odom said the Commodores threw some wrinkles into their defense, it wasn’t anything the Tigers didn’t expect from watching film. He said one of the frustrating parts of the loss was how the Tigers had a great week of practice, no foreshadowing of a potential loss. Center Trystan Colon-Castillo also pointed out how the sidelines never wavered despite the struggles.
“I felt like we had energy on the sidelines,” Colon-Castillo said. “We were keeping each other up, letting each other know, ‘we’re only down one score.’”
While the defense held the Commodores to 21 points and had its bright spots — like Cameron Wilkins’ key interception — linebacker Nick Bolton still said they didn’t play well enough as a unit. Despite Bolton’s own 15 tackles, he pointed out how the communication needed to be better, along with the sheer amount of penalties.
When the defense had a chance to get the ball back with six minutes left in the game, the unit also faltered. The Commodores ran it right at the Tigers, burning off the last bit of clock. On a crucial third-and-2, defensive tackle Jordan Elliott jumped offsides. The infraction meant a Vanderbilt first down and the win. The offense, hoping for one last shot at redemption and overtime, never got it.
“We just couldn’t make a stop,” Bolton said. “We had to find a way to get off the field.”
While the loss stings, it counts as just one during conference play. With upcoming matchups against ranked Georgia (6-1 overall, 3-1 SEC) and Florida (7-1, 4-1), win those games and the Tigers (5-2, 2-1) can regain control of the division.
But first, as Bryant pointed out, it’s next week at Kentucky before any other game. The quarterback admitted the loss stung, potentially more than the season-opener to Wyoming. But in terms of progressing for the rest of the season, he said it’s important for the team to regroup.
“We still have five games left,” Bryant said. “We still control what we can control. Now, how are we going to respond to this one? Just come ready to work tomorrow.”