Given the Missouri offense’s struggles to start the season, first-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s unit had been forced to engage in a game of chicken the last two weeks.
The Tigers didn’t blink against Arkansas State or Connecticut, coming up with drive-killing plays and clutch stops in a pair of one-score wins.
No. 25 Missouri’s defense finally blinked Saturday in the Southeastern Conference opener against Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium, which underwent a $120-million update during the offseason.
The Tigers coughed up a second-half touchdown for the first time this season — two of them, in fact — in a 21-13 loss.
“We weren’t as focused on the details,” said MU defensive end Charles Harris, who finished with six tackles, including two for a loss. “It was really up to us. We just didn’t play our best game. We played our C game, so this is the result.”
The Tigers, 3-1 and 0-1 in the SEC, had allowed only three second-half points through the season’s first two games. But the Wildcats mounted a pair of lengthy nine-play drives after halftime in pulling away for the first win against a ranked opponent in nine tries under third-year coach Mark Stoops.
The game was tied 7-7 at halftime, but Missouri — which had its 11-game road winning streak, including eight straight road wins in conference play, snapped — grabbed the second-half lead on senior Andrew Baggett’s 39-yard field goal midway through the third quarter.
Kentucky, 3-1 and 2-1 in the SEC, controlled the game from there and dealt Missouri’s quest for a third straight SEC East crown a significant blow.
“It stings pretty bad,” MU senior running back Tyler Hunt said. “We’ve definitely got to go back to practice and get better, work on fundamentals and just get back to our basics.”
Just as it did in the first half, the Wildcats’ answer came swiftly.
Quarterback Patrick Towles — who was roughed up by Florida’s defense, getting sacked six times and completing only eight of 24 passes for 126 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions — staked the Wildcats to the lead on the ensuing drive.
He lobbed the go-ahead 24-yard strike up the seam for tight end C.J. Conrad, who was not covered at the 5-yard line and walked into the end zone untouched.
Missouri’s offense continued to spin its wheels as Towles upped the ante with a 5-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dorian Baker with 6:20 remaining.
The way the Tigers’ offense was struggling, it might as well have been 121-10.
Quarterback Maty Mauk led a march into field-goal range, which allowed Baggett to make it a one-score game again, but the Missouri defense couldn’t get Kentucky off the field.
When Towles, who finished 22 of 27 for 249 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, iced the win by converting a third down with a quarterback sneak, Kentucky’s coaches howled in joy, packed up and sprinted for the elevator.
“We didn’t win, so the mood in the locker room is not good,” MU junior linebacker Michael Scherer said. “But this is just going to bring us together. It’s not going to separate us. There’s nobody in there pointing fingers, yelling at each other. That’s not what we do.
“It’s one of those things where we’ve got to come together, have a great week of practice. We’ve got to practice a lot harder. This should motivate us to practice a lot harder. We’re young, and some young guys haven’t felt this before. Now that they have this feeling, they’ll know how you have to practice if you want to win in this league.”
The Wildcats’ fans streamed onto the field after the final seconds ticked away as stadium staff disassembled the goalposts.
Missouri had drawn first blood with a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive — the second-longest drive of the season in number of play and yards.
Given endless time in the pocket, Mauk calmly surveyed the field and picked out sophomore J’Mon Moore for a 17-yard touchdown when he flashed open in the back of the end zone dragging across the field.
Kentucky answered right back, driving 71 yards on nine plays before Towles scampered home for a 14-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
Towles, who completed 14 of 15 passes for 120 yards in the first half, kept the ball on a read option with the pocket crumbling around him.
Scooting downfield, Towles made cornerback Aarion Penton and Scherer miss before cutting back into the open field and jogging in for the game-tying touchdown.
The Tigers’ defense, which came in averaging 217 yards per game of total defense, allowed 185 yards in the first half, but bottled up running back Boom Williams for 30 yards in nine combined touches rushing and receiving.
“You’re going to be frustrated after a loss, but you’ve got to get over it, move on to the next opponent and get better during the week,” Moore said.