Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he preaches to his players about the “four or five plays” in each game that often serve as turning points.
The 24th-ranked Tigers’ lead stood at 14-7 on Saturday at the Glass Bowl when quarterback Maty Mauk tried to force a ball up the left seam into bracket coverage for tight end Sean Culkin.
Mauk’s throw sailed and Toledo safety Jordan Haden, the younger brother of Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden, picked off the errant pass.
Haden then cut across the field, returning the interception more than 20 yards to the Missouri 12-yard line before he was hit from behind and had the ball stripped away by senior wide receiver Bud Sasser.
Sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer had already grabbed his helmet to head back on the field with his heels touching the end zone.
Instead, senior wide receiver Jimmie Hunt covered the loose ball and Missouri avoided potential disaster. The play was reviewed and the call stood.
“That’s why we talk about every play, every day, because you never know when that play is going to come up,” Pinkel said. “And there’s a great example.”
If Sasser doesn’t make that play, perhaps the Rockets punch in another touchdowns, knotting the game at 14-14 and buoying the upset-minded home side’s confidence.
Perhaps, it creates added pressure on the Tigers’ offense that leads to compounding errors that gave third-year coach Matt Campbell’s squad an opportunity to pull in front.
It doesn’t matter. Sasser made sure it didn’t happen.
“That changed the game for us,” Scherer said. “That play turned the game around completely. I don’t know what it would have been like if that didn’t happen.”
Added junior defensive end Shane Ray, “Bud did an excellent job of being a 6-second competitor and going and pulling that ball out. That was crucial. He essentially stopped a score … so hat’s off to Bud. Excellent job on that.”
Of course, Sasser wasn’t thinking about the tenuous one-touchdown lead or the potential ramifications if Toledo took over with a short field.
“At the time, I wasn’t thinking about the score,” Sasser said. “I was just thinking, ‘Get the ball back.’ I saw (Haden) running and not look my way at all, so I was like, ‘I’ve got a pretty good chance to get it out if I can just get to him.’”
Sasser did have one question after the game — whether he’d receive a plate of brownies from Mary Beth Steckel, who makes treats for defensive players the day after they get a turnover.
“I hope she gives me something,” Sasser said.
Here are a few things of note from Sunday’s game:
1. Turnover streak reaches 46
Sassers forced fumble and Hunt’s recovery extended Missouri’s streak of consecutive games with at least one takeaway to 46 in a row.
For those who think the turnover defies the spirit of a such a streak, sophomore cornerback Aarion Penton picked off Rockets quarterback Phillip Ely early in the second quarter for a more conventional takeaway.
2. Dynamite defensive ends
Folks who followed Missouri closely last season knew defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray were special players and knew to expect monster seasons from both.
So far, Ray and Golden have been every bit as good as advertised.
The duo combined for three sacks Saturday against an offensive line that basically returned intact after allowing only six sacks during the entire 2013 season.
“We did a really good job in film study this week,” Ray said. “One of the biggest things that we’re working on is to be students of the game. I was able to see a couple of formations and ready some tendencies and work my athleticism off what I was able to see.”
Golden is on pace for 96 tackles, 30 tackles for a loss and 15 sacks, while Ray is on pace for 54 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss and 18 sacks.
Those numbers probably are a bit inflated considering the level of competition compared the upcoming SEC gauntlet, but it still paints a vivid picture of dominance.
3. Receivers step up
During the season opener, senior wide receivers Bud Sasser, Darius White and Jimmie Hunt combined for seven catches, 140 yards and three touchdowns.
Those numbers aren’t bad, but against South Dakota State they were underwhelming for a trio trying to replace the production lost when L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas graduated and Dorial Green-Beckham was dismissed in April.
Against Toledo, Sasser, White and Hunt had a considerably better showing — combining for 16 catches, 261 yards and four touchdowns.
“Those three guys played a lot last year, so it’s their time and their shot,” Pinkel said. “Bud Sasser probably has never looked so good, and he’s just going to get more opportunities now.”
Sasser finished with career-highs in receptions (five), yards (121) and touchdowns (one), while Hunt caught six passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns.
White snagged five passes for 69 yards and his third touchdown of the season.