When assigning blame for Missouri’s loss Saturday to South Carolina, it’s easy to point to Andrew Baggett’s missed field goal in the second overtime or Ian Simon’s coverage lapse on fourth-and-goal from the 15 in the first overtime.
It’s also incredibly lazy, because neither play should have happened in the first place.
Fans may not realize it, but some of the Tigers, 7-1, certainly did even in the immediate aftermath of a 27-24 double-overtime defeat.
“(Baggett’s) pretty upset he missed the field goal, but it isn’t just on him,” said junior defensive end Kony Ealy, one of six Missouri players who spoke to reporters after the heartbreaking loss. “It’s on the whole team. It should have been in that situation and should have never got to that point.”
Ealy and the defense coughed up 17 points in the final 12 minutes, 13 seconds.
On Connor Shaw’s second drive, the Gamecocks marched 65 yards on 13 plays, including a fourth-and-4 conversion on the first play of the fourth quarter and a third-and-19 conversion one play before Bruce Ellington’s circus catch on the sideline in the end zone officially got the comeback underway.
As it had during a seven-game win streak to open the season, Missouri answered with a critical drive at a critical time.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk hit Marcus Lucas for 29 yards into South Carolina territory, but Mauk’s next three passes on the drive were incomplete.
Ultimately, Baggett hooked a 46-yard field goal try wide left after a 5-yard penalty for a false start on second down made the kick tougher than it needed to be.
Eleven plays and 69 yards later, Elliott Fry kicked a 20-yard field goal before the Tigers showed no faith in Mauk — running three straight times and punting the ball right back to the Gamecocks with 3:08 left.
“We got to the very end and, you get to the fourth quarter, you try to run the clock out as best you can,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Force them to use timeouts.”
Pinkel is talking about the fabled 5-minute offense where teams impose their will and kill the clock with power football to close out a game.
Of course, Missouri had only managed 21 yards rushing in 11 carries during the second half, so there was precious little evidence that the Tigers could impose their will.
The offense needed to give the defense a rest. It had to pick up at least one first down.
Instead, Shaw imposed his with an efficient eight-play, 63-yard drive that didn’t feature a single third down.
With 42 seconds left and two timeouts, Missouri opted to go to overtime rather than take a shot down field and the rest, as you know, is history.
“I didn’t want to have anything bad to happen, give them the ball and give them a field goal,” Pinkel said. “We get into overtime, we’ve done pretty good in overtime before. If you’re not going to really go for it there, maybe you get a sack for a loss. I’ve done that before. If you don’t win the game, it was the wrong decision and I understand that, but I would do it again.”
Had Missouri shown more faith in Mauk at some point late in the fourth quarter, maybe the game would have turned out different.
Coaches rave about his poise and his penchant for chucking the ball deep and ability to make chicken salad out of, well, not chicken salad.
He didn’t get that chance.
Perhaps he hadn’t earned it. Take away senior L’Damian Washington’s 96-yard touchdown catch and run, Mauk was only nine of 24 for 153 yards with an interception.
Pinkel remained complimentary.
“I thought he did a lot of good things,” Pinkel said. “He’s a young guy. It’s the second time he’s started a (college) football game in his life. I think he did some really good things, but there’s a lot of little things he needs to do to get better. Overall, he battled and he’ll improve. I think he’ll be a really good player.”
Still, actions speak much louder than words.
Maybe Mauk throws an interception or fumbles taking a sack late in the fourth quarter and the Tigers lose the game anyway.
But just maybe he could have made one play and, if he had, nobody would be talking about Baggett or Simon today.
In any case, any hostility toward Baggett, in particular, is completely misdirected.
“I feel like I could have made a couple plays out there to help the team win,” junior defensive end Markus Golden said. “Everybody should be feeling like that.”