Despite losing the field-position battle badly, Missouri led Tennessee 7-3 well into the second quarter behind a dominant performance by the defensive line.
The Tigers would finish with six sacks and 12 tackles for a loss, including four sacks and eight tackles for a loss before halftime.
The Volunteers managed only three points on three drives that started in MU territory in the opening half, but a special teams play ignited things at Neyland Stadium.
Lining up for a field goal on third-and-5 at the Tigers’ 28-yard line, Tennessee fooled Missouri with a fake.
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Junior holder Patrick Ashford — a walk-on with no other position listed on the roster, though he was a former backup quarterback at Carson-Newman College — beat the Tigers over the top for a 31-yard touchdown to another walk-on, junior backup tight end Alex Ellis.
Ellis released up the seam on the snap and won a footrace with Missouri free safety Ian Simon.
“They caught us on a call,” Simon said. “We were rotating the opposite way and he hit right up the seam, literally the gap that I had just left. They really just caught us in a call.”
With the ball on the right hash for Aaron Medley’s field-goal ruse, the Tigers shifted to the defense’s right, hoping to stack a few more bodies in the ball’s flight path for a potential block on a low-driven kick.
Instead, it made Missouri vulnerable and provided Tennessee with an offensive spark it hadn’t shown to that point in the game.
Here are a few more interesting tidbits from Missouri’s 29-21 victory, which kept alive hopes for a second straight SEC Championship Game appearance:
1. Hunt stays tough
Senior wide receiver Jimmie Hunt had an interesting day.
He was flagged for a drive-killing phantom pass interference and also had a silly false start penalty, but Hunt shook off those miscues to author perhaps the signature play of his MU career.
Before the fourth quarter at Tennessee, the longest reception of Hunt’s career was the only pass he caught as a freshman in 2011, a 54-yard touchdown against Western Illinois.
It’s not fair to say it’s all been downhill from there, but Hunt also hadn’t necessarily topped that moment before out-jumping cornerback Justin Coleman for a pass from sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk and out-running cornerback Cameron Sutton for a 73-yard touchdown.
“It was great being able to help the team out in time that we needed it,” Hunt said. “A big catch like that, we pride ourselves on those big catches.”
Missouri, which hadn’t had a passing play longer than 47 yards this season, led 16-13 before Hunt’s heroics, which proved to be the game-winning score in a 29-21 win.
“It was a key play for the offense,” senior running back Marcus Murphy said. “We were running the ball hard, moving the chains and moving down the field. Having that big play flipped the momentum.”
The Volunteers essentially dared Mauk and Hunt to beat them, so the pair were happy to oblige.
“They were playing straight man-to-man coverage,” Mauk said. “There was one high safety and our inside guy did a great job of taking that safety out of the way. Jimmie beat his guy and made a great play.”
2. Hunt and the whistles
As for Hunt’s offensive pass interference?
“Y’all saw the play,” Hunt said. “I don’t think it was a pass interference. I’m pretty sure everybody who was watching didn’t think it was pass interference, but the refs did, so that’s all the matters. We just had to overcome that adversity and come back and make another play.”
That might have been the most infuriating call, but it certainly didn’t take the biggest emotional toll on Hunt.
He was the player who dove and missed Tennessee’s first onside kick attempt.
“I wasn’t too nervous,” Hunt said. “I really thought I didn’t touch it. … I tried to time it up just right and thought I did. When I went to go grab it, it just went right under me. I probably should use my hands on that next time a little better, but I think we need to practice on that a little more as a team because we’ve missed the last three.”
Fortunately for Hunt, Tennessee was offside and the recovery was negated.
The Vols touched the ensuing onside kick try before it traveled 10 yards, negating a second recovery and allowing Missouri to run out the clock.
“A win is a win,” Hunt said. “We don’t really care how we do it. The ugliest win is a win. As long as we get to the next game, that’s what’s important to us.”
Of course, if Andrew Baggett doesn’t miss two extra points, it might not have been so critical. Tennessee would have needed two scores anyway.
“If we had a better kicking game, we probably wouldn’t be in that situation,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
3. Marvelous Murphy returns to end zone
Marcus Murphy loves touchdowns.
If could lead Missouri in one stat, he’d want it to be touchdowns.
Through the season’s first 10 games, Murphy had only managed one rushing touchdown.
It had to be disappointing for Murphy — a 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior from DeSoto, Texas, who scored nine rushing touchdowns as a junior last season.
Some of that frustration certainly was washed away during Saturday’s first half when Murphy, who led the Tigers with 19 carries for 82 yards, found the end zone twice.
MU converted three third downs, all 5 yards or longer, on the game’s opening drive and pulled ahead on Murphy’s 1-yard touchdown run off right tackle.
During the second quarter on the drive immediately after Tennessee took the lead on the fake field goal touchdown Murphy showed tremendous patience to allow his blockers to get in position, displayed his balance when he nearly slipped on a dummy cut up the field then accelerated from an ankle tackle and around the right end on a 7-yard touchdown run.
Murphy’s only other touchdown run this season came at Florida, a game in which he also returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and later added a punt return score.