This is what it’s come to for Mizzou football: Even with Missouri leading No. 12 Kentucky 14-9 with 00:00 showing on the clock on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, MU fans could only cringe.
One play remained after a highly debatable pass interference call on Mizzou gave Kentucky first and goal at the 2, a play that would loom as the difference between a breakthrough victory for third-year coach Barry Odom and what instead became his most crushing defeat.
It could well have gone MU’s way, of course. But that’s not what anyone watching from a Mizzou perspective was programmed to expect.
Not with psyches informed by an excruciating modern history of heartbreaking losses that you know all-too-well and that in the post-Gary Pinkel era have fresh life … with its latest tortured chapter added Saturday with Terry Wilson’s 2-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Conrad.
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The 15-14 loss reeked of two steps back after last week’s single step up, especially because you could trace it to a series of questionable coaching moves or lack thereof that make this one Odom has to own.
And it’s one that even those of us who think he’s right for the job understand not only will be a blotch on the resume in the big picture but also hard to rebound from in the short term.
“I’m devastated for our football team,” Odom said, “and this will be one that we live with forever.”
Certainly, it will be one that lingers over Odom, who has yet to establish real traction in the job through a 4-8 debut season, a 7-6 encore and what is now a 4-4 2018 best defined by being 0-4 in Southeastern Conference play (and 6-14 in the SEC in three seasons).
For all the obvious inroads he’s made in recruiting and the evident player development, this was the day for his team to step forward and beat a ranked team for the first time and reassure fans that this isn’t the same old story waiting to happen.
This was my thesis up until time stood still: That flawed as it was on a day the offense somehow managed ZERO first downs in the second half, the victory was both something special to savor for parched Tiger fans and substantial affirmation of the trajectory of the program under Odom.
Part of that feeling was that MU had stood tall through mistakes, bristled when it had to and was on the verge of triumph on a day their offensive hallmark with quarterback Drew Lock had been neutralized.
But on the verge, we were reminded yet again, isn’t the same as actually making it happen.
Now, he needs something meaningful to make up for this if he’s going to gain any currency with skeptical fans and enhance his job security.
In fact, with a trip to No. 9 Florida up next before three games against teams without winning records, Odom must beat the Gators or continue to face the legitimate criticism that most of his Power 5 victories have been against teams with losing records (though that win over Purdue earlier this season looks different after the Boilermakers’ victory over Ohio State last week.)
Now, you could ask why perception of the program should pivot so strongly on one play. It’s something to think about, actually.
Trouble is, it just never should have come to that on a day MU’s defense held Kentucky’s offense to zero touchdowns over, well, 60 minutes and stuffed UK three times on crucial fourth downs.
“You never know why things happen in certain situations (like) they do,” Odom said.
In this case, though …
With the Tigers leading 14-3 at halftime, they were able to generate only 49 yards of offense on eight second-half drives even as Kentucky seemed ready to hand the game over with foolish decisions like going for it inside the MU 5 when it just needed a field goal to make it a one-score game.
The baffling inability to even move the chains once caught up with them in multiple ways, including Lynn Bowden’s 67-yard punt return for a touchdown on one of Corey Fatoney’s eight second-half punts. That was one of two special teams’ breakdowns that sabotaged Mizzou, which allowed a field goal to be blocked in the first half that might have come in handy by game’s end.
The punt return left it at 14-9 when Kentucky failed on its two-point conversation attempt, and it would have been just a novelty if MU hadn’t mismanaged the end of the game.
Instead, on the ensuing drive, Mizzou threw three straight times and held the ball a total of 1:08 after two Lock incompletions and a 9-yard pass to Johnathon Johnson. That was part of the ultimate unraveling.
MU then seemed to have the comeback threat snuffed out when DeMarkus Acy picked off Terry Wilson with 2:38 left … only for the Tigers to punt it back 1:14 later.
Most glaringly and disturbingly, that came when they opted to have Lock throw to Johnson on third and 2 when the prime directive was either to drain clock or force Kentucky to use one of its timeouts.
Odom would say afterward that the play had worked a million times in practice, and we’d all feel different about it if it worked this time.
Only it sure didn’t, and it spared Kentucky the need to burn a timeout before it took over at its own 19 and 1:24 left.
When Tre Williams sacked Wilson on the first play of the drive, it seemed Mizzou might still fend off Kentucky. But Wilson hit David Bouvier twice for 43 yards to move the Wildcats to the MU 33, and you could feel the latest setback unfolding even before you knew exactly how.
So now we’re left with a locker room Odom said was full of anger, hurt and sadness “and about every emotion on that side of things that you can have and feel” and a very real question about how this team picks itself back up after this one.
“Mentally,” Odom said, “we’ll have our work cut out for us.”
As he sought perspective, Odom mentioned that he carries brutal losses over the years with him that he still uses as motivation or as an opportunity to learn and grow. This one, he said, ranks right up there as the most difficult.
“It will hurt,” he said, “for a long time.”
Alas, it will all the more so if his team can’t rebound immediately with a fan base conditioned to expect the worst needing to see prompt proof that it can be otherwise.