Vahe Gregorian

Don’t bail out on Barry Odom over a bowl loss. Mizzou coach has program on the rise

Mizzou QB Drew Lock’s final message to Tigers fans after Liberty Bowl loss

Missouri Tigers quarterback Drew Lock had a special message to Tigers fans after the teams’ 38-33 loss to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl on Monday, Dec 31, 2018.
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Missouri Tigers quarterback Drew Lock had a special message to Tigers fans after the teams’ 38-33 loss to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl on Monday, Dec 31, 2018.

Before this wacky New Years’ Eve afternoon of dizzying twists and a dazzling comeback and brow-furrowing decisions and, ultimately, familiar exasperation in a 38-33 loss at the Liberty Bowl, everything was aligned for another surge of momentum into the offseason for University of Missouri football.

The last few weeks had featured a redefining four-game winning streak in the wake of the catcalls that came with the hideous 15-14 loss to Kentucky, a new contract for coach Barry Odom and continued recruiting coups embodied in securing Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant and inroads in St. Louis. Meanwhile, the zillion-dollar South End Zone project that will transform Memorial Stadium into a more-SEC-like facility progresses by the day toward opening next season.

So all MU needed here was to put an exclamation point on it with a win over a volatile Oklahoma State team that entered the game 6-6. Instead, No. 23 Mizzou’s final signature on the season was a loss that symbolized the mixed signals the program is sending — a foot short on a fourth and 1 run by senior quarterback Drew Lock that seemed a curious play selection with a quarterback better known for his 99 career touchdown passes and coming on a day when running back Larry Rountree had run for more than 200 yards.

The loss more punctuated the season and state of the union than it defined it, but it’s part of a pattern that MU has to grow through under third-year coach Barry Odom. A season that rightfully can be remembered for progress, including a pivotal romp at then-No. 13 Florida when signs pointed to trouble, also has to be known for four tight losses that Mizzou couldn’t seize — and some of the decisions that went into those.

Like about everyone else, Missouri never was going to beat Alabama. But the Tigers (8-5) could have beaten Georgia and should have beaten South Carolina and Kentucky.

And they had OSU on the ropes after trailing 35-19 only to have a field goal blocked — on a night that also featured a missed extra point in a season riddled by special teams problems — that would have given them the lead and then sputter with the ball deep in Oklahoma State territory late.

Missouri Tigers linebacker Terez Hall reflects on his college career after a 38-33 loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Liberty Bowl on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.

Overall, this program is in fine shape and moving forward, and it bears mention that MU nearly pulled this off without five key offensive performers by night’s end — including running back Damarea Crockett and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam sitting out with injuries and receivers Emmanuel Hall, Jalen Knox and Dominic Gicinto all hurt in the game. The improvements in three seasons under Odom have been obvious, and there is a true foundation here if not a springboard.

For that matter, I’m a believer in Odom as a coach and a person and figure Lock was right when he sat next to Odom at the postgame podium and said Missouri will “keep getting better because of this man sitting here next to me.”

But it’s games like this, including the nagging part where the man who made his name as a defensive coordinator presides over a team on which that side of the ball is vulnerable, that make it hard for some fans to trust the direction of the program. And when a coach is 19-19, it’s easy to be split on where this exactly stands ... and to amplify decisions that went awry.

For instance, it was most odd that MU didn’t go for a two-point conversion when it cut the lead to 35-25 early in the fourth quarter. Go for two and make it, and the Tigers are within a possession. Go for one and make it, as they did, and they still remain two scores behind.

Odom said he thought it was too early to go for two, but that came only after burning a timeout to make the decision. And for what it’s worth, the archaic early 1970s conversion chart designed by Dick Vermeil when he was offensive coordinator at UCLA for Tommy Prothro says to go for one there.

But that still defies logic, and had MU gone for two and succeeded it theoretically would have been in position to be considering a game-tying field goal in the final minutes — with an extra timeout! — when it instead was confronted with trying to convert a first down at the OSU 9-yard line.

It was Lock’s option whether to hand off to Rountree or run himself, and the fact that he was stopped short there doesn’t diminish what the native of Lee’s Summit has meant to MU — and Odom. When Odom was asked about Lock’s legacy, Lock leaned toward him and said, “You don’t have to answer that. Get on to the next question.”

But Odom responded nonetheless, noting Lock’s selflessness and leadership as a player who was both The Guy and stood among the guys. The hug between them as they left the podium said it another way.

“He’s changed Mizzou football in a lot of ways, all positive,” Odom said.

So has Odom. But the skeptical MU fan is going to have trouble getting completely on-board until he starts winning games like this.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.