Vahe Gregorian

At long last, a quirky play goes Mizzou’s way — and what that means

Call them quirks or flukes or excuses. Or jinxes, which don’t really exist except for in the way perception can sure feel like reality after enough repeat coincidences.

University of Missouri athletics, and Mizzou football in particular, has suffered from enough of that bizarre sort of stuff over the years to make it feel almost tangible to many otherwise true believers.

The Fifth Down fiasco against Colorado in 1990, the Fleakicker mess against Nebraska in 1997 stand out most. Less-remembered was a 28-26 loss at Oklahoma State in 1992 that featured the spectacle of MU blocking an OSU field goal … only to have the Cowboys convert the carom into a touchdown.

“You’ll never see that again in your lifetime,” then-Tiger receiver Brian Sallee put it to some of us after the game. “We don’t get any breaks like that. Maybe one day. But until then, everything goes against us. It’s like a curse, and we haven’t found the cure.”

Even though Mizzou has enjoyed plenty of fine moments since then, including at least part of three Big 12 North titles, two Southeastern Conference East championships and being ranked No. 1 for one shining moment in 2007, those words have always stayed with me.

Because seldom has what seemed like a simple twist of fate favored MU like it did Saturday, when the sort of play you may never see again, the sort of play that always seems to happen to Missouri instead of for it, set the tone for a 34-14 clobbering of South Carolina at Memorial Stadium.

“Weird things happen when we play South Carolina. … You can almost anticipate that,” linebacker Cale Garrett said. “Something strange is going to go off.”

Having it happen in the Southeastern Conference opener against a program that has been a nemesis of coach Barry Odom — via a sequence of wacky games through his first three seasons — was part of an almost purging feel to this game that now is incumbent on MU to build on.

In this case, Garrett was the pivot point on a play that emphatically reinforced the old notion of luck being preparation meeting opportunity.

With South Carolina hemmed deep in its own territory early midway through a scoreless first quarter, MU’s Chris Turner swatted back a pass by South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski … who reflexively grabbed it and flung it down for what most everybody on the field but Garrett assumed was a dead ball: Garrett zoomed past the bewildered Turner yelling “pick the ball up, pick the ball up, pick the ball up.”

Even after Garrett did just that and was pleading the point, Hilinski’s gesture initially was ruled an illegal second forward pass.

But upon further review, which also has been known to go awry for the Tigers, it was ruled a lateral and a fumble and touchdown Mizzou.

While there was a touch of fortune in this, a moment that Odom called “game-changing” was more a reflection of hustle and alertness and coaching.

Particularly on a defense that also provided Ronnell Perkins’ vital 100-yard interception return and now by itself has outscored MU’s opponents 24-21 over the last three games — the sort of thing that might have been expected but has been lacking since Odom was hired in 2015 after guiding a top-five defense as MU’s coordinator.

“There’s a reason why defensively every time in practice that the ball’s on the ground … everybody around there (is taught) to go scoop it up,” said Odom, crediting coordinator Ryan Walters and adding, “Anytime that you look on the tape, you see (Garrett) around the ball. It’s the same thing he does every day in practice, and those habits continually have made him the player that he is.”

As Garrett, a senior from Kearney, thought about what went into the play, he smiled about the mundane practice moments of scooping up any loose ball.

“Sometimes, it can get super redundant, especially like in a week of practice like this when it’s humid as hell out and you’re maybe not feeling the greatest,” he said. “You can find a lot of excuses to nonchalantly pick up a ball and be, like, ‘come on, Coach,’ or whatever.

“But the reinforcement of them staying on it, and then us buying into and trusting the reasoning behind everything, too, it clearly paid off in a situation like that.”

On a day that was about creating their own reality, that wasn’t the only time MU made its own MO-mentum.

After South Carolina opened the second half with a 75-yard TD pass that more than doubled its first-half offensive yardage and cut the Mizzou lead to 17-14, the Tigers immediately countered with a 10-play, 75-yard TD drive culminating in Kelly Bryant’s 21-yard pass to Tyler Badie.

Then Perkins’ third-quarter TD return came with South Carolina at the Mizzou 3-yard-line and on the verge of cutting the lead to 24-21.

Instead, it was suddenly 31-14 MU after Perkins said Hilinski “looked me right in the eyes, and he threw it right to my chest.”

The win, MU’s first in an SEC opener since 2014, somewhat atones for the 37-31 opening loss at Wyoming — though it also makes it more perplexing.

But that’s all history now, and all that matters is what’s ahead: With home games against Troy (2-1) of the Sun Belt Conference and Mississippi (2-2) awaiting after a bye week, MU has a fine chance to be 5-1 by the time it goes on the road next to Vanderbilt (0-3).

Each game will be its own story, of course, and MU’s offense remains a work in progress with Bryant.

But the Tigers on Saturday bolstered the validity of the top-four ranking in total defense they’d amassed against the less vaunted likes of Wyoming, West Virginia and Southeast Missouri State.

And in the face of recent history against South Carolina and other burdensome history, Saturday also was a fresh and encouraging reminder that MU is free to make its own breaks and write its own future.

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.