SAN ANTONIO — It would have been easy for Missouri to accept Jeff Wolfert’s missed game-winning attempt as another sign that this was destined to be nothing but a disappointing year.
After all, if Missouri’s most reliable player couldn’t get the job done, who could?
Enter Sean Weatherspoon, who wasn’t about to remember his 21st birthday with a loss.
After the offense had given the Tigers a 30-23 lead in overtime, it was Weatherspoon and William Moore’s rush on quarterback C.J. Bacher that knocked Northwestern into an unmanageable situation. Instead of the Wildcats trying to win the game from inside the Tigers’ 10, they had to launch a desperation pass from the 31, which never had a chance.
“When you get a sack in overtime, especially when you need seven to win, that’s huge,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
Saving your team’s season from ending with the memory of three consecutive losses and shattered dreams? Clinching a season that your quarterback and coach would call special?
Not a bad way to celebrate turning 21, especially when your birthday present is the defensive Most Valuable Player trophy, something Weatherspoon said he wanted before the game.
“It was just a great game,” Weatherspoon said. “It was just fun to be out there, I was just happy to make some plays for my team. It’s just a great birthday present.”
It was completely fitting that Weatherspoon and the defense would be what saved the day for the Tigers after what they had been through. All week long, the Tigers’ maligned defensive players talked about how they wanted to silence their critics, but had been unable to do so.
But in its final chance to prove itself, while the offense struggled, the defense kept Missouri in the game, living up to what its leaders had predicted the Tigers would do and earning the praise of its coach.
“If you just take two big plays away, it was a really outstanding performance by our defense,” Pinkel said. “They really stepped it up, not only in the fourth quarter, but also in overtime.”
Even on one of those big plays, a 23-yard Ross Lane touchdown that proved to be the Wildcats’ final points, the defense had a short field to defend after a Missouri turnover. In all, the Tigers surrendered a mere nine points to Northwestern that were not set up by a Missouri turnover.
“It’s great,” Weatherspoon said. “We saw guys picking us to lose and talking about the defense giving up the big play too much. We gave up a few big plays today, but when it came down to it, the offense put points on the board, and the defense went out and didn’t let the other team put points on the board.
“It’s just great to get that win and gives us a good note to end the season on.”
The way the season ended was something that Pinkel and the Tigers were quick to point out. Pinkel said the difference between a 10-win season and only nine wins was “not even close.”
“Like coach Pinkel’s been preaching to us since we lost the Big 12 Championship, do you want to be special?” quarterback Chase Daniel said. “If you do, you’re going to win 10 games.”
Special would be the perfect word to describe Weatherspoon’s night, as he finished by waving a Tiger flag in front of the fans.
The Alamo Bowl victory, clinching a ten-win season, putting together a strong defensive performance and the defensive MVP were all things he wanted for his birthday, and now he had them.
Was anything missing from the celebration?
“I don’t think so,” he said.