It took three tries.
It took two San Diego State defenders running into each other.
But Missouri finally made its one big play.
Trailing 24-20 with about a minute left in the game, quarterback Blaine Gabbert found wide receiver T.J. Moe on the sideline. Aztec tacklers converged to stop the play for a 5-yard gain, but a quick stutter by Moe and a block from receiver Jerrell Jackson sent the two diving into one another.
Once they were out of his way, Moe was gone. The sophomore put Missouri up 27-24 with his 68-yard touchdown, and the Tigers’ defense stopped SDSU on its final drive.
“We were just a little out of sync most of the game,” Moe said. “But we finally hit one there at the end.”
Missouri had controlled the game until midway through the fourth quarter. Trailing 20-14 with about 11 minutes left in the game, SDSU was backed up on its own 7-yard line.
Its drive looked hopeless.
So did Aztec running back Ronnie Hillman on his second-down run up the middle. The freshman was held up at the line for what appeared to be no gain; he disappeared into the pile, but it never collapsed.
About half a blink later and Hillman appeared in the open field, racing toward the end zone. Missouri defensive back Kevin Rutland chased him down at the Tigers’ 20-yard line, but he couldn’t make the shoestring tackle.
Hillman completed the 93-yard touchdown run and gave SDSU its first lead of the game at 21-20.
On the following drive Gabbert led the Tigers into Aztec territory, but threw an interception on third and 17 from the 41-yard line.
Missouri held the Aztecs to a field goal on their next drive, making the score 24-20 with 1:58 remaining.
Take 2 for Gabbert? Same result.
He was picked off again; this time at Missouri’s 37-yard line, but the Tigers’ defense came onto the field and forced San Diego into a three-and-out, setting up Moe’s winner.
“They never bent,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said about his players. “They just kept believing they had a chance. The defense put us in an opportunity to have a chance to win.”
As lightning flashed in all directions above Memorial Stadium for most of the game, what Missouri did on the field remained rather dull.
The Tigers finished the game with 440 yards of offense, but were just five of 16 on third-down conversions and turned the ball over three times.
“When you don’t play well and you win a game, there are lessons to learn,” Pinkel said.
In the first half, Missouri got into the end zone on its first and final drives. What happened in between didn’t go so well.
Gabbert led the Tigers on a methodical and effective opening drive. They went 80 yards on nine plays, and junior tailback De’Vion Moore capped it off with a 17-yard touchdown run.
The Aztecs matched Missouri with a 78-yard drive of their own, but they too failed to reach the end zone again until their final possession of the half.
A field goal by Grant Ressel gave Missouri a 10-7 lead late in the first quarter, and Gabbert made it 17-7 with an 11-yard touchdown run with a minute remaining in the half.
But before Missouri could escape into the locker room with the momentum, Hillman broke a 75-yard touchdown.
Missouri opened its lead slightly with another Ressel field goal in the third quarter, making the score 20-7. The Aztecs didn’t score again until the fourth quarter, when Hillman broke his 93-yard run.
“It’s a lot more fun fixing problems when you win,” Pinkel said. “You also grow from victories like that.”