COLUMBIA — When looking back at a lost game, teams can typically point to one or two pivotal moments when, if they could have done better, it might have made a difference.
But in the Missouri football team's 45-24 loss to No. 6 Oklahoma State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the "could haves" for Missouri were constant, from the Tigers' third possession of the game to the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.
Missouri had many chances to make things close.
Down 7-0 in the middle of the first quarter, the Tigers engineered a drive that rivaled the fast-paced offense of their opponents. James Franklin completed a pass to T.J. Moe that went for 18 yards, and that was followed by a 19-yard run by Henry Josey. A trick pass play from Moe to Franklin went for 31 yards. In the blink of an eye, the Tigers had a first down at the 12-yard line.
Finally, it seemed, it was Missouri reaping the benefits of big plays, rather than becoming the victims of them — as had been the case in games earlier this season.
But, the red zone struggles that have plagued the Tigers struck again, and Missouri had to settle for a field goal rather than tying the game.
The early letdown became a trend as the game continued. Just when Missouri’s offense seemed to be on the verge of seriously threatening Oklahoma State’s lead, it ran out of gas.
The start of the third quarter saw the Tigers' defense force a Cowboys punt, building on the momentum Missouri established at the close of the first half when a Moe touchdown reception made it a one-possession game. But once the Missouri offense got the ball back, a tipped pass resulted in a Franklin interception, and the Cowboys added another touchdown moments later.
Franklin had two more big turnovers later in the game. He fumbled inside the five-yard line after E.J. Gaines returned a Brandon Weeden interception to the Oklahoma State 46-yard line. Franklin had another ball tipped and intercepted after Gaines returned a punt to the Oklahoma State 35-yard line in the fourth quarter. Both times, a score would have put the Tigers down by just seven points.
It wasn't all on the freshman quarterback, though.
Moe's 34-yard touchdown reception at the end of the second quarter brought the Tigers within seven, and the Missouri defense forced an Oklahoma State three-and-out. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel called a timeout before the punt, and his team got the ball back with 1:24 left in the half. The ensuing drive featured three short running plays, and the clock wasn't stopped again.
The decision to call the timeout and then make no attempt to quickly get down the field elicited boos from the Missouri faithful.
The Missouri defense had its own chance to get the Tigers back in the game. Star Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, who caught eight passes in the first half for 54 yards and a touchdown, didn’t play in the second half. His absence was a big opportunity for the Missouri defense to slow down Weeden’s attack, but the Cowboys still scored three touchdowns in the final two quarters.
Saturday wasn’t the first time this year the offense has come up empty. Throughout the season, mistakes by the offense have sent the defense back out on the field early, and multiple times the offense has had to settle for field goals deep in its opponent's territory.
“It’s easy to kind of be all mad, like, ‘Ah, here we go again,’” Missouri safety Kenji Jackson said after the game. “As a defender, those sudden change situations are our time to shine as a defense. I believe that we live for those moments, but we’ve just got to capitalize on more of them.”
Franklin acknowledged that his turnovers — he had four total on the day — are frustrating to a defense that fought to get him the ball back and that they affect the Missouri sideline.
“I think it’s definitely just a little bit low on energy,” Franklin said. “Some guys may be shocked or just upset with kind of what happened. That’s kind of been a disappointment, and it’s something that we want to try and fix.”
Missouri now looks ahead to a pair of tough road challenges in the Lone Star State, beginning next weekend at Texas A&M.
The Aggies have already agreed to make the jump to another conference, something the Tigers seem to be seriously considering. Missouri's flirtations with conference realignment took another step forward following Friday's UM System Board of Curators meeting.
The conference realignment issue prompted the ample Cowboy contingent in attendance Saturday to chant "Go Big 12!" after the game.
After taking on the most recent Big 12 defector in College Station next weekend, Missouri will head to Waco, Texas, to face the Baylor Bears. To have a shot at winning against those games, the Tigers will have to snatch opportunity when it is presented to them, something they couldn’t do on Saturday.
The Tigers made big plays. They forced turnovers and had a few long drives into Oklahoma State territory. But with every impact play that went in Missouri’s favor, another in the Cowboys’ favor followed.
“We’ve really got to play the game from beginning to end,” Gaines said. “We can’t have down moments like in the third quarter or the second quarter or the beginning of the football game like we did today ... We’ve got to compete from beginning to end, and we didn’t do that today.”