COLLEGE STATION, Texas — In an instant, everything changed because of Randy Ponder. The same Randy Ponder who was ready to walk away from the Missouri program after his freshman year.
Early in the fourth quarter, Missouri defensive end Brad Madison hit Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill as he released a pass. Instead of the lasers fans are used to seeing from Tannehill, the ball floated lazily toward the right sideline.
Waiting for it was Ponder, a former walk-on turned scholarship player, who snagged the ball and returned it 45 yards in the other direction. Thirty seconds later, after James Franklin scored from eight yards out, the Aggies had suddenly moved from the game’s drivers seat to the back seat.
They ended up in the trunk.
It was the Aggies who made the critical mistakes in crunch time, and the Tigers who took advantage of them, rallying back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 38-31 in overtime on Marcus Lucas’ leaping 11-yard touchdown catch.
Up until Ponder’s interception, it looked as if it was going to be the same old story for Missouri. It ended up being the same old story for Texas A&M.
The third quarter, though, looked like the same game, different week for the Tigers. Down 11 to begin the quarter, Missouri went three-and-out to begin the half. After a Texas A&M fumble, Missouri fumbled it right back.
Simply put, the offense couldn’t get it done. Luckily for Missouri, its defense held the Aggies scoreless as well.
“Neither team really showed up to play the third,” receiver T.J. Moe said. “We might as well have not played that one and just gone straight to the fourth.”
It all set Ponder up for the game-changing play.
Ponder said he was ready to transfer after being frustrated with his lack of playing time during his first season, but a talk from his mother convinced him to stick it out and remain at Missouri. Even though he decided to stay, Ponder said he wasn’t thrilled with the talk but listened anyway.
“With your parents, they tell you not what you want to hear but what you need to hear,” Ponder said.
So for this season, Ponder came in, as he put it, “with no expectations.”
“My parents just told me to keep working and keep grinding, and God will show you the way,” he said.
Ponder’s interception was the beginning of Texas A&M’s third double-digit second-half collapse of 2011. Previously the Aggies had blown second-half leads of 17 against Oklahoma State and 18 against Arkansas.
Once Missouri had the momentum, it was a matter of the Aggies failing to execute or making critical mistakes. It just depended on the possession.
A three-and-out led to a 79-yard Missouri drive ending in a Henry Josey touchdown which gave the Tigers the lead. A minus-six-yard run stalled the next drive in the red zone. Then, with the game tied at 31 and a chance to win it in regulation, Missouri defensive end Jacquies Smith knocked the ball free from Tannehill and the Tigers' Dominique Hamilton recovered.
With two quick passes, Franklin had the Tigers on the Texas A&M 28-yard line with a chance for a game-winning field goal with five seconds remaining.
But like the Arizona State game, it was not to be — even with a different kicker. Filling in for Grant Ressel, who was out with a strained hip flexor, was Trey Barrow, who missed wide right and sent the Tigers to overtime.
“I’m used to making the kick and running out on the field and congratulating them,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “This time was different than the Arizona State game.”
This time the Tigers bounced back in overtime. Franklin found Lucas on third and eight with a pass toward the back of the end zone. Aggies cornerback Dustin Harris never looked back for the ball, and Lucas leapt over him to haul it in and give the Tigers the lead.
“They had him matched up in coverage over there, and Marcus is 6 foot 5 inches, and I know the corner isn’t that tall, and Marcus made a great catch,” Franklin said.
Four plays later, Dominique Hamilton batted down a Tannehill pass on fourth and five, and the Tigers secured the victory.
With their season hanging precariously close to disaster, the Tigers found inspiration from the recently-crowned World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
“I referred to the Cardinals about their guts and their competitiveness and how they fight, and they were really inspirational for these guys,” Pinkel said. “That was neat for us; there was a little filter-down there”
While it’s practically impossible for Missouri to rally back and win it all like St. Louis did, the Tigers proved for the first time this season that they can win a close, hard-fought game against a quality opponent. With its remaining schedule no easy task, the Tigers still have work ahead, but Saturday’s win is a major step toward bowl eligibility.
For now, though, Missouri will enjoy its single victory and be glad that Ponder’s parents convinced him to stay.