COLUMBIA — When Michael Sam secured his game-ending interception, he heard a voice. It was defensive coordinator and Acting Head Coach Dave Steckel.
“I could hear his voice in the back of my head saying ‘Get your a-- down, Michael Sam,’” he said.
There would be no need for heroics from Sam. The Tigers were ahead with 32 seconds to go. Texas Tech had only two timeouts. All Sam had to do was fall down, and the 31-27 win over the Red Raiders belonged to Missouri.
Once Sam fell to the turf, Steckel himself screamed, “Yeah!” on the sidelines, and pumped his fist repeatedly. He began lightly punching safety Kenronte Walker in the chest, at least until tight end Andrew Jones came and jumped on his back in celebration. He took his headset off, then patted offensive line coach Bruce Walker on the head, and simply told him, “Good job.”
Missouri was bowl eligible for the seventh straight year. Gary Pinkel, suspended for the game by MU after being arrested for driving while intoxicated, could smile, wherever he was watching the game, and 26 seniors could leave Faurot Field for the final time, as victors.
With that whirlwind of emotion, it’s easy to see why offensive coordinator David Yost had to do everything in his power to hold back tears at the postgame press conference.
“It was a hard week for us, but we came together as a team and throughout the season, we’ve faced adversity, and we’ve had to overcome it,” senior tailback De’Vion Moore said. “It’s just a testament to our team, and how hard we’ve had to work, and how close we’ve come together.”
The place Pinkel’s absence was most obvious was the bus. Players said his seat at the front remained empty.
“Not seeing him there, no one knows it,” linebacker Luke Lambert said. “No one’s used to it. It was different.”
But once it was time to play, it was business as usual. Steckel’s extra duties as head coach didn’t take him away from his normal job of coaching the linebackers.
“If he had a point to get across, he’d come and talk to us,” Lambert said. “He wasn’t away from us more than he usually he is, he did a great job taking hold of the job.”
Steckel said that he was the head coach in name only.
“I appreciate everyone saying that I was the guy, but the only reason I was the guy was because I'm down on the sidelines,” Steckel said. “We talked about this during the week, that we were going to do this together. You can't do anything by yourself. ..."
On Thursday, Steckel told the team to “rally up” and shared a story to inspire them, even without Pinkel.
“He said his wife always makes fun of him because he picks up pennies,” wide receiver TJ Moe said. “Every time he sees one, he picks it up. … He picks it up because every time he looks at it, it says ‘In God We Trust.’”
Inside the game itself, Missouri faced adversity as well. Its first five drives ended in four punts and a costly Kendial Lawrence fumble at the Texas Tech 4-yard line. The ball went through the end zone for a touchback.
Missouri trailed 14-0 in the second quarter and 27-17 entering the fourth quarter. It was the seventh time the Tigers found themselves trailing by double digits after three quarters.
But quarterback James Franklin stepped up, whether it was for the seniors, Pinkel or something else entirely.
Franklin was 6-for-7 passing for 85 yards in the final quarter. He also ran for 76 yards on nine carries, none more important than the final attempt, a nine-yard scamper into the end zone to give the Tigers a 31-27 lead with 2:22 remaining.
It wasn’t over, though. In nine plays the Red Raiders had moved the ball to the Missouri seven-yard line with 37 seconds remaining.
After a timeout, Doege dropped back to pass and Hamilton got a hand up to knock the ball into the air.
As it hung, 54,309 fans began to crescendo and Sam abandoned his original mission on the play.
“I was trying to hit the s--- out of the quarterback,” Sam said. “He threw the ball, and then I just dropped back, and Dominique (Hamilton) batted it up.”
It stayed in the air for what Sam said felt like an eternity before he finally caught it. The crowd’s crescendo reached its peak. Players jumped around on the sideline. The front row of fans behind the bench, shirtless with the numbers of the seniors painted on their chests, waved their arms wildly.
It was senior Luke Lambert’s final play. It was an image he'd like to remember.
“I wish I had my phone with me (to take a photo),” he said laughing.
Senior wide receiver Jerrell Jackson found his way to the game ball. After the game, team spokesman Chad Moller tried to take it from him.
“I told him I just wanted to hold it for him,” Moller said. “He didn’t trust me.”
Jackson held the ball in one hand and his helmet in the other as he stood above the rest of the team on the wall that separates the stands from the field. He led the team through a rendition of the fight song.
With the win, the seniors could sing for the final time with smiles on their faces, and the underclassmen who carried the seniors off the field found their loads to be a little lighter.
But through tears, Yost reminded them it would be short-lived. With his arm around James Franklin, he yelled to linebacker Zaviar Gooden.
“Hey Z-Good!” he said. “It’s KU week.”