COLUMBIA — Near the end of Kentucky’s first drive Saturday, Missouri fans thought they knew what was coming.
Kentucky had been moving the ball steadily, methodically, slowly sucking the life out of the 67,853 fans in of Memorial Stadium. The offense traveled 60 yards, using a series of long runs and short passes to maneuver inside of Missouri’s red zone.
“We’re struggling, and they’re executing right down the field,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said, describing the series after the game. “I’m sitting there, just kind of … um, I don’t want to tell you what I was thinking.”
Missouri fans had seen this movie before. If Saturday’s game played out like all the others this season, Kentucky would easily score. Missouri would stumble on offense, and a healthy portion of the home crowd would be headed for the exits by halftime.
Missouri would lose its Homecoming game, Pinkel would recite lines about the team’s failure to execute, and the team would be still waiting for an inaugural SEC win.
But Sheldon Richardson made sure that didn’t happen.
On a second down and 11 from Missouri’s 13-yard line, Kentucky running back Jonathan George took a handoff and looked for a hole up the middle. Richardson grabbed him from behind, located the ball in George’s right hand and ripped.
The ball popped out, hitting the turf a few feet behind George. Richardson picked it up and reverting back to his high school days as a tight end, starting running toward daylight.
The 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior rumbled 60 yards down the left sideline. As he passed the giant Tiger logo at midfield, the crowd came to life, roaring in support of the defensive tackle whose play always seems to back up his talk. His defensive line coach, Craig Kuligowski, was also roaring, reminding Richardson to secure the football.
“I heard Coach Kuli yelling at me on the sideline all the way down, talking about ball leverage,” Richardson said, laughing. “I had to make sure I was protecting the ball.”
Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow finally caught up to Richardson and dragged him down at the 25-yard line, but not before Richardson shoved him backwards momentarily with a right arm to the face mask.
“I stiff armed somebody,” Richardson said. “He ripped some skin off my forearm, too, so I stiff armed him pretty hard.”
Richardson’s teammates mobbed him after the play, and the athletic big man quickly removed his helmet, jawing away as he tried in vain to explain his poor stamina near the end of the run.
“I talk a lot of trash to my teammates. So me getting caught was not the best thing to do in that situation,” Richardson said after the game. “I always say, if I ever get a chance to do it, I’ll score – and I didn’t score. I’m not a man of my word right now.”
His teammates were happy that their senior playmaker had reversed field position and set up the first score of an eventual 33-10 Missouri win. Still, they weren’t prepared to let him forget that he was caught from behind on the play, something he vowed would never happen.
"He always tells us about how he’s a 4.6 (second 40-yard dash) guy, and I think he is, truly,” cornerback E.J Gaines, who returned a fumble for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, said of Richardson. “But he just had a little bit too far to go.”
The Missouri offense quickly finished the job, with running back Kendial Lawrence running in a touchdown four plays later. And the defense, which was shaky in the beginning, never looked back.
Kentucky’s two freshman quarterbacks, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, combined for only 78 yards passing. The Missouri defense also forced a total of six fumbles in the game, recovering three.
By the fourth quarter, Missouri had taken a commanding 26-10 lead, and fans began to celebrate a rare victory. Children rolled down the hill on the west side of the rock “M,” some in more control of their bodies than others. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel celebrated each big defensive play as if it was a game-saver, pumping his right fist in the air and feebly chest bumping with his players as they left the field.
The Kentucky Wildcat mascot actually left the field entirely, clearly unwilling or unable to watch.
And Richardson, who had five tackles to go along with the 60-yard dash in the game, continued to make plays. After Missouri’s first SEC victory, the defensive tackle joked that he’d be able to make even more plays if he were allowed to star on both sides of the ball.
Maybe, he said, his days as a tight end shouldn’t be behind him.
“(Coach Pinkel) needs to move me to tight end. I hope they’ll let me do it,” he said, a wide smile plastered across his face.
“Or at least return kicks.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.