OXFORD, Miss. — Just one more, Missouri’s defensive line thought with Ole Miss on the 1-yard line.
The first-quarter drive had gone 18 plays and 85 yards. More than seven minutes had gone by since Ole Miss took over at its own 9-yard line. The 62,000-plus in attendance at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium silenty looked on with the Rebels inches away from drawing even with No. 8 Missouri.
"Instead of tearing yourself down or ripping yourself out, we just encourage each other to play better and work harder," Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy said.
Inches can seem so long for an offense when Missouri’s defensive line is standing in the way. It got even farther when Ole Miss offensive lineman Pierce Burton flinched for a false start penalty. The 19th play of the drive would have to be a field goal.
"All we need is a place to stand, and we can stop anybody," linebacker Andrew Wilson said.
Just one more, the defensive line thought again.
The ball was snapped, and a chip-shot, 23-yard field goal seemed like a formality. Instead, freshman defensive tackle Josh Augusta used the last bit of energy he had and reached toward the sky. Augusta got just high enough to swat the kick away before it made it to the upright and the ball skipped across the turf. Missouri recovered.
"I told him if you're out playing in this game in this season, you're not a freshman anymore," Ealy said. "He went out there and did a great job blocking the ball and causing a momentum change.
"That was mammoth."
Missouri came into the game allowing touchdowns on only 55 percent of opponents’ red zone opportunities. Twice Ole Miss was inside Missouri’s 10-yard line, but the Rebels came away with zero points on those two drives. On three total red zone drives, Ole Miss managed only 3 points.
"It's impossible to beat a top 10 team when you get in the red zone and don't score touchdowns or points," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
The Rebels came into the game averaging more than 500 yards of offense per game. On Saturday, they managed fewer than 400 yards. A few missed tackles from Missouri resulted in big plays, but the Tigers never let Ole Miss get into a consistent rhythm.
"What do you say about your defense?" Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "This is a very potent offensive football team. We battled and did some great things in critical situations."
Even on the long drives, Missouri was able to dig in. The Tigers' defensive line depth came in handy. Find a way to wear down Ealy and All-American candidate Michael Sam, and Missouri will send out Markus Golden and Shane Ray, both of whom played major roles Saturday.
The interior of the defensive line stayed fresh, too. Defensive tackle Harold Brantley even had the energy to convert a fourth down on a fake punt. Players think defensive coordinator Dave Steckel has them well conditioned.
"I'm not going to say we were tired because I don't want coach Steck to make us do extra laps or anything like that," Ealy said. "It comes a point where it doesn't matter if you're tired like that. You just have to dig in deep. They're tired too."
Steckel was first off the field for Missouri. As he jogged through the southeast tunnel of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, black and gold was the only thing left. Missouri players met the crowd of fans as Steckel ran by. A smile spread across his face, and he pumped his fist to the crowd, increasing its volume in the process. Steckel was unable to hide his excitement for his run defense, which ranks second in the Southeastern Conference, behind Alabama.
"We own the trenches," Ealy said. "We have to make sure nobody's coming in our home."
Back on the field, Sam leapt into a pack of Missouri fans while his teammates did a victory lap around the stadium, where only Missouri fans were left. When the fans let Sam down, he grabbed a megaphone and started leading cheers.
The team finally filed off the field, and Sam was among the first to make his way toward the locker room. Before he took his last step off the field, Sam pointed to the sky and looked around at the fans, who were still going nuts. The revelation the defense had multiple times against Ole Miss held true for the entire season. One win separates Missouri from the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
"Just one more," Sam said to himself. "One more."