That could have been the sound of the Missouri football team crashing back to earth on Saturday.
Don’t take that to mean the Tigers weren’t happy after their 41-40 overtime win against Middle Tennessee – the sounds coming from the postgame locker room bordered on jubilant. Missouri had, after all, won.
Missouri improved to 4-0, leaving it one win away from matching the most any of these Tigers have won in a season since coming to Missouri. The Tigers also kept their No. 23 ranking.
So it was a little excitement mixed with a lot of relief. A week earlier it had been the opposite, some relief at surviving a slow start to wallop Eastern Illinois 37-0, a lot of exuberance about a 3-0 start and a shutout, both firsts for every Missouri player.
Coach Gary Pinkel tried to tether that helium-filled spirit, but it got away, especially for the defense.
“My disappointment on defense was not that we struggled,” Pinkel said. “We were in a little bit of la-la land the last few weeks. Those guys have been beat up for three years and now all of a sudden everybody’s singing how great the defense is and I said we had to get better.”
Apparently, the defense stayed in la-la land throughout the game. The Missouri defenders who had clamped down on Illinois, Ball State and Eastern Illinois were gone.
The Blue Raiders (0-4) picked up blitzes, watching the Tigers’ defenders overrun their target on what seemed like every other play. They took advantage of big cushions from the Missouri defensive backs, picking apart every scheme Missouri tried. They ran around, between and over the Tigers. Missouri desperately needed one of its signature turnovers to turn it around, but it never came.
“If you look closely, there’s a lot that we didn’t do,” free safety Nino Williams II said. “Tackles and turnovers. That’s something that we caused in game three; we got plenty of turnovers. We were a little on our heels and we didn’t get takeaways like we’re supposed to, and we paid for it.”
While the defense was struggling to keep Middle Tennessee State from sustaining long drives and gaining confidence, the Tigers could depend on the special teams to save the day, right?
Wrong. Missouri’s special teams play was dreadful, among its transgressions were a 19-yard punt and two blocked extra points, though one of them caromed through the uprights. No blocked punts would turn this one around. The Blue Raiders seemingly gained confidence and momentum with every passing minute.
“If you keep an underdog in the game, then they start thinking they can win,” Pinkel said. “I’ve been on the other side of it before. The longer you keep them in it, the more they think they can win.”
The Tigers didn’t quit, though. The defense gained some redemption with a goal-line stand, forcing the Blue Raiders to settle for a field goal that made it 34-26 and gave Missouri’s offense one last chance.
Sophomore quarterback Brad Smith took charge. He accounted for 74 yards on a 73-yard drive and, after throwing a 12-yard touchdown pass to Darius Outlaw, ran in the two-point conversion to tie it at 34 and send it to overtime.
The two teams traded touchdowns in the overtime, but the Tigers’ field goal block team made Blue Raiders kicker Brian Kelly miss an extra point, and Missouri’s Mike Matheny converted an extra-long extra point for the win. After MU drew an excessive celebration penalty on the touchdown, the Blue Raiders called timeout. The Tigers extended the snap by a yard to protect against the block, so Matheny set up for a 36-yard conversion attempt. He nailed it.
“My team fought back and won,” Pinkel said. “You’re never as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad. I think maybe we got back to earth a little bit. I’m a little disappointed in myself. I thought I had this team ready to play, but obviously we didn’t play as well as I wanted to.”
Among the criticisms is a gem of hope for the Tigers. In spite of all the mistakes, they won. Not so long ago, Missouri would have lost this game, and Pinkel knows it.