For the Missouri football team’s seniors, this was it.
The scoreboard read South Carolina 21, Missouri 0 only seven minutes into the 2005 Independence Bowl, their last game in a Tiger uniform. The team they had worked so hard to built up the past five years was being torn down by the Steve Spurrier wrecking ball.
The Gamecock defense was disrupting Missouri quarterback Brad Smith’s rhythm, as Smith struggled to connect with receivers. He even fumbled a snap that forced him to throw the ball away and resulted in an intentional grounding penalty.
Meanwhile the Gamecocks offense was moving the ball at liberty against a defense featuring half a dozen seniors who see regular action. Cornerback Marcus King, an honorable mention All Big 12 selection playing in his last college game, dropped two possible interceptions and was struggling to contain South Carolina’s play-making wide receiver Sydney Rice, who amassed 77 yards and a touchdown - normally an impressive total for an entire game - in the game’s first five minutes. Linebacker Derrick Ming was picked up by the offensive line on a blitz that left Carson Askins open on his touchdown catch with 7:11 left that gave South Carolina the 21-0 lead.
But these seniors, the first group to be recruited and play entirely under coach Gary Pinkel, knew they couldn’t go out like this.
“Every senior had a whole different emotion in the game than everybody else because they’re not going to play here again, never put on this uniform again,” Pinkel said.
They knew they needed to make something big happen and they wanted it bad. They wanted their team’s first bowl win in eight years. They wanted their first comeback victory from a halftime deficit in the five years under Pinkel. They wanted to be remembered as winners, not as a rag doll. The group seniors successfully led a determined Tiger team to do just that.
“We knew that we needed someone to make a spark,” King said. “Whether it was offense, defense or special teams, it didn’t matter we just needed to stop them”.
As it happened, King was the first to create a spark. With the Gamecocks driving for what might have been a fourth unanswered score, King snagged his third interception in as many games for the Tigers. This one an Independence Bowl record 99-yard return for a touchdown.
“Marcus King’s interception was huge for momentum, it just kind of stopped the leak,” Pinkel said.
King was named defensive MVP by members of the media after the game.
Then there was linebacker Derrick Ming, who up to this season had played only on special teams before stepping up to starting linebacker. Ming, who is best known around the locker room for his leadership ability and academic excellence, redefined the term “shoe-string catch” when the captain intercepted a deflected pass that bounced off his foot. It was Ming’s first career interception.
Referee’s reviewed the tape of interception, which came with 1:34 left in the third quarter, but upheld the ruling that Ming caught the ball without it touching the ground and Missouri then drove to a game-tying touchdown.
Smith, the poster boy of the Missouri offense for four seasons now, took control of the game offensively. He threw for one score and ran for three more but beyond leaving Missouri fans and an ESPN national television audience with images of his explosive runs and accurate passes, he left an image of a Brad Smith-led Missouri team as a winner.
Smith was voted the game’s offensive MVP, but the award was the last thing on his mind during his final game.
“I wasn’t thinking about it when I was out there, but I’m a winner and I’m a champion and so are my teammates,” Smith said.
Perhaps an emotional Pinkel put it best.
“Quarterbacks will be remembered not so much for yards and touchdowns. They’re remembered for winning, comeback wins and big wins in the programs history and that’s where I’m proud of him.”