MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In the moments following Missouri’s 38-33 loss to Oklahoma State in the 60th playing of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Monday night, Barry Odom sat at an elevated table alongside players Drew Lock, Johnathon Johnson, Cam Hilton and Paul Adams. As they faced the media, each of them attempted to process the defeat they had just suffered on the field at Liberty Memorial Stadium.
They were asked about the failed fourth-down conversion that sealed the game. They were asked about Odom’s decision to kick an extra point instead of attempting a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter. And they were asked to try to put the 2018 season in perspective, and how they will look back on their experience playing in the bowl game.
Johnson, the Memphis product who who caught nine passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, was asked what it meant to put on such a performance in his hometown.
Yet the most meaningful and significant answer came from no question at all.
As one Liberty Bowl representative retrieved the microphones around the room and another began to wrap the press conference up, Lock delivered a closing message about his Missouri career.
“I got one more thing,” the senior quarterback opened. “I just want to say 'Thank you' to Mizzou Nation for coming out tonight. I appreciate all the support. It was one of the coolest environments I’ve ever played in. I can’t say enough about all you guys traveling here to support us. It means a lot.”
“Back reflecting on the years before, I know it wasn’t always the smoothest ride,” Lock continued. “But for those of you who stuck by us, thank you for sticking by us. Keep pressing this team on. We have a really good team that is going to keep getting better every year because of this man (Odom) sitting next to me. You all mean the world to me. I appreciate it. I wouldn’t change a second of what went down here.”
For Lock and the 18 other seniors on the Tigers roster, Monday’s bowl game drew the curtain down on their Missouri careers, and so ended the time in Columbia for a group that transformed the program from 2015 to now.
A furious comeback simply wasn’t enough to overcome a disastrous third quarter in Memphis on Monday; and Missouri, now 8-5 (4-4 SEC), closed a promising 2018 season on the wrong note.
Making his 46th and final start for the Tigers, Lock was prolific, passing for 373 yards and three touchdown — including several jaw-dropping throws which surely will bolster his bonafides as he heads towards the NFL. With running back Damarea Crockett sidelined with an ankle injury once again, sophomore Larry Rountree III racked up 204 yards on the ground (second most in Liberty Bowl history) and a touchdown, and Johnson stepped up when it mattered after top wideout Emanuel Hall was sidelined for much of the game.
None of that, though, could overcome Missouri’s struggles on the defensive side of the ball Monday. Cowboys quarterback Taylor Cornelius thrashed the Tigers’ secondary, passing for 336 yards and four touchdowns, finding open receivers seemingly at will all afternoon.
The same things that had turned Missouri’s defense into a force over the second half of the season – third-down stops, turnovers, an effective pass rush — just weren’t there Monday, and it snake-bit the Tigers from start to finish.
“At the end of it, defensively, you want to win third-down percentage, turnovers and points, of course,” Odom said. “And we didn’t do well enough in those areas.”
Oklahoma State drew first blood Monday afternoon. After Missouri went three-and-out on its opening drive, the Cowboys marched down the field for an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive culminating in a 30-yard touchdown reception by wideout Dillon Stoner. Five minutes and 33 seconds into the contest, Oklahoma State led 7-0.
The Tigers struck back quickly.
On the second play of the ensuing Missouri drive, Cowboys cornerback Rodarious Williams was disqualified for targeting after he delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on Tigers running back Tyler Badie. On the next play, Lock immediately picked on Williams’ replacement in the secondary and uncorked a picturesque 58-yard pass to Emanuel Hall to take the Tigers all the way down to the Oklahoma State 6-yard line. When Lock and Co. failed to get into the end zone, junior kicker Tucker McCann got Missouri on the board with a 24-yard field goal.
Both offenses erupted in the second quarter, trading scores on three consecutive possessions, and Missouri headed into the locker room with the lead. Touchdown receptions by Tigers freshman receiver Dominic Gicinto and, later, tight end Kendall Blanton — with an Oklahoma State score from Cornelius to Tyron Johnson in between — left Missouri ahead 16-14 at the break.
But the third quarter came next, and it sunk the Tigers, who failed to claim a bowl victory for a second straight season. Oklahoma State scored on each of its first three possessions in the second half, one following a fumble by Missouri wideout Jalen Knox, and led 35-16 by the time the fourth quarter began. As the teams switched sides of the field, things looked bleak for the Tigers.
Then everything flipped.
Hilton, the senior safety, kicked off the fourth quarter with an interception deep inside Missouri territory. One play later, Lock connected with Johnson for an 85-yard touchdown play. The 19-second sequence breathed life into Missouri's waning hopes.
Then Hilton did it again. On the next Oklahoma State possession, Cornelius evaded Missouri pass rushers and rolled out of the pocket, only to throw another interception to the defensive back from St. Louis in the right corner of the end zone.
“He (Cornelius) just threw them up there,” Hilton said. “And I’m a playmaker so I went and got them.”
Rountree drew the Tigers within two points 28 seconds later with a 55-yard touchdown run, bringing the score to 35-33.
All together, Missouri picked up 14 points in 2:51 and clawed its way back in the contest.
In the end, though, the comeback came up short — inches short.
Down five points and faced with a crucial fourth-and-one at Oklahoma State’s 9-yard line with 1:05 left on the game clock, the Tigers called a read-option play for Lock and Rountree. The 6-foot-4 quarterback, who finished with 30 yards on the ground, kept it for himself. But when Cowboys' safety Kolby Peel dragged him down near the right sideline, Lock was shy of the first-down marker.
He’d come up short. Missouri turned the ball over on downs. The game, and this 2018 season, was over.
“I had the option to pull it or give it — whichever one I wanted,” Lock said. “I felt the guy I knew was going to be on me take one or two steps over the top and … I pulled it.”
As this season inched itself toward the finish line over the past six weeks, Lock and his senior class have been much-discussed for the way they altered the culture of the program over the past four years.
In Columbia, those 19 seniors experienced turmoil — a coaching change, campus protests in 2015 and a whole lot of losing — but together, alongside their third-year head coach, they succeeded in reshaping and revamping a program.
The seniors will leave this place better than they found it.
“(When we got here) there were some cats in there you didn’t want to be in the locker room with. There was a lot of negativity,” linebacker Terez Hall said. “The seniors helped flip it. We drilled the right things into this team.”
“They’ve meant a lot to this place,” Odom said. “I appreciate the work that they’ve done ... This is a group that’s going to go out and make our world a better place and I’m grateful for that.”
Ultimately, this group did not reach its chief goal in 2018: They’d hoped to finally secure that bowl victory.
But as Lock, Adams, Hall, Terry Beckner Jr. and the rest of the senior class prepares now to leave Columbia and embark on their futures, it’s clear that a win in Memphis wouldn't have changed the important things.
“I look over and I see guys that I’ve been with four or five years,” Adams, the right tackle, said. “When I see that clock at triple-zero, I realized that I’m never going to be in a Mizzou jersey with them ever again. It’s kind of getting me emotional right now just thinking about it, really. It’s crazy just because the things that we do behind closed doors, all the work you put in for this right here … I probably would have still been emotional if we won.”
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.