All season, Barry Odom has implored fans to pack Memorial Stadium. On a Saturday that saw division rivals Georgia and Florida lose, presenting a chance for Missouri to be both ranked and alone in first place in the SEC East, Odom got his wish.
The Tigers’ Homecoming game was announced as a sellout. The fans showed up.
So did the Tigers.
Missouri defeated Ole Miss 38-27 on Homecoming Weekend to stay atop the SEC East standings.
“The energy (the fans) brought tonight, it just meant a lot,” quarterback Kelly Bryant said.
The start of the night, though, was anything but ideal for the Tigers. After the Missouri defense forced a three-and-out, receiver Johnathon Johnson, filling in for injured returner Richaud Floyd, muffed a punt that set up Mississippi inside the 30-yard line. It led to a touchdown; and for the second straight game, Missouri found itself trailing 7-0.
It took some time to respond. Tucker McCann first cut into the lead with a 31-yard field goal. Trailing 7-3 at the end of the first quarter, Missouri began the second well into Ole Miss territory. A key Johnson reception on third-and-11 kept the drive alive. Then Missouri got a little weird. Left tackle Yasir Durant lined up as a slot receiver and seldom-used tight end Logan Christopherson lined up at Durant’s position. The 330-pound decoy worked, as Bryant found running back Tyler Badie on a screen that went for 17 yards and a touchdown. More importantly, it gave Missouri a 9-7 lead after McCann doinked the extra point off the right upright.
“If I was to catch a pass (on the play),” Durant said, “I was going to score.”
The touchdown drive was set up because MU defensive end Jatorian Hansford pounced on a fumble by Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. Before the turnover, Mississippi had been on the cusp of field goal range, with a chance to extend the lead. It was the first of two key plays in the first half.
“I knew it was going to be a game-changer,” Hansford said about the fumble recovery.
It was still a tense affair after the first two quarters. Ole Miss was driving downfield and reached the one on third down. On the next two plays, Missouri’s defense stuffed Ole Miss’ running back Snoop Conner just short of the goal line. On the fourth down stop? None other than linebacker Cameron Wilkins, who started in place of injured standout Cale Garrett, along with defensive end Tre Williams and safety Tyree Gillespie. The stop kept Missouri up 12-7, and gave the Tigers momentum going into the second half.
“It always energizes the whole team, seeing big plays... stopping the other team from scoring,” Gillespie said.
Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke acknowledged the importance of Missouri’s goal line stand.
“It had a huge effect on the game,” Luke said. “When you’re on the road, you have got to find a way to punch it in from one yard out.”
They used that momentum well. After an out-of-bounds kickoff gave Missouri excellent field position, running back Larry Rountree III capped off a quick drive with a 41-yard touchdown run that extended the lead to 18-7. McCann missed another extra point.
The coup de grace came with just over five minutes left in the third quarter. With Missouri leading 21-7, running back Dawson Downing, who began his career as a walk-on, busted a 54-yard touchdown run, finishing with an impressive stretch to get the ball over the goal line. It was the first score of his career. In just under seven minutes, a five-point lead had turned into a three-possession game.
“Everyone was on top of me, I had no idea what was going on,” Dawson said after the game.
The unsung heroes of that stretch were the defense. The unit kept Ole Miss off the board for nearly two quarters. But even as the Rebels finally scored a touchdown to make it 28-14, the Missouri offense was rolling. The Mississippi score was immediately followed by a quick drive for Missouri, making it a 21-point lead again.
Missouri’s defense had the peculiar task of having to deal with two quarterbacks. Ole Miss used true freshman Plumlee and redshirt freshman Matt Corral interchangeably in the second half. Plumlee, predominantly a runner, carried the ball 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns. When Mississippi needed to throw, it went with Corral. A late scare for Missouri came in the fourth quarter after a Bryant interception that set up Ole Miss near midfield, the score 35-21. Corral just missed a wide-open Elijah Moore on 4th down. Had Corral completed it, Moore would have scored. Instead it was a turnover on downs, and it allowed Missouri to make it a three-possession game again.
“It’s just all about studying,” Hansford said about preparing for two different quarterbacks.
A long Plumlee touchdown run on the next drive wasn’t enough for an Ole Miss comeback.
Missouri finished with 562 yards on offense, 233 on the ground and 329 through the air. The Bryant-helmed offense kept its foot on the gas to keep Ole Miss at arms length.
“Whatever happens, we have to go out there and score points,” Rountree said about responding to Ole Miss’ late scores. “If they score 50, we have to score 55.”
For Missouri, the win was neither an upset nor a blowout. But it was an important win, nonetheless, because the Tigers did what they were supposed to and won by a comfortable enough margin. It’s a win that caps off a perfect 5-0 homestand, and brings Missouri to 2-0 in the SEC.
Most importantly, the win puts Missouri firmly atop the SEC East. If this continues, fans might have no choice but to keep showing up.