NASHVILLE, Tenn. – If the joy experienced post-Homecoming felt too good to be true, it was.
The joy Missouri fans had knowing their team had just won every single game of a five-game home stand. Joy knowing the Tigers had played their way into a Top 25 ranking in the AP poll. The joy and pure jubilee in knowing that the Tigers, who looked in trouble after dropping the season opener to Wyoming, sat atop the SEC East.
That maybe, just maybe, this Barry Odom-led team was different. It might actually contend for a title and not lose games it shouldn’t.
So much for that.
A week after a high point in the season, Missouri slid back down to reality as the No. 22-ranked Tigers dropped a 21-14 loss to Vanderbilt.
“It’s hard to believe for us, yes,” linebacker Nick Bolton said. “But in the SEC, anybody can beat anybody. We didn’t come out here and play our best football. That’s the result that happens when you don’t play your best.”
But it’s not just any SEC team. Prior to Saturday, that was one-win Vanderbilt. Now, it’s two-win Vanderbilt, thanks in large part to a poor game from Missouri in all facets.
The offense couldn’t move the ball consistently.
The defense failed to finish.
Special teams even struggled.
And the Tigers racked up 12 penalties for 120 yards.
“I think we got out-coached and we got out-executed for the entire four quarters,” Odom said.
The Tigers didn’t give up nearly as many spirit-crushing plays against Vanderbilt, nor make as many offensive mistakes, as they did against Wyoming back on Aug. 31. Few things went terribly wrong for Missouri, but few things went terribly well either.
The Tigers prevented the Commodores from gaining a first down until about halfway into the first quarter. But Missouri, which has scored at least 31 points in each of its games this season, couldn’t seem to do much on offense, either. The Tigers went three-and-out in three of their seven offensive drives in the first half.
Missouri ended up finishing the game with 293 yards on offense, the first output of under 300 yards for the team this season.
“We knew what they were going to do,” running back Larry Rountree III said. “We were prepared. It just came to who wanted it more. No scheme or nothing. We knew exactly what they were going to do. They just wanted it more.”
The same appeared to be the case on offense for Vanderbilt. Despite the lack of success early on, the Commodores continued to press and the perseverance paid off.
Tucker McCann missed a field goal in the first quarter, then Vanderbilt started to find success on offense. A 21-yard run from quarterback Mo Hasan set up Ke’Shawn Vaughn for a 1-yard touchdown, scoring the first points of the game and giving Vanderbilt a 7-0 lead.
The Tigers responded on the next drive with an Albert Okwuegbunam touchdown in the back of the end zone, but that was the best moment the Tigers had for the rest of the half.
The two offenses returned to their sputtering ways on the next two drives. Vanderbilt, however, didn’t stay dormant for long.
With about two minutes left in the first half, on the first play of a Vanderbilt drive, several Missouri defenders bit hard on a screen pass. Sixty-one yards later, Vaughn arrived in the end zone to give the Commodores a 14-7 lead.
Missouri couldn’t respond in the final drive of the first half or the first drive of the second half. On the first drive of the third quarter, Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant almost threw an interception along the sideline.
One drive later, he actually threw one.
Bryant tried to hit Okwuegbunam in the end zone in double coverage, but defensive back Allan George emerged with the ball.
“That was a bad read by me,” Bryant said. “Simple as that. Shouldn’t have forced it and just checked it down. You’ve just got to live and learn.”
Still, the game was far from over for the Tigers. At least not yet, not in the third quarter. Especially after two plays that could have changed the game.
Hasan had to leave the game after a hit to the head from Missouri safety Tyree Gillespie. The hit, which happened when Hasan went into a slide, earned Gillespie a targeting call and an ejection.
Riley Neal replaced Hasan, and he couldn’t have asked for a worse start. Missouri linebacker Cameron Wilkins picked off Neal’s first pass and returned it to the Vanderbilt six-yard line. The Tigers scored on the next play, and tied the game with a Rountree rushing touchdown late in the third quarter.
“That pick was the turning point,” defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside said. “We just had penalties, and we weren’t doing the little things.”
Missouri’s defense, despite a strong start, couldn’t finish out the game. A touchdown pass from Neal to Cam Johnson for 21 yards gave Vanderbilt the 21-14 lead.
“Their team was playing so much man,” Commodores coach Derek Mason said. “We thought that we could possibly get this group in man coverage and if they got in zone, we knew we had an opportunity.”
But the game wasn’t over. Missouri still had a chance. The Tigers looked to be in a prime position to respond as it moved down the field on the next drive, helped by multiple Vanderbilt penalties. But the Tigers offense sputtered again in Commodores territory, and McCann missed his second field goal attempt of the game.
In a game in which penalties reared their heads early and often, two capped off the game. Both were offsides calls on defensive tackle Jordan Elliott. Those penalties, alongside a defense that couldn’t get stops on the final drive, helped Vanderbilt turn in an 11-play, 6-minute drive to close out the game.
“We just didn’t have the energy, I feel like,” Whiteside said. “We should have had more energy on the field. It’s a lot of things we could have done to prevent this from happening.”
And now, Missouri has to figure out where it goes next. The season is far from over, and the Tigers still control their own destiny. If they win out, they can still win the SEC East.
But first, they will have to figure out how to win a road game.
“We’ve just got to find our identity,” cornerback DeMarkus Acy said.
It seemed found only a week ago, when there was no shortage of joy around the Missouri football program.
Ill-advised joy, apparently.