GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Back when Gary Pinkel was Missouri’s head football coach, he had a saying that always seemed to come up this time of year.
Like many things — players, coaches and losing streaks to ranked opponents — Pinkel’s adage has carried over into the Barry Odom era. And as many of Odom’s players walked off the field on Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after Missouri’s 38-17 win over No. 13 Florida, it was ringing in their heads.
“Those who win in November,” Pinkel used to say, “are the ones who get remembered.”
Odom’s teams, in fact, have done that over his three years at the helm. The Tigers now hold a 7-2 record in the month of November since the 41-year-old head coach took over in 2016. But Saturday night’s win held greater significance than any of those other late-fall victories from the past.
This win meant more because of how much the last loss hurt.
A week ago Saturday, Missouri was handed a last-second defeat by the Kentucky Wildcats. Odom described that loss as “devastating” and said it ranked up there with the worst he’d ever faced.
The players, no strangers to tough losses in 2018, had never looked more dejected; and in the week since it happened, they were faced with the question of how, or even if, they would bounce back. The Tigers provided the answer Saturday night at “The Swamp,” delivering Missouri its first win over a ranked opponent in nearly five seasons.
“It feels really good. It’s kind of hard to put into words,” senior quarterback Drew Lock said. “After a loss like (Kentucky), there’s just no way you can go in and lose (another) game. There’s no way I could feel any worse than I did that Saturday. We weren’t going to let that happen this week.”
The Tigers didn’t merely bounce back Saturday afternoon. They manhandled No. 13 Florida (6-3, 4-3 SEC) 38-17 in front of the Gators’ Homecoming crowd. Lock broke out of his conference-play funk, tossing 250 yards and three touchdowns. Running backs Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III combined for 186 yards on the ground behind a Missouri offensive line that has seldom looked better. And the defense, for a second consecutive week, delivered a powerful performance, limiting the Gators to just 323 yards of total offense.
It was the Tigers’ first conference win of the season, and their first victory over an AP Top 25 team since they beat No. 25 Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl after the 2014 season. But really, it was so much more.
On Saturday, Odom finally got his signature victory. So did Lock. And after many, many tries this fall, having come so close against Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky, so did the rest of the Tigers.
After a sluggish start, which saw Missouri (5-4, 1-4) pick up only 20 yards over nine plays on the first two drives of the game, the Tigers kicked it into overdrive. Faced with defending a short field following a poor punt from Corey Fatony at the midway mark of the first quarter, Missouri’s defense stepped up in the red zone and limited the Gators to a field goal. That 3-0 score was the only lead Florida held all day.
On the ensuing possession, Rountree broke free for a 27-yard touchdown, his ninth of the season, to get the Tigers on the board. Two drives later, Lock hit Albert Okwuegbunam over the middle for a 22-yard touchdown on third-and-10.
The return of Emanuel Hall provided the spark for Missouri’s offense Saturday. The senior wideout played for the first time since Sept. 22 following a nagging groin injury and a death in the family, and he did so in a big way, finishing with four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. The mere presence of the 6-foot-3 senior seemed to open things up for a Tiger offense that failed to register a single first down in the second half a week ago.
“That’s exactly what he does,” right tackle Paul Adams said.
Missouri and Florida exchanged touchdowns in the final six minutes of the first half. The Tigers got theirs courtesy of a four-yard run by Crockett, and the Gators scored on a 3-yard scamper by quarterback Feleipe Franks. The score sat at 21-10 when both sides headed to the locker room.
The same Missouri defense that smothered Kentucky a week ago made the trip to Gainesville, too, as the Tigers stymied Florida’s offense for much of the first half. Missouri threw it all at Franks, limiting the redshirt freshman to 79 first-half passing yards. Franks struggled all day, and he was replaced by redshirt sophomore Kyle Trask in the third quarter as boos rained down from the announced crowd of 80,017.
Led once again by linebacker Cale Garrett, who finished with 12 tackles, the Tigers were ferocious defensively, hurrying Gators signal callers seven times while breaking up three passes in the secondary.
“We’re all bought in right now,” linebacker Terez Hall said. “I don’t care what the coach calls; he could put us in a prevent defense on a third-and-1. The way we’re believing, we’re going to stop them anyway.”
Finishing games has been an issue for the Tigers in 2018. In its contests against Purdue, South Carolina and Kentucky, Missouri let second-half leads dwindle away. They lost two of those games. On Saturday, the Tigers held strong.
Kicking to the Gators out of the half, Missouri forced a 3-and-out that swiped back all the momentum Florida had gained in the closing minutes of the first half. On the following possession, Lock hit true freshman Kam Scott with a 41-yard strike to extend the lead. The passing TD tied the Missouri senior with Peyton Manning for third all-time on the Southeastern Conference passing touchdown list. He took sole possession of third place one drive later with a 4-yard scoring pass to Hall to put Missouri ahead 35-10.
The strong start to the half was part of a mindset for the Tigers. They wanted to set the tone out of the locker room; they weren’t letting this one slip away like the others.
“We knew it was still a game and that Florida is still a good team,” Terry Beckner Jr. said. “Can’t give up anything right there.”
After Trask, who finished with 126 yards and a touchdown, sparked a brief comeback effort late in the third quarter, Lock made the game’s most pivotal play. On a third-and-7 with the score at 35-17, the 6-foot-3 gunslinger rolled out of the pocket and charged for the first down. Eight yards and a crushing hit from a Florida defender later, the Tigers had a first down.
The play extended a 6:12 drive that effectively took the Gators out of the game. Odom said post-game it was a play that will be “ingrained in my mind” forever. Lock agreed, dubbing it his “favorite play that I’ve made in my college career.”
“I had to sell out and put the ball out there to get the first down,” Lock said. “Ribs don’t feel very good from it. Neck didn’t feel very good from it. But it was just one of those things where the competitive nature and just wanting to win so freaking bad took over.”
Lock’s third-down run signified everything he and his teammates were fighting for Saturday night. In a week where they had to prove everything and give just as much, they did just that.
For seniors such as Lock, Adams and left guard Kevin Pendleton, it felt like that big win was never going to come in their final season. After coming up short in previous games this year, each openly expressed frustration with having to continue “learning how to win.”
After each of those earlier losses, the idea of getting that signature win before their time at Missouri was done — the win that would get them remembered — seemed further and further out of reach.
Saturday was their last chance. And they finally got it done.
“It’s a hell of a feeling,” Pendleton said. “We should have done this a long time ago. It makes all of those bad times worth it when you get a win like this.”
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.