NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tigers, even after three quarters of less-than-desirable play, had more than a chance Saturday heading into the final quarter. They had a tie game.
Missouri didn’t have to worry about playing from behind, which opened the playbook. The Tigers could run, pass or finish out the game with whatever kind of creativity they wanted.
No harm, no foul with three quarters of lethargic offensive football. As long as someone stepped up in the fourth quarter.
But no one did.
There was no one to whom the Tigers could turn to serve as a catalyst for an offense that needed a spark.
Missouri has not needed one that often this season. Outside of the loss to Wyoming, the Tigers have seldom experienced close games. The kind of games where they needed someone on offense to take over a game.
The Vanderbilt game provided that opportunity. No one emerged, clearly.
Not quarterback Kelly Bryant. Over the two series in the fourth quarter, he completed 2 of 4 passes for 20 yards. On Missouri’s final two offensive plays of the game, Bryant was tackled for a 3-yard loss, then sacked. He also threw an interception in the third quarter.
Not running backs Larry Rountree III or Tyler Badie. The former managed nine yards on three carries on his sole drive of the fourth quarter. The latter gained three yards on his sole carry during the Tigers’ final drive.
Not tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. He didn’t complete a catch after the first half, although he played through a hit that made trainers check out his left leg before Okwuegbunam later returned.
Not any of the receivers. Not the offensive line. No one found a way to take over the game in a prime opportunity.
Football is a team game that requires all 11 players to work together for something like a catch or a long run to work, so one of these players not stepping up and seizing the moment is not solely their fault. A receiver, for example, needs Bryant to throw them the ball and for the offensive line to block well enough for Bryant to make a throw.
The blame doesn’t fall on one player for not stepping up, as they also need play calls from the coaching staff to work in their favor to provide the opportunity to rise to the occasion.
But great players often find ways to overcome extenuating circumstances and break open a game. Great players can come through for a team even when the blocking isn’t perfect or receivers can’t get open.
There’s no doubt the Tigers have plenty of good players on offense. They proved as much through a five-game win streak at home prior to Saturday’s game.
But Saturday, none of Missouri’s offensive players took over in a final quarter prime for a breakthrough.
The few times this season in which a Missouri game came down to the final few drives revealed that it’s still unclear who is or can be the offensive catalyst for the Tigers when they need one most.
Here are some other things we learned in Missouri’s loss to Vanderbilt:
Linebacker by committee approach put on hold
Missouri coach Barry Odom said after the Homecoming game that the Tigers would use a linebacker by committee approach to fill in the hole the injured Cale Garrett has left in the starting lineup.
That was the case in the game against Ole Miss when Cameron Wilkins and Jamal Brooks split time at middle linebacker. Brooks played in three series and Wilkins had the rest.
This time-share approach was not used against Vanderbilt, though. Whenever the defense stepped on the field for the start of a series Saturday, Wilkins lined up at middle linebacker.
Whether they stick with Wilkins, a sophomore, at this spot remains to be seen. The Tigers didn’t beat a previously one-win Commodores team, so there could be some shuffling in starting lineups against Kentucky.
Wilkins could still remain in that spot, though. He finished with eight total tackles as the starter.
His best moment came when he read quarterback Riley Neal’s eyes, stepped in front of the route and picked off the ball. The interception and return from the speedy Wilkins set Missouri up for its second and last touchdown of the day.
Wilkins also put together a good rep when he knifed through the line of scrimmage to make a tackle in the backfield.
Wilkins made mistakes as well, as is expected for a young linebacker who hasn’t started much. But he looked more comfortable than he did in his first start against Ole Miss the week before.
Wilkins has a long way to go before he can contribute like Garrett did, but he has the athleticism and ability to play at a high level. At the very least, despite some bad moments, Wilkins has shown he has potential.
If he can put more good than bad reps together, Wilkins may keep the linebacker-by-committee approach a thing of the past.
Rock Bridge alum first safety off the bench in time of need
When Tyree Gillespie was ejected late in the third for targeting, true freshman Martez Manuel entered the game in his place.
It was the first time in a time of need that the Tigers turned to Manuel on defense. He has logged defensive snaps before, but those came primarily in games with comfortable leads.
He finished the game with one total tackle. His most notable moment came when he whiffed trying to make the tackle on the game-winning touchdown.
Gillespie has to sit out the first half of the Kentucky game, and Manuel could very well start in his place if Saturday is any indication of how the coaching staff feels about its safeties.