Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Missouri football fans tune into the Tigers’ first Southeastern Conference game of the year, they’ll likely do so with two frustrating losses in mind.
One was a week ago, when the Tigers were upset at home by Indiana for their first loss of the season.
Another was a year ago, when South Carolina overcame a 17-point deficit to hand Missouri its only regular-season loss of 2013 — on Homecoming, no less.
But the Tigers say the only game on their mind when they face the No. 13 Gamecocks today (6 p.m., ESPN) will be the one they’re playing in.
Not last week’s game — “We can’t let Indiana beat us twice,” center Evan Boehm said — and not the heartbreaking 2013 loss to South Carolina. The latter ended in overtime on a missed 24-yard field goal against the only SEC East team Missouri hasn’t beaten since joining the conference.
“We actually kind of let that go last year the game after,” co-captain Bud Sasser said. “There’s not too much you can really do about it, especially a year later. We’re definitely not thinking about it. It’s in people’s minds, of course, but that’s not something we can just go out there and hang our heads on.”
Even if it’s in the past, the Tigers will need to prove they’re not the team that fell 31-27 to an Indiana squad coming off a loss to Bowling Green. A repeat Missouri performance will not fare well against a South Carolina team that two weeks ago took down the No. 6 team in the nation, divisional foe Georgia.
The Gamecocks are no strangers to bouncing back from a tough loss. After receiving a 24-point shellacking at the hands of No. 21 Texas A&M to open the season, South Carolina has rattled off wins against East Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt.
Yet South Carolina is far from a model of consistency. A slow start against the 1-3 Commodores last week could provide some hope for Missouri, now unranked for the first time this year.
Senior quarterback Dylan Thompson heads the Gamecocks. In last year’s game against Missouri, Thompson threw for 222 yards and an interception before being pulled in the third quarter for Connor Shaw, who, while battling a sprained knee and a stomach virus, threw for three TDs. With Shaw graduated, Thompson ranks 12th in the country this year with 1,140 passing yards and ninth with 11 passing TDs.
Running back Mike Davis, who finished fourth in the SEC last season with 1,183 rushing yards, returns for the Gamecocks, though his yards-per-carry average is down to 4.6.
Missouri gave up 241 yards on the ground to Indiana last week and has been burned by a run of 45 yards or longer by every opponent except Central Florida.
“They’ve got a good run game. They’re good up front,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said of South Carolina. “And so we’re certainly going to be challenged there. We’ve given up some big plays, and that’s really hurt our defense.”
The Tigers enter today’s game with a reshuffled offensive line after losing left guard Anthony Gatti for the season to an ACL tear against Indiana. Brad McNulty comes off the bench to replace Gatti, Taylor Chappell will step into right tackle, and Connor McGovern moves to right guard.
Missouri’s offensive line struggled mightily against Indiana, but the Tigers have some experience to rely on. McNulty logged playing time in 2012, Chappell filled in at guard during the preseason when McGovern was hurt, and McGovern has played guard in the past.
Still, the offensive line has something to prove.
“Not a single one of us played well (against Indiana),” McGovern said.
Missouri will also take the field without senior receiver Darius White, who has accounted for 230 yards and three touchdowns through four games. White is out with a strained groin.
“Yeah, it hurts a little bit, but I know Wesley (Leftwich) and J’Mon (Moore) are right there, and they’ve been working, too,” quarterback Maty Mauk said. “So we’ve just got to get them in there and get some reps this week, and they’ll be ready to go.”
The loss to the uptempo Hoosiers was quite a surprise for Missouri, which had cruised to fairly easy wins against South Dakota State, Toledo and Central Florida.
“Nobody likes to lose, and half the teams in the country lose every week,” Pinkel said.
Yet, the team believes it has responded appropriately.
“It was really different than I expected,” senior tailback Marcus Murphy said of the days following the loss. “I expected some guys to be down about the loss, but everybody, they had high enthusiasm at practice. They were ready just to let it go and go ahead and get it with South Carolina.”
The game marks Missouri’s first conference game of the year after reaching the conference championship in 2013. Missouri and Tennessee are the only two teams in the SEC to not have played a conference game so far.
“We understand we’re in the SEC now,” Pinkel said. “It’s great. It’s a great opportunity. Great league. Remarkably competitive.
“If you’re a competitor, you love it. I love it. So here we go.”