Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — When his Missouri Tigers wrapped up their regular season finale Friday against Arkansas, Gary Pinkel remarked that, unfortunately for him, Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema will do a great job in Fayetteville.
“That’s all we need is another great team in the SEC, right?” Pinkel said. “That’s all we need.”
Missouri’s 14-year coach missed the irony. The same could be said for his team.
With a 21-14 defeat of Arkansas, Missouri, in just its third year as a Southeastern Conference member, clinched its second straight SEC East Division championship. The Tigers face either Alabama or Mississippi State in the SEC Championship game on Dec. 6 in Atlanta.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said Markus Golden, one of 21 seniors honored on Missouri’s senior day. “It doesn’t. It’s a great feeling.”
No. 17 Missouri rallied to score 15 points in the fourth quarter and held Arkansas scoreless in the second half.
Arkansas jumped out to a 14-3 lead with Brandon Allen touchdown passes to Jonathan Williams and Keon Hatcher. Williams’ score capped an 11-play, 70-yard drive, and Hatcher’s came on a drive that began at Missouri’s 31-yard line after a long punt return.
Missouri’s only first-half offense came off the foot of Andrew Baggett, who a week ago missed two extra points and a 51-yard field goal in Tennessee. The junior bounced back with field goals of 52 and 50 yards, becoming the first Missouri kicker to boot two from 50-plus yards in one game.
“I was so proud of the guy for him to come back and do what he did,” offensive tackle Mitch Morse said. “He definitely had a rough last week. And I don’t think he looked at Twitter, which was a good thing. … He rededicated himself to his technique and it showed.”
Baggett’s second successful kick, the 50-yarder, sailed through the uprights after Bielema called a timeout to “ice” Baggett’s first attempt, which went wide left.
“You take the risk of calling a timeout to ice the kicker, and so if I do miss, I get a free look,” said Baggett, who said he knew the missed kick wouldn’t count. “So, (I) just aimed a little more right. Right down the middle.”
The Missouri offense struggled otherwise in the first half, accounting for just 121 yards on 39 plays. The Tigers’ receivers had multiple drops. Senior Jimmie Hunt was the biggest culprit with three.
Hunt, who had a long touchdown reception against Tennessee but also some drops, made up for it in the second half. On a gutsy third-and-7 call, quarterback Maty Mauk went back to Hunt on a deep seam route, and the two connected for a 44-yard gain on the first play of the fourth quarter. Six plays and 37 yards later, Mauk found Hunt on a corner route for Missouri’s first touchdown of the day.
“All we need is one big play to get us going,” Hunt said. “Just one big play. During the whole first half and some of the third quarter, we were just shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit — making the drops, some of the linemen weren’t staying on their defender and (the Razorbacks) were getting some blocked knockdowns — so we just all came together and rallied together and made sure we stayed focused with the main goal of one play at a time.”
The switch had been flipped for the Missouri offense, but the Tigers still needed a 2-point conversion to tie Arkansas at 14. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson broke out a trick play for the occasion.
Mauk approached the offensive line, feigning an audible call. The ball was then snapped directly to tailback Marcus Murphy, who proceeded to pitch the ball to receiver Bud Sasser on an end-around. Sasser then reared back and threw the ball past Mauk, who was now running a route, to Darius White in the corner of the end zone.
“I keep telling them to put me at quarterback,” said Sasser, who had nine catches for 127 yards. “That was just a great playcall, and honestly, when we’ve worked on it, I normally hit Maty, but I was just able to see Darius back there, and I felt more comfortable throwing it to Darius.”
The pass was the second of Sasser’s Missouri career. The first was a 40-yard touchdown pass to seal a road defeat of No. 7 Georgia in 2013.
Missouri forced an Arkansas punt and got the ball back with a chance to take the lead. The Tigers began the drive with 56 rushing yards on the day. They ended it with 90 more and a 21-14 lead.
Missouri ran on 10 of 11 plays on the six-minute drive, which was its second consecutive scoring drive of 85 or more yards. The Arkansas defense had not allowed a touchdown to any opponent in its previous 11 quarters.
Murphy ended the drive with a spinning 12-yard score. He said he kept thinking of Henry Josey’s 57-yard touchdown run on Missouri’s previous senior day, which also resulted in a win that sent the Tigers to Atlanta.
“We set the line,” Murphy said of the scoring drive. “We said, ‘We’re going to come out and give our all. We’re going to leave it all on the field. We’re going to do it for the seniors. We’re going to do it for the SEC East championship.’ And I think we finally just took a total of all of that and just put it all on the line, and it started working.”
With the lead in hand for the first time, Missouri just needed a defensive stop to secure a division championship. Arkansas drove for 40 yards, surviving two fourth downs, but its day came to an abrupt end on an Alex Collins fumble.
The play was ruled down on the field, but Missouri’s Golden ended up with the ball, forced loose by linebacker Kentrell Brothers, and told Pinkel it was a turnover. Arkansas called a timeout, and it proved costly when the officials decided the play should be reviewed. The call on the field was overturned, and Missouri ran out the clock for its 10th win of the year.
“I knew the whole time it was a fumble,” Golden said. “… I’m just glad coach Pinkel listened to me. He went out there and looked at it, and it was a fumble, and we won the game because of it.”