Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Last November, the Missouri football team defeated Kentucky at home by scoring just 20 points, a total coach Gary Pinkel said afterward made him uncomfortable.
He appears to be used to it now.
Missouri defeated Connecticut on Saturday with a score more worthy of a high-scoring baseball contest, 9-6. But after a season and change of winning games with a defense-first mentality, Pinkel appeared nonplussed.
“There were many, many years around here where we were winning games 48-43,” he said. “We were just the opposite (then), where your offense was very potent, and defensively we were constantly trying to get better. I think also you’ve got to give credit to my football team for having the guts and the determination to battle when things get tough and do the things necessary to win.”
Barely. The Huskies attempted a fake field goal from the Missouri 25 with 53 seconds to play, but holder/backup quarterback Tim Boyle’s throw to tight end Alec Bloom was intercepted by Tigers safety Anthony Sherrils and returned 50 yards to secure the win.
In doing so, the Tigers avoided entering Southeastern Conference play for the second straight year on the heels of a non-conference upset at home.
It was the first career interception for Sherrils, who also forced and a recovered a fumble in the second quarter.
“Every week is a week that I look to make plays,” Sherrils said. “Sometimes I have them. Sometimes they come my way. Sometimes they don’t. This week it was my week, I guess.”
The Tigers were wary of a fake from Connecticut, which had successfully faked a punt earlier and badly missed its only field goal attempt, a 49-yarder. The Tigers also blocked a Connecticut punt in the first quarter for a safety and blocked the Huskies’ only extra-point attempt of the game.
“I mean, we were anticipating it,” Sherrils said of the fake field goal. “We backed up off the line to get a good view on it. The tight end released, and I knew it was a fake.”
The blocked punt opened the games scoring on Connecticut’s second drive of the day. Linebackers Clarence Green and Brandon Lee were the only Tigers to pressure the Huskies’ punt from their own 8-yard line, but Green got a hand on the ball. Green chased the ball down and nearly corralled it for a touchdown, but it bounced out of the back of the end zone to save Connecticut five points.
“I saw the punter on my tail, so I just tried to dive at it,” Green said. “It just felt good to put points on the board, really.”
Points were not easy to come by for either team. Missouri’s eight first-half drives resulted in five punts, an interception and a missed field goal. The interception set up Connecticut’s only points of the game, which came on a 6-yard run by Ron Johnson to cap a five-play, 35-yard drive.
Mauk stared down his receiver on the throw and gave cornerback Jhavon Williams plenty of time to step in front of tight end Sean Culkin.
“I came off the field, and yeah, I was (ticked) off,” Mauk said. “… I just put it up for Sean to go get, and I didn’t even see the guy, so that’s a mistake that I can’t make. I really have to know what they’re doing defensively, and they got me.”
Linebacker Kentrell Brothers blocked the extra point on the ensuing touchdown, but the Huskies held a 6-2 advantage going into halftime.
The Huskies came out of halftime with their longest drive of the game, a nine-play, 43-yard effort that ended in a missed field goal. The Tigers responded with their own best drive. Missouri converted on three third downs before Mauk took a fourth-and-goal speed option into the end zone from the 2-yard line.
“We made the adjustments in here at halftime,” Mauk said. “… The second half is what it’s going to come down to, and we finish football games, and we had a couple guys make some plays and that’s all you need. You win by three or 60, it’s a win. It’s ugly, but we came out with a win.”
Tailback Ish Witter ran for 32 yards and added 20 more on a reception during the Tigers’ lone scoring drive. Witter made his first career start in place of Russell Hansbrough, who was out with a sprained ankle. Witter finished with 54 yards on 17 carries.
“It definitely feels good playing at the college level, and coming out to start,” Witter said. “But (we have to) just come out to get better every week.”
Missouri looked to continue its offensive success on the Tigers’ next drive, which Tyler Hunt kickstarted with a catch-and-run for 51 yards. Hunt bulldozed one tackler and immediately spun through a sea of Huskies on the play before getting dragged down at the Connecticut 5-yard line.
“Tyler’s a playmaker, man,” Witter said. “He always makes plays. You put the ball in his hands, he’s going to do something with it. It was a real good play, definitely. He made something out of nothing.”
It was a wasted effort, however, as Missouri turned the ball over on downs four short rushes later, ending with a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in which Witter got stuffed for a loss of a yard.
Missouri’s offense managed just 270 yards total and only 85 on the ground. Mauk threw for 145 yards on 14-of-22 passing and drew boos from the Faurot Field crowd at times.
“It’s whatever, honestly,” Mauk said of the crowd. “If that’s how they feel then that’s how they feel. I’m not going to worry about them. That’s why they’re up in the stands and I’m down on the field.”
Freshman backup quarterback Drew Lock saw the field during his typical scheduled drive to start the second quarter, which ended in a missed 40-yard field goal attempt from Andrew Baggett. Lock got a second shot on Missouri’s last true drive of the game. He led the offense into Connecticut territory, connecting on two short passes and drawing a pass interference penalty. The drive stalled, however, with three incompletions from Lock and a turnover on downs.
“A little immaturity came out of me,” Lock said. “And I started taking shots towards the end zone, I think to maybe kind of be the hero. I mean, it’s good that I actually take (a step) back and can actually notice that now, not just be stubborn about it. I should have taken some underneath routes to get a first down and move the chains.”
Lock finished the game 6-of-9 for 40 yards. Missouri recorded fewer than 300 yards of total offense for the second straight week. However, the Tigers held Connecticut to 233 yards of total offense. Teams are averaging just 217 yards per game against Missouri.
“It’s something that we’re used to, something that we actually take pride in, knowing that we’re the key to the success,” defensive end Charles Harris said. “I mean, defense always wins games. Everyone knows that. That’s something that we pride ourselves on.”
Connecticut extended a drive twice in the second quarter in punting scenarios: punter Justin Wain ran for 13 yards on a fake, and when he did punt, the ball hit Missouri safety Tavon Ross’ toe and was recovered by Connecticut. The Huskies turned the ball over on downs four plays later when Donavin Newsom broke up a pass that likely would have resulted in a touchdown.
Missouri won by scoring fewer than 10 points for the first time since 1978, according to team historian Tom Orf. That was a 3-0 win against Notre Dame.
Connecticut falls to 2-1. Missouri (3-0) begins SEC play Saturday at Kentucky.