Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Saturday’s game between Missouri and South Carolina was the first in Southeastern Conference history in which both teams started true freshmen at quarterback.
Luckily for the Tigers, theirs didn’t show his age.
Drew Lock completed 21-of-28 passes and threw two touchdowns in his first start, while Gamecocks starter Lorenzo Nunez threw three third-quarter interceptions to sink South Carolina and help Missouri secure a 24-10 bounceback win.
The game’s only three turnovers came on consecutive drives by the Gamecocks, who actually outgained Missouri in the third quarter by 59 yards while being outscored 7-0. Cornerback Kenya Dennis had the first interception, safety Ian Simon the second and defensive end Walter Brady the third, all in a span of nine South Carolina snaps.
“We missed two (interceptions) in the first half and came out in the second half — then I saw Walter got one, so it must’ve been raining interceptions or something,” linebacker Kentrell Brothers said.
Offensively, Missouri (4-1) was bolstered by a season-high 163 rushing yards. Sophomore tailback Ish Witter set a career high with 98 of those. Witter’s third-quarter rushing touchdown from 1-yard out was the first by a Missouri tailback this season.
“It’s about time,” center Evan Boehm said. “And that’s what we need more of. We need more rushing touchdowns. We need Ish, we need Rus (Hansbrough), we need Tyler (Hunt), we need Chase (Abbington) hitting the holes and getting after it, but at the same time I’m proud of these guys. I’m proud of the offense.”
Missouri’s total output on offense was actually 39 yards shy of last week’s performance, a loss at Kentucky. Much of that can be chalked up to a conservative approach with a freshman at quarterback and a lead the entire second half. After a 16-of-19 showing in the first half, Lock threw the ball just nine times for 28 yards in the second, finishing the game with 136 yards. Missouri’s only score after halftime came on a drive that started at the South Carolina 31.
The drive was an outlier, as field position frequently hindered the Tigers’ offense; three of Missouri’s five second-half drives started inside its own 15-yard line.
“We were just kind of smart about what we did down there,” Pinkel said. “(Lock) did a lot of good things. He’s got a lot of ability. It was a lot of pressure to be under, playing in the SEC and delivering in a big game like this.
“It was the first time in (my) 39 years as a coach that I’ve ever started a true freshman, so this was a real fun week for me. I can guarantee you that.”
Lock put Missouri on the board in the first quarter with an 8-yard pass to Nate Brown to cap an 11-play, 51-yard drive. Lock ignored two defenders in his face to throw his first touchdown since a 78-yarder to Hunt in the season opener.
“I was anticipating it,” Lock said. “Because I felt pretty good after my first T-Hunt touchdown, and I really, really wanted another one, but I hadn’t got it until that moment, so I let it all out.”
Lock celebrated with Boehm, a fellow Lee’s Summit native.
“Do you guys watch Drew after he watches a passing touchdown? That gets me excited,” Boehm said. “It gets me hyped. That puts a big smile on my face.”
South Carolina’s Elliott Fry and Missouri’s Andrew Baggett traded field goals of 34 and 21 yards, respectively. Then, South Carolina tied the game when Faurot Field’s north end zone — the spot where Baggett missed a 24-yarder to give the Gamecocks a comeback win in 2013 — started spewing some of its signature bad luck for the Tigers.
The first missed opportunity came on a throw from Nunez to Terry Googer that Simon and cornerback Aarion Penton each had a play on. Instead of an interception, however, the Tigers collided and the ball fell incomplete. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. was flagged for a targeting penalty in South Carolina’s backfield and was ejected from the game.
Two plays later, Penton had another shot at an easy pick, only to have Gamecocks receiver Pharoh Cooper poke the ball out of his hands and into the lap of tailback Shon Carson who turned his gift into an 8-yard touchdown.
Cooper, a first-team all-SEC receiver last year, led all players with 102 receiving yards on nine catches.
The Tigers responded with their third scoring drive of 50 or more yards in the first half. Once again, it ended with Lock finding Brown, this time on a picture-perfect 9-yard pass along the side of the end zone that Brown neatly snagged before dragging a toe in.
The game would stay at 17-10 until the third quarter when Missouri took advantage of the third of Nunez’s interceptions with Witter’s dive.
Missouri avoided losing consecutive games for the first time since Novemeber 2012, which was also the last time the Tigers had lost a road game before their 21-13 defeat at Kentucky last Saturday.
“Kentucky was just, it was embarrassing, honestly,” Brothers said. “It left a really bad taste in our mouth, and we couldn’t wait to get out here to play a better game. We made a lot of mistakes (today), we missed a lot of tackles, and we’ve got a lot of stuff to fix, but it’s good to have a win after a loss.”
Lock was playing in place of suspended starter Maty Mauk, who was suspended alongside offensive lineman Malik Cuellar for disciplinary reasons. Pinkel said he would speak with the players today and Monday before reevaluating their status.
Though not with the team, Mauk showed Lock a sign of a support.
“The man sent me a text before the game and a text after the game,” Lock said. He was “the first person I heard from: ‘Congrats, bud,’ kind of deal like that. It was good to hear from him.”