Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
Missouri finds itself in an unfamiliar position as the Tigers play today at Vanderbilt (3 p.m., SEC Network).
For the first time since 2012, the Tigers are coming off consecutive losses. Throw in a defeat earlier this year at Kentucky and, for the first time since its inaugural Southeastern Conference season, Missouri is not in the hunt for the SEC East title.
“We’ve been told that we’re out of the race for the championship game, which is obviously upsetting,” freshman quarterback Drew Lock said. “But we’re still going to come out and compete and try to win football games.”
Head coach Gary Pinkel said the Tigers have had to adjust expectations after losses to Florida and Georgia in the last two weeks. The Tigers reached the SEC Championship game in 2013 and 2014.
“If it’s all just about winning the SEC East and being in the championship game, then … the next two weeks, most of the teams are going to be out of it,” Pinkel said. “There’s a lot out there, and we have great potential, but as the season clicks down here, as the games click down, the sense of urgency becomes bigger and bigger. I’m just real honest with our players about it, and that’s the way I’ve always been.”
Still on the docket for the Tigers (4-3, 1-3 SEC)? Bowl eligibility and the hope of perhaps fighting their way back into a national ranking.
“We know we can’t compete for a championship anymore, but we still have five games that we can win and make a good season out of this,” linebacker Michael Scherer said. “If we win five games and a bowl game, we’re, what, 10-3 again? That’s not too bad.”
Of course, Missouri will have to beat Vanderbilt (2-4, 0-3) before thinking about any of that.
“Derek (Mason) is doing a good job of building that program. I’m very impressed with him,” Pinkel said. “They’re athletic, they’re well-coached, and he’s getting better and better, and I’m very, very impressed with his football team.”
Lock added: “They’re good athletes. They’ve got a good team. They fly around to the ball, and we’re going to have to make some plays and hopefully catch them out of some looks.”
Though winless in SEC play, Vanderbilt boasts a top-25 rushing defense that’s allowing just 144.8 yards per game through the run — an area Missouri has struggled to find much ground this season. The Tigers’ 103.4 rushing yards per game are seventh-worst in the country. Missouri’s passing stats aren’t much better. The Tigers are averaging just 187 passing yards per game, fourth-worst in the SEC. Missouri hasn’t scored a touchdown since its lone SEC win, Oct. 3 against South Carolina.
“It gets very frustrating, but you’re more determined, you’re more persistent,” Pinkel said. “We don’t sit back and say, ‘Gosh, this is difficult. This is tough.’ We’re battling, and we’re going to do it in the practice field.”
Meanwhile, the Missouri defense has been suffocating, holding Georgia to a season low 3.9 yards per play and no touchdowns, just a week after forcing Florida to punt nine times.
The “offense is in a little slump, but if we continue to stay positive in what we do on defense — roll up our sleeves and just play ball and make a statement — we’ll give the offense a push,” cornerback Aarion Penton said. “They’ll get it together eventually.”
Kentrell Brothers has been especially strong on defense, recording a career-high 17 tackles at Georgia. He currently leads the nation with 91 tackles, 19 more than the next-best tackler.
“Kentrell’s whole mindset is just to get to the ball first and then just let the rest kind of sort out itself,” safety Ian Simon said. “Honestly, I want to compete with Kentrell. Now, my thing is I wanna get to the ball before Kentrell.”
Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary has completed 132-of-232 passes this year for 1,428 yards, six touchdowns and and SEC-leading 10 interceptions. More than a third of those yards have gone to sophomore receiver Trent Sherfield. Ralph Webb leads the Commodores with 495 rushing yards on 124 attempts.
Notes: Lock will get his fourth collegiate start, as junior Maty Mauk remains suspended for a violation of team policies. Missouri is 1-2 under Lock. … Missouri and Vanderbilt have each lost to Georgia (9-6 and 31-14, respectively). The Tigers won 24-10 against South Carolina, which beat Vanderbilt 19-10 last week.