Tennessee had perfected the come-from-behind rally three weeks ago at South Carolina, when the Vols overcame a 14-point deficit in under five minutes and won the game in overtime.
Down two scores to Missouri on Saturday – this time a total of 16 points – the Vols again put their comeback plan in place. This effort, however, would fall a bit short as Missouri (9-2) knocked off the Vols in Neyland Stadium by a final of 29-21 and maintained control of its own destiny in the SEC East.
It wasn’t without a little drama, though. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs found receiver Jason Croom for a 4-yard touchdown with 1:52 remaining in the game and tacked on a 2-point conversion run to cut Missouri’s advantage down to one score.
Tennessee then attempted an onside kick and a wild sequence followed. Tennessee recovered the first onside attempt, but an offsides call ultimately forced the Vols to move back five yards and try it again. This time the Vols snagged it again, but were correctly called for illegal touching for making contact with the ball before it went 10 yards. The Vols challenged, lost the review and thus lost their second timeout, ending any hope the Vols had of getting one final possession.
“I saw some resiliency,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said of what he saw from his team during that sequence. “The ruling was we touched it before ten yards. I’m anxious to go back to the office and see how close we were in the offsides because obviously that’s a pivotal call in a pivotal moment. I mean it is what it is. Our kids kept scratching and clawing and showing their resiliency.”
Resiliency was needed because the Vols fell behind after several key breakdowns in the second half. Tied at 13 at the half, Missouri would score 16 points in a row to build a 29-13 lead with 6:22 remaining in the game.
Touchdown passes from Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk to Jimmie Hunt (73 yards) and Bud Sasser (13 yards) plus a 43-yard field goal by Andrew Baggett led to that edge for Mizzou.
The Vols helped the East-leading Tigers with some unforced errors. Two penalties extended one of the Missouri scoring drives when it twice looked like the Vols had a third-down stop. But perhaps most damaging was a dropped pass by receiver Josh Malone that not only cost the Vols a scoring opportunity when the score was 16-13, but led to the big touchdown pass to Hunt, swinging the game at least 10 points, and possibly more.
“The margin of error is very, very small,” Jones said. “Winning is very difficult at this level. When you play in the SEC everything is magnified. We can’t beat ourselves. Our players understand that. They know the formula for winning.”
It was a formula the Vols, despite executing a perfect fake field goal for a touchdown in the first half, couldn’t quite play out for the entire game on Saturday in front of a crowd of over 95,000 on Senior Night in Knoxville. Playing without starting linebacker A.J. Johnson (suspension), center Mack Crowder (ankle, knee), receiver Marquez North (shoulder, Jones said he’s done for the season) and several other key players, the Vols struggled to move the ball consistently against Missouri’s defense.
Tennessee finished with 279 yards of total offense, 53 rushing yards and conceded six sacks in the contest as Missouri’s talented defensive front controlled much of the game.
“They are top in the country, top ten in scoring defense, and up there in total defense,” Jones said. “I mean their front seven is the best we’ve faced all year. We talked about it and sometimes you have one defensive end that you have to prepare for, but they have two, and they’re very deep and very talented. So, we knew that yards were going to be at premium, we would have to earn every yard that we would get, and we knew it was going to be that type of game.”
“I would definitely say that is the best defense that we have played,” added running back Jalen Hurd, who accounted for 80 yards of total offense. “Hats off to their defensive front. We kind of beat ourselves. There were many times when we were in three-and-out situations. That is something that can’t happen as an offense. We have to take advantage of those red-zone opportunities.”
The Vols’ aspirations of making a bowl game remain in tact with the 5-6 squad heading to Nashville next Saturday to face a Vanderbilt team that is winless in SEC play. This loss will certainly sting a team that had been surging the past few weeks, but one more win sends the Vols back to the postseason for the first time since 2010 and checks off one of the major goals for this season.
“It’s a one-game season,” Jones said. “It’s all you can (say). We get another chance to play in state. We have to come back and regroup, which we will.”