LEXINGTON, Ky. – Missouri’s offense, missing in action for three weeks, arrived Saturday night against Kentucky.
Still, even with one final opportunity on the game’s final drive, it couldn’t bail out two special teams miscues and a defense that lacked a cutting edge when it really needed one.
Two missed field goals were critical errors. So was a 71-yard touchdown run by the Wildcats’ Benny Snell in the second quarter, and a 64-yard pass from Stephen Johnson to Garrett Johnson on the second play of the fourth quarter.
They were the difference in the Tigers’ 40-34 loss, its fourth straight.
“I know what this team needs,” coach Barry Odom said. “They need to build on that and gain some confidence, and against a pretty good team, show some strides that we made.
“Gosh dang it, we’re close.”
Drew Lock put in the best performance against a conference opponent of his career and Ish Witter ran wild, powering a Missouri offense that went dormant for a month after erupting for 815 yards in the opener against Missouri State.
Lock was 22 of 42 for 355 yards. He had three touchdowns on three perfectly-thrown deep balls: a laser beam between two defensive backs to J’Mon Moore for 50 yards; a cannon to Emanuel Hall for 58 yards; and a dime to Johnathon Johnson on a post pattern that went 75 yards in the fourth quarter.
“He had a good week of practice,” Odom said. “The 10 guys around him played better. That makes the quarterback look better.”
Lock was big when Missouri needed it, the last play notwithstanding. The Tigers, given the ball back down six points at their own 25-yard line with 1:24 left and no timeouts, needed to go 28 yards on the game’s final play to find the endzone. Lock faced pressure up the middle, and his pass fell two yards short of the endzone.
Lining up for the last snap proved to be a difficulty beyond Missouri’s control. On 1st and 10 from the Kentucky 28-yard line, J’Mon Moore — who finished with 86 yards on seven receptions — was brought down inbounds after catching a 1-yard slant with 21 seconds left in the game.
Moore carried the ball back towards the center of the field to hurry the spot, but a Kentucky player collided with him and the ball rolled away. The umpire, who was between the hashmarks, sauntered 10 yards to the loose ball and tossed it to the linesman.
The linesman re-adjusted the spot in accordance to the side judge, then ran into the backfield. By the time the Tigers snapped the ball again to spike it, only 3 seconds remained.
“I know what I saw and I know how the ball was placed and not placed,” Odom said after being asked about the sequence after the game. He said he didn’t get an explanation from the officials in the moment.
Missouri had an opportunity to tie the game with 3:25 left. Facing 4th and 8, Tucker McCann’s 42-yard field goal attempt from Tucker McCann was blocked by Lonnie Johnson after a bad snap and shoddy blocking on the edge.
Kentucky kicked a field goal on its ensuing possession to make the score 40-34.
McCann was 2 for 4 on field goals, connecting on a 27-yarder and a 25-yarder that tied the game at 27 with 0:24 left in the third quarter. He missed a 38-yard attempt at the beginning of the second quarter.
“We rolled two back there and had one high snap,” Odom said. “That doesn’t just affect your rhythm and your protection, but your kicking. Not very good. I’m proud of the way Tucker competed.”
Witter was Missouri’s biggest playmaker on the night, running 17 times for 139 yards and catching three passes for 24 yards. He was massive on the final drive, moving the sticks with a 17-yard run on 4th and 2 and two receptions that went for 12 yards each.
“Ish is a heck of a player and a great competitor,” Odom said. “He’s a soldier, man.”
Damarea Crockett was relegated to secondary status thanks to Witter’s hot hand, and he finished with 74 yards on 12 carries.
Hall, making his first start of the season in place of the dismissed Dimetrios Mason, was a consistent threat. He caught four passes for a team-high 129 yards, which was the second-most for a Tiger receiver in a game this season.
In a recurring trend, Missouri fell behind early, but the touchdown pass to Moore with 7:13 left in the second quarter was a kick-starter. That carved Kentucky’s lead to 13-7.
“We started to get things moving after we scored the first touchdown,” Hall said. “After that, I think we moved the ball pretty well.”
The Tigers gashed a Wildcats run defense that entered holding opponents to just 74 yards per game, third-best in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Missouri amassed 213 rushing yards on 33 carries. Lock had the Tigers’ only rushing touchdown, a 1-yard bootleg in the third quarter.
The Tigers finished with 568 yards to Kentucky’s 468.
SHERRILS DOESN’T MAKE TRIP: Anthony Sherrils, who started Missouri’s first four games at strong safety and entered Saturday’s game tied for second on the team with 24 tackles, did not make the trip to Lexington because he was in concussion protocol. The concussion occurred in Thursday’s practice.
Ronnell Perkins got the start at strong safety instead. He finished with 10 tackles, including one for loss.
Missouri also shook things up at strongside linebacker, giving Brandon Lee his first start of the season over Kaleb Prewett. Lee recorded seven tackles, while Prewett had five.
Terez Hall continued his solid junior season, racking up a team-high 12 tackles and breaking up a pass. He had 2 ½ tackles for loss, and his 6 ½ on the season are the most on the squad.
NEW YEAR, NEW ABELN: Missouri offensive lineman Alec Abeln got his first start of the season in unusual fashion.
He was wearing No. 49 instead of No. 57, which he had worn since his first season at Missouri (and was the number he was still listed at on the Tigers’ roster). And he was starting at fullback rather than on the line of scrimmage.
Missouri has used other players in a fullback role before, most notably its tight ends. It was the first time Abeln stepped into the role, however. He appeared again at fullback in the third quarter when Damarea Crockett took a direct snap out of the Wildcat formation.
Odom said Abeln’s role in the backfield was part of offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s effort to mix up the offense on the bye week. It helped offset the absence of Jason Reese, who was hurt in warmups and did not catch a pass.
GOOD, NOT GREAT, START: Missouri started the game by forcing Kentucky into a three-and-out, the first time it did so on an opponent’s opening drive all season.
That euphoria was short-lived. The Wildcats scored on their next drive after taking over at the Missouri 19-yard line after a Drew Lock fumble.
The rest of the half was competitive. The 20-14 halftime score was the narrowest for the Tigers since the opener against Missouri State. It was also the first time Missouri scored multiple touchdowns in the first half since its game against the Bears.