Critical to Missouri’s victory chances Saturday: Prevent a Texas A&M breakaway the way Tennessee turned its game with Mizzou into a debacle a couple of weeks earlier.
There were reasons to believe this could happen. Would the Aggies have a pulse after coming off a college football power-structure-altering truimph over top-ranked Alabama?
Also, A&M was meeting an unfamilar foe — the programs haven’t played since 2014 — and with an 11 a.m. brunch kickoff on. a chilly (by Texas standards) morning, conditions seemed in place for the Tigers to at least hold serve at the beginning.
But home fans were still filing into Faurot Field as the Aggies were driving for their third unanswered touchdown nine minutes in, and the opportunity to begin the second half of the season on a positive note was over for the Tigers, a 35-14 loser.
A game headed toward the 73-0 A&M triumph over the Tigers in 1993 settled down and the teams played to a scoring standoff after the 21-0 deficit, so there’s that. Oh, and the Aggies scored less Saturday than they did against the Crimson Tide.
But that’s where we are with Missouri’s season at this juncture, finding little victories in losses.
The Tigers’ season now trends as a disappointment. Dropping the toss-up games at Kentucky and Boston College put pressure on Missouri to find victories in the non-Georgia/Florida division of the SEC schedule. That hasn’t happened as Mizzou fell to 0-3 in league play, 3-4 overall and prompted an open and honest assessment by second-year coach Eli Drinkwitz.
“I realize last year we probably overachieved, and so everybody assumed those expectations would be met this year,” Drinkwitz said. “It hasn’t gone that way. It just hasn’t. But that’s part of the process. I wish success was always linear. It’s not. There’s fight. There’s wrestling. There’s good days and bad days. I’m trying to establish a culture. I’m trying to recruit great players, and you can’t skip steps.
“I would have liked to, and I thought maybe we could have. And maybe I got the fan base too excited, and thought maybe we could skip that step. But we can’t. Can’t skip a step. We’re still fighting.”
Bravo to Drinkwitz for understanding his role in helping shape a preseason narrative of promise for this team. These Tigers would be a bowl team certainly, perhaps even challenge for the division based on the returning players from Drinkwitz’s inaugural 5-5 season that exceeded expectations.
Postseason remains in play, but the road is difficult with Georgia, Florida and Arkansas remaining on a slate that includes games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.
Perhaps the Tigers can build on how Saturday played out over the final three quarters. Tennessee’s relentless onslaught in a game in which Missouri was favored was demoralizing and cost an assistant coach his job.
When Saturday started on the same pace, with Texas A&M racking up rushing yards in huge chunks — few yards after contact because there was so little contact — the orange flashback was real. Quarterback Connor Bazelak ended the first Missouri possession with a where-is-he-throwing interception, and a second pick came before the end of the first quarter.
Complicating matters was the flag show. The Tigers were cited for 13 accepted penalties totaling 106 yards, season highs in both categories. A defensive pass interference continued an A&M possession after Mizzou had cut the margin to 21-7 and ended the opportunity to switch the momentum before halftime.
But the Tigers dug in. The defense started coming up with stops in the form of missed field goals and a terrific quarterback-reading interception by Jaylon Carlies.
There would be one more chance for Missouri to make things interesting. Trailing 28-14, Mizzou forced a third-and-17, a situation set up by a blitzing Martez Manuel sack for 17 yards. But a 21-yard completion in the middle of the field kept the drive alive and killed any Tigers’ hopes.
An open week awaits the Tigers, an ideal occasion for a mental as well as physical break for the players. For Drinkwitz, whose recruiting classes have been favored by those who assign rankings, said that will be a focus. Said it about eight times. “Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting ... ”
And not skipping any steps along the way.