By Brandon Kiley, KBIA Sports
Many experts didn’t believe Missouri could compete with the SEC in football. That seems silly now, after Missouri (10-2, 7-1) finished a drive late in the fourth quarter to take a 21-14 lead against Arkansas (6-6, 2-6).
For the second straight year, the SEC East division title came down to the final week of the season. Last year, the Tigers’ task was to beat the Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M Aggies. This year, the final challenge was to take on the suddenly surging Arkansas Razorbacks.
“I was really disappointed on Sunday when I was looking at (film on Arkansas),” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “They’re playing the best teams in their division, and they are battling.”
The first half didn’t go as planned for Missouri. The offense sputtered, the defense gave up two touchdown drives and the special teams gave up too many long returns. But there were moments when Missouri appeared to have some momentum.
Andrew Baggett booted a 52-yard field goal through the uprights on Missouri’s second drive of the game. It was Baggett’s first 50-plus yard field goal of his career, and it would prove to be a sign of things to come.
With Missouri trailing 14-3 and with just over two minutes remaining in the first half, the Tigers’ offense took the field. Eleven plays and 60 yards later, the Tigers were set up at the Arkansas 33-yard line, preparing to kick another 50-yard field goal.
The ball was snapped, the hold was down, and the kick was no good. But Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema had called a timeout just before the snap, and Baggett was given another opportunity.
“It’s a free play,” Baggett said. “You take the risk of calling a timeout to ice the kicker. If I do miss, I get a free look. I aimed a little more to the right, and it went right down the middle.”
Baggett’s field goal minimized the damage done in the first half. It brought Missouri within one-score of Arkansas, and it gave the Tigers momentum heading into the second half.
From there, Missouri never looked back. After netting 121 total yards in the first half, the Tigers ran for 136 and threw for 166 in the second half. A big chunk of that came on a 44-yard strike from Maty Mauk to Jimmie Hunt that started the fourth quarter.
“I looked at (Mauk), he looked at me,” Hunt said. “We knew the safety was playing pretty tight, so we took advantage of it. (Mauk) threw it, I went up and got the ball. We made a great play.”
Missouri’s defense also turned things around in the second half. Arkansas’ offense was efficient in the first half, and they were able to give the Razorbacks an early 14-3 lead. But Arkansas’ offense stalled in the second half, due in large part to the increased pressure from the Missouri defensive line.
“We felt like we were beating ourselves,” senior defensive end Markus Golden said. “We felt like we (were) missing tackles and letting them get extra yards (by) not wrapping up. So we fixed it.”
Missouri isn’t winning pretty. The formula has changed from 2013. The offense still continues to struggle at times but despite its shortcomings, Missouri finished the regular season with double-digit wins for the second straight year.
Now, the Tigers are headed back to Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship game. There’s just one thing left that the Tigers want to accomplish.
“Now it’s about us,” Golden said. “It’s about getting a championship for this team, this program and all of these great coaches.”