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KNOXVILLE, TN--Outside the Missouri locker room in the concrete passageways of Neyland Stadium, a Liberty Bowl rep caught up with Missouri athletic director Mike Alden. He shook Alden's hand, collected a cell phone number in case a call is necessary in a few weeks and said, "That was great."
As Alden walked away, I asked him the question that had been on my mind since the end of Missouri's four-overtime 51-48 win over Tennessee: "More improbable: Today or the 2005 Independence Bowl?"
Alden had no immediate answer. He thought. In the end, he simply shook his head, still--like the rest of us in that tunnel--in disbelief.
I will not argue that a win over a lame duck coach and a winless SEC team that will go mostly unnoticed by the nation is a program-changer. It isn't. Might be a season-changer, but in the grand scheme of things, this isn't a day we're likely to look back upon and say, "That was the day it all changed."
The Independence Bowl was that. There was talk jobs were going to be lost. Missouri was down 21-0 and then 28-7 and Missouri fans wanted heads to roll that day in Shreveport. The Tigers mounted a drive just before halftime to make it 28-14. As Alden pointed out, "didn't we do something just before halftime?"
In 2005, Mizzou's program under Gary Pinkel was in its infancy. The Tigers had been to just two bowl games. They had never won more than eight games. They were looking for a foothold. Marcus King gave it to them with a 99-yard interception return that got the Tigers on the board.
Saturday's version of King was played by Jimmie Hunt. He had an 87-yard touchdown return on a kickoff that was the only reason Missouri was on the scoreboard at halftime. Kendial Lawrence played the role of Chase Coffman, who caught a late first half TD in that game against South Carolina, with a 77-yard run on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage in the third quarter. That got Mizzou within 21-14 and made everyone realize that the Volunteers had wasted a 319-yard offensive advantage in the first half by not throwing dirt on the grave when the Tigers were lying in it.
But while the second half of those two games were so similar in many ways, it was what led up to each one that makes them so different and makes Saturday even more shocking than that December afternoon in Shreveport.
The 2005 Tigers had Brad Smith. They truly were never out of a game because they had the single best player on the field. In that 38-31 come-from-behind win over Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks, Smith had 432 yards of total offense. He threw for a late second quarter touchdown and ran for three scores in the second half. It was a perfect sendoff for a career that was often a one-man highlight reel.
These Tigers don't have Bad Brad. They have some good players. Sheldon Richardson is a star. But Smith was the best player on the field at the most important position on the field. This Missouri team started a quarterback who had thrown for four touchdowns all season and had gone 42 days since his last scoring pass. James Franklin is on pace to run for about 20% of the yardage he did last year. He has not scored a rushing touchdown. He has been hurt, he has been questioned, he has admitted his confidence was gone. Missouri was averaging 19 points per game in SEC play, just 15.5 against teams not named Kentucky. To be blunt, there was no reason to expect Missouri could come back on Saturday because there was no rational reason to think the Tigers could score 21 points in a game against a defense with a pulse (yes, even one as faint as that of Tennessee).
And so when the Volunteers forced a Lawrence fumble and turned it into seven more points to take a 28-14 lead, the game seemed over. So, frankly, did the season. Syracuse was pasting Louisville. Johnny Football would dismantle Alabama in a few hours. 4-and-8 looked a lot more likely than 6-and-6.
And then, somehow, Missouri found an offense. Franklin ran around, he bought time, he made throws. His receivers caught them. An overmatched, undermanned offensive line blocked. A defense that has carried this anemic offense on its back to four wins this season found just enough stops to keep the Tigers kicking. Derek Dooley made what might be the final mind-numbing decision of his coaching career in Knoxville, passing on a 35-yard field goal attempt to go for it on fourth down.
And Missouri won.
It was not the biggest win Missouri has had in recent years. Few outside Columbia or Knoxville will pay it six seconds of attention. But based on sheer shock value, this one has to top the list.
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