The long and short of it: Two defensive TDs power a win
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Defensive players lose count of how many seemingly pointless yards they run in a week. Day after day, practice after practice, the drill is the same. If the ball is on the ground, you pick it up and you run to the end zone.
“Sometimes it can get super redundant especially on a week of practice like this where it’s humid as hell out or you’re maybe not feeling the greatest,” Missouri linebacker Cale Garrett said. “You could find a lot of excuses to nonchalantly pick up a ball and be like, ‘Come on coach.’
It rarely pays off. The play is almost always over, the yards almost never result in anything other than a little extra cardio. But every now and then…
In a scoreless game, after Missouri had just been stuffed on three plays from the South Carolina one-yard line, Gamecock quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw a pass to his right. Tiger defensive end Chris Turner got a hand on the ball and batted it straight back to Hilinski, who caught it, then thought better of it and immediately dropped it behind him near the goal line.
The officials called the drop a second forward pass resulting in a penalty. But Missouri players and coaches didn’t think so.
“As soon as the ball was on the ground, upstairs on the headsets they were saying ‘it’s a fumble, it’s a fumble,’” head coach Barry Odom said.
Garrett picked the ball up in the Gamecock end zone and immediately began telling the official Hilinski had thrown the ball backwards, which would make it a fumble. After a review, the officials agreed. Touchdown Mizzou.
“I saw him bat the ball and I just started screaming get on it get on it get on it,” safety Khalil Oliver said. “I’m probably way down in the bottom corner, but I’m running up trying to yell just get on it. You never know.
“All of us were pretty sure but we just wanted to make sure the refs made the right call.”
“I thought the quarterback batted it down,” safety Ronnell Perkins said. “But he just caught and I don’t know what he was doing. But I’m glad he did it.”
The heads-up play by the guy most teammates call Missouri’s smartest player gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead. And it reinforced all those drills and pointless yards put in during the week.
“I guess it’s just out of habit for Cale really,” Turner said. “He’s always one of the ones to pick it up, always one of the ones hustling down to the ball. I guess it was just natural for him.”
"Anytime that you look on the tape you see 47 around the ball,” Odom said. “It’s the same thing he does every day in practice.”
As big as Garrett’s play was, the deal was nowhere near sealed until the Tigers’ second defensive touchdown of the day. Hilinski was again within feet of the goal line throwing to his right. But this time it was the Missouri goal line and the Gamecocks were on the verge of a touchdown that would have cut the Tigers’ lead to three. Hilinski hit a receiver right in the chest. Unfortunately for him, it was Perkins.
“I looked right at him, he looked me right in the eyes and he threw it right to my chest,” Perkins said. “After that I just wanted to take off.”
Perkins bobbled the ball, perhaps a bit surprised that it had been thrown directly to him. After gathering himself, he looked up and saw absolutely nothing between him and the other end zone.
“My vision got a little blurry there. I just tried to run as fast as I can and get the touchdown,” he said. “You don’t think it’s going to be that easy. But it was that easy."
Tight end Kyle Markway was the only Gamecock with a chance, but Perkins outran him around the 40-yard line. He sailed the rest of the way, giving the Tigers a 17-point lead with 5:43 to play in the third quarter and Missouri was on cruise control from there. It was the longest interception return in Missouri history and the seventh 100-yard touchdown (four kickoff returns and two fumble returns).
“Talk about momentum, man,” Odom said.
Two plays, two defensive touchdowns. One covered as much distance as can be covered on a football field. The other covered literally zero yards. Both were the biggest plays in a Missouri win that broke a three-year hex against the Gamecocks and gave Mizzou its third consecutive win.
“I would say his was probably a little bit more difficult,” Garrett said when asked to compare the touchdowns, which were Missouri’s third and fourth on defense in three weeks. “Hats off to him for being able to do that Mine was just more of a fluke play.
Now, the goal is to improve on the performance. Odom said Garrett would be in the film room by 5:30 on Sunday morning; Mizzou’s workaholic captain said maybe not.
“We got a bye week next week,” Garrett said. “So I might sleep in a little bit later.”
What’s a little bit later?
“I’ll call you when I get up.”