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Missouri 29, Tennessee 21: Tigers have eschewed Little Things™ for Big Things™

Missouri's special teams unit has imploded, and the offensive line can't stop committing false starts. But thanks to an ever-dominant defensive front and the re-emergence of big-play weapons on offense, it hasn't mattered.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Big Things, Inc.

In the three games after the loss to Georgia, I commended Gary Pinkel and Missouri quite a few times for basically figuring out what they were and playing to it. To win games, they would have to slow things down on offense, eliminate the opportunity for too many big plays, and hand the game over to defense and special teams. The offense just couldn't get anything going consistently, but it avoided turnovers and, for the most part, penalties (there were 14 against Vanderbilt, but Mizzou averaged just 6.1 per game in the other eight), and the other two units playing wonderfully, the Tigers were an excellent Little Things™ team, dominating field position and finishing drives better than opponents.

In the last two games, both huge wins, Mizzou found its offense ... and lost the little things. Significantly. Like a set of keys. On Saturday night the Tigers averaged 5.9 yards per play against what was, on paper, the best defense they had faced this year. Tennessee was missing a couple of defensive pieces, sure, but they opened the game with a lovely 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive, and their last two full drives went 141 yards in nine plays.

The defense has remained mostly awesome these last two weekends -- that might be understating it: the Tigers had 12 tackles for loss, a forced fumble (two, I think), and five defensed passes last night; Havoc Rate: 27% -- and Missouri was able to outgain Tennessee and Texas A&M by a combined 377 yards. On a play for play level, that's the sign of a very good team ... a potential division champion, if you will.

But after Little Thingsing their way to double-digit wins against Kentucky and Vanderbilt that had minimal yardage margins (a combined +207), Mizzou had to make late stands to beat A&M and Tennessee by a touchdown each thanks to a complete failure in other areas. Special teams was costly against the Aggies, and against Tennessee special teams may have had its worst game of the Pinkel area. Two missed extra points? A fake field goal touchdown for UT? A 58-yard Tennessee kick return? Two illegal blocks on Marcus Murphy punt returns?

The impact of special teams was obvious. First, the two missed PATs kept the game within two possessions (16 points) instead of three (18) at the end. So while the odds were still significantly in Missouri's favor, it opened the door for a crazy ending ... and it almost had a crazy ending. Tennessee nearly recovered two different onside kick attempts, which would have given the Vols a chance to tie in the final minute.

Beyond that, though, it gave the Vols a significant field position advantage early on.

Average Starting Field Position Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Game
Missouri 15.2 37.0 26.0 40.0 26.8
Tennessee 49.3 36.7 27.3 26.7 36.1
Margin UT +34.1 MU +0.3 UT +1.3 MU +13.3 UT +9.3

Tennessee went three-and-out on its first three possessions and four-and-out on its fourth, but Mizzou led just 7-3 at that point because of extreme field tilting. And the first time the UT offense put some first downs together and earned some points on its own (via fake field goal), it was enough to give the Vols the lead.

Without special teams, this game would have been over a lot earlier.

Special teams is a small-sample thing -- you never completely know how good or bad a team is at most facets of special teams because you're dealing with such small quantities. A kick returner only needs two really good returns in 20 tries to produce a strong return average. A punter might only need a couple of shanks to wreck his net average. As a whole, however, there was reason to believe that Missouri's overall special teams unit was tremendous after nine games. And the moment the offense found its footing, this unit regressed dramatically.

That's a net gain for Mizzou because offense is more important than special teams -- Mizzou is 21-for-38 on third downs the last two weeks and has averaged 6.3 yards per play, and those are Big Things™ -- but it certainly allows Gary Pinkel to justifiably say "We haven't played our best game yet" and whatnot.

(And this says nothing of the offensive line and its penalties. In terms of run blocking, the line has had probably its best two weeks of the season these last two games. It has also committed nine false start penalties. Nine!)

Road Warriors

Close your eyes and think back to 10-15 years ago. When Gary Pinkel took over at Missouri in 2001, he inherited a squad that had lost eight of nine on the road. And the one win was against Baylor, which, in 2000, barely counted. Mizzou won in Lawrence and Stillwater in Pinkel's first two road games, then lost seven in a row in hostile territory. The Tigers won two in a row against Baylor and Ball State (again, if that counts), then lost seven of eight again.

From the end of 1998 to the end of 2004, that's seven road wins to 22 losses.

A decade later, Missouri has what is, according to MU historian Tom Orf, the seventh-longest road win streak in the history of the SEC, the third-longest by a program not named Alabama:

  1. Alabama 21 (1970-75)
  2. LSU 14 (1985-88)
  3. Alabama 14 (1977-80)
  4. Alabama 12 (2011-13)
  5. Florida 11 (2007-10)
  6. Alabama 11 (1991-93)
  7. Missouri 10 (2013-14)
  8. Alabama 10 (2008-10)

Yeah, sure, playing in the SEC East has helped. But here is perhaps the most amazing part of this streak: of these 10 victims, eight are bowl teams. Only Indiana and Kentucky, each 2013 victims, were not. There is no 2014 victim as good as Georgia was in 2014, but every single team on the list this year is at least decent.

Every road trip is an opportunity to slip. Missouri hasn't. And being old enough to have experienced the combined 123-0 shellackings at the hands of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas State in 1999 ... the 62-9 disaster that was Clemson 2000 ... the combined 79-10 losses to Kansas State and Michigan State to finish 2001 ... the 2002 duds at Bowling Green and Nebraska ... the "4-0 at home in conference, 0-4 on the road" evenness of 2003 ... TROY STATE ... 53-13 to Kansas and Colorado in 2005 ... well ... this is odd and incredibly special. You'd like for the home performances to have been better this year, sure, but this is a streak that, all said and done, is helping to define the Gary Pinkel era.

Hello, Jimmie

Marcus Murphy had some lovely early runs, and that he and Russell Hansbrough were able to gain 140 yards on 34 carries was quite useful; there were no big runs like last week, and 4.4 yards per carry is only good if you're facing a pretty good run front (and Missouri was), but it certainly helped in moving the chains. Plus, Bud Sasser had a couple of huge catches and still led the way with four total snags.

But the offensive star of the game was a guy who had all but disappeared.

In the first four games of the year, Jimmie Hunt caught 16 passes for 198 yards and five touchdowns. Bud Sasser was the clear No. 1 receiver, with 24 for 368 in that same span, but Hunt was a key cog, part of a pretty strong three-man starting receiving corps. But while Darius White's injury was more noteworthy because it was actually keeping him out of games -- he missed four games and barely played against Florida -- Jimmie Hunt was also nagged, first by an injury of his own, then, in addition, by a case of the dropsies.

We didn't hear much about Hunt's injury once he returned to the lineup (he only actually missed one game), but the different in his level of play following the second bye week has been staggering. Including the game he missed, Hunt caught just five passes for 79 yards in a five-game span from South Carolina to Kentucky. In the last two games, he has caught eight for 191. White was quiet yesterday, but getting White and Hunt back to full-speed has completely changed this offense.

Yesterday still wasn't a spectacular passing day for Maty Mauk. Through three quarters, he was 9-for-22 for 109 yards and three sacks. He wasn't incredibly accurate, and receivers weren't helping him out; there were three recorded drops in the first quarter, and it seemed like more, which was an indictment of both the receivers and Mauk's accuracy (since none were particularly easy catches).

Still, on three scoring drives in the first three quarters, Mauk was 6-for-11 for 75 yards, and Hunt had catches on two of the three. And with the game seemingly in the balance, with Missouri having blown a prime scoring opportunity after a turnover on the previous drive, Mizzou faced a third-and-8 from its 27, and Mauk went deep to Hunt, who was matched up one-on-one against another senior, nickel back Justin Coleman. Hunt high-pointed a ball that Coleman couldn't find, pulled off a wonderful full-speed stiff-arm of Cameron Sutton, and raced into the end zone (the same one into which he ran a kickoff return two years ago) for a game-changing touchdown.

"It’s a huge momentum play," Tigers Coach Gary Pinkel said. "It’s mammoth."

And it’s also emblematic of how Missouri’s been winning this season and how it beat the Volunteers 29-21 in front of 95,281 fans at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

The Tigers (9-2, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) are on a five-game winning streak, atop the SEC Eastern Division and, with a home win over Arkansas on Friday, will make a return trip to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

Missouri almost always seems to find a way. But it rarely ever makes it easy on itself.

For years, I've been in the front car of the Jimmie Hunt bandwagon, and it was frustrating watching him blend into the scenery in the late stages of his senior season. But without him, Missouri probably doesn't beat either A&M or Tennessee. Whatever the final narrative for this season ends up becoming, Hunt has helped to write it.

And yes, while we shake off all perceived injustices once our team has won the game, this will still go down as one of the worst offensive pass interference calls of all time. Instead of three caches for 106 yards, Hunt should have had four for 133.

Since it didn't cost Missouri the game, I choose not to rage at that call, but to marvel at it. He waved his hand at the defender and got called for offensive pass interference.

One more, Tigers. Well, three more, I guess, but one more first.