This is not the same Missouri team that started the season 1-5. This is not the same team that lost 35-3 at home to Purdue. Hell, this isn’t even the same team that narrowly lost to Kentucky 40-34 on the road.
Barry Odom’s speech after the 51-14 loss to Auburn was heavily criticized and came off as a desperate plea to keep his job. Now, it will be seen as the turning point in what has been a wild season.
Missouri (6-5, 3-4 SEC) has completely transformed itself and is now bowl eligible for the first time since 2014 despite a dismal start to the year. The Tigers topped Vanderbilt, 45-17, and in the first half probably played their best defense of the season.
Mizzou’s dominant win wasn’t because Drew Lock posted video game numbers. Ish Witter and Larry Rountree III didn’t run wild again. Mizzou won simply because it was the better team on Saturday night, and it has been for the past few weeks.
While the offense managed to put up some points, it was the defense that was the most impressive unit by far. Yes, the same defense that allowed Missouri State to score 43 points in Week 1.
In the first half Mizzou held the Commodores (4-7, 0-7 SEC) scoreless and allowed only 100 total yards of offense. They forced two turnovers, including a 42-yard pick six by Brandon Lee in the second quarter.
Lock struggled to find his receivers in inclement conditions, completing only 10 of 25 passes. He still passed for 235 yards and three touchdowns. He’s thrown for at least three touchdowns in seven straight games.
Lock now has 38 touchdowns for the year, good for the third most in SEC history. With one more, he’ll tie Chase Daniel for the most in Missouri history.
It may not seem like a big deal right now, but the passing attack has struggled the last two weeks. Lock has thrown seven touchdowns over that span, but has only completed 43 percent of his passes. It hasn’t been entirely his fault, as his receivers have dropped their fair share of passes.
Alright, enough negativity. One of the most encouraging signs in the Tigers’ victory was the play of their underclassmen. True freshmen Adam Sparks and Rountree III, redshirt freshman Albert Okwuegbunam and sophomore Richaud Floyd all made their mark.
In the first quarter, Sparks took advantage of a bad decision by Kyle Shurmur to snag his first career interception. Mizzou failed to turn the play into points, but it was still nice to see from the young corner.
Following a 71-yard catch and run by J’Mon Moore early in the second period, Rountree took an option 12 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0 Missouri. Rountree was originally ruled out at the 1-yard line, but the play was reversed after review.
Rountree carried the ball 15 times for 53 yards, while Okwuegbunam caught five passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
While Lee’s one-handed pick and highlight juke on his interception return for a touchdown killed Vanderbilt’s momentum, it was Floyd who buried the Commodores.
Toward the end of the first half, Lock was unable to complete a pass to Johnathon Johnson in the end zone. Despite trailing 28 points, Vanderbilt corner Taurean Ferguson celebrated the play.
On the very next play, Floyd dropped Ferguson to the ground before hauling in a pass on the left sideline. He showed excellent footwork, tiptoeing the sideline before walking into the end zone for the 30-yard score.
After a quick Vanderbilt three-and-out, Floyd went untouched on a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown to balloon Missouri’s lead to 35-0.
Sparks, Rountree, Okwuegbunam and Floyd, among others, will be key buildings blocks to keep the success going past this season. With the losses of several key seniors drawing closer (and maybe Lock and Terry Beckner Jr. to the NFL draft), Mizzou’s going to need it.
Vanderbilt showed life in the second half, going on a 17-3 run in the third quarter, but it was too little too late. A big red zone stop by Missouri and a 57-yard touchdown catch by Okwuegbunam in the fourth quarter sealed the game.
With his ninth touchdown catch of the year, Okwuegbunam tied Jeremy Maclin for the Missouri freshman record for receiving touchdowns in a season.
Mizzou travels to Arkansas next Saturday and will look to improve on its five-game winning streak.