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Missouri prepping for homecoming matchup with Ole Miss

With another homecoming game on the horizon, the meaning of the game is not lost on the Tigers.

NCAA Football: Troy at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been nearly 108 years since Missouri celebrated its first ever homecoming football game, which took place Nov. 25, 1911, against Kansas. Since that time, one thing has remained constant: the Tigers know the game is just as important to the Missouri faithful as it is to the football team.

Many deem MU’s original homecoming celebration to be the first, the original, the “often imitated, never duplicated” of all homecomings. To that respect, MU students and alumni alike hold the homecoming football game to a higher standard — because winning puts the cherry on top of what is already a phenomenal week.

So yes, when it comes to homecoming, the Tigers know what’s at stake, even if they’d like to treat it as any other game.

“Homecoming is so big here. I know as far as our home games have gone, this is going to be the best atmosphere,” tight end Albert Okwuegbunam said. “We’re all really excited to see the Zou filled up, full capacity, just great fans. We’re really excited for it.”

This year’s homecoming week, though, did begin under a pretty dark cloud.

On Sunday, it was reported that linebacker Cale Garrett had a pectoral injury and would be out indefinitely. Garrett suffered the injury with about 3:27 left in the first quarter, but still managed to record two interceptions before the end of the half. The ability to play through an injury that could sideline him for the rest of the season alone shows how important Garrett, who head coach Barry Odom called, “the heart and soul of our team,” is to Missouri’s success.

Garrett’s injury has given his teammates a little bit of a different motivation for this game. Sure, it’s homecoming, and yes, the Tigers’ game versus Ole Miss on Saturday will be their first against a Southeastern Conference opponent since Florida in 2015. However, knowing that they lost their most important defensive player, defensive tackle Jordan Elliott said they are playing more for each other rather than any sentimental reasons surrounding homecoming.

“I feel like right now, we’re playing for our brothers. The ones we lost,” Elliott said. “That’s probably something that’s a motivating factor for this week. Losing Cale, and almost losing (quarterback) Kelly (Bryant), those types of things help you to realize that this can be taken from you like that. So that’s really our motivation for this week, playing for them.”

But there are still players who also use those sentimental reasons as fuel. Slot receiver Johnathon Johnson, a redshirt senior, only has this last homecoming game left in his college career.

Whereas before he might’ve let his mind wander to the activities surrounding homecoming, knowing this is the last homecoming matchup he’ll ever be a part of, Johnson said he’s more focused than ever on the game itself.

“This one (has more meaning) than other ones, because this is my last one,” Johnson said. “Normally in the past, I probably was thinking about more of homecoming activities and stuff more than the game, so this year I’m more focused on the game and trying to make sure I’m prepared in every way to go out there and play as hard as I can for my last one.”

Even though Missouri lost its defensive quarterback, the team can still take solace in the fact that its actual quarterback, Kelly Bryant, had essentially the best-case scenario happen after leaving last Saturday’s game early.

After he was hit in the left knee by Troy defensive lineman Travis Sailo and immediately taken out of the game, it was also announced Sunday that Bryant had suffered a knee sprain but was not expected to miss the matchup with the Rebels.

It had to be quite the relief for the Tigers, who have potential but not much experience behind Bryant at quarterback. Bryant himself said Tuesday that he was more than relieved to avoid an even worse injury, considering the losses to the rest of Missouri’s depth chart (punt returner Richaud Floyd is doubtful to play this week due to a hamstring strain).

“The biggest thing, you try not to think about the worst, so I just said a little quick prayer when I was laying down,” Bryant said. “Just looking at it, it could’ve been way worse, so I’m just fortunate, just blessed that it wasn’t nothing major.”

Ole Miss surely won’t just lay down in defeat for the Tigers.

Odom cited the Rebels’ ability to run the ball (312 yards per game against SEC opponents), as well as scoring output (31 points per game against SEC opponents), while offensive coordinator Derek Dooley discussed their disruptive front seven as reasons for their early season success.

Playing a conference opponent for homecoming could be a blessing. Fans should come in droves, filling Memorial Stadium and giving the Tigers their largest crowd in some time.

But it’ll be up to Missouri to ensure the fans don’t leave disappointed.