COLUMBIA, S.C. — Despite a downpour of dumb penalties and dropped passes, muffed snaps and mental snafus, Missouri nearly escaped Columbia East with the most significant victory of the Barry Odom era.
But the Tigers couldn’t hold a lead in the final minute. Parker White’s 33-yard field goal with two seconds left streamed straight through the uprights.
Odom’s program is leaking, and he doesn’t have much time to plug the holes.
The Tigers and Gamecocks each had opportunities to put Saturday’s game away. Both teams made their lion’s share of mistakes. South Carolina capitalized and ground out a 37-35 win.
“I’m really proud of our football team to hang in there and do what you have to do to win games,” Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp said. “And that’s what we (did).”
Good teams win when they don’t play their best. Good teams win when their opponent lets them hang around. With the exception of a six-game winning streak in 2017, which came against teams that all finished the year with losing records, the Tigers have yet to look like a good team under Odom.
That can change.
Missouri has not been outclassed in either of its losses this year. Rather, the team’s own mistakes have been its biggest obstacle to this point of the season. If the team can get out of its own way, there are chances for resume-building wins against Alabama, Kentucky and Florida over the next four weeks.
“It’s a challenge to our resolve and the willingness to continue to work and do more,” Odom said. “I know what I’ve got in the locker room, and I know they’re going to keep pounding away. ... We’ve got a long ways to go and a lot of work to do, but I also think we can end up being a good football team.”
To make the turnaround, however, Odom must buck his own track record. Through his first two seasons as head coach, he posted a 1-12 record against Power 5 opponents that finished with a winning record. Georgia and South Carolina will change that to 1-14 (although volatile Purdue has a chance to make it 2-14).
Linebacker Terez Hall denied the idea that the Tigers are still on the learning curve when it comes to tight games, pointing to the team’s 40-37 victory against Purdue three weeks ago.
The Boilermakers, however, were an inferior opponent. Since Missouri’s 28-24 comeback win over Arkansas in the 2016 season finale, the team has failed to pull out any close games — or any games, period — against opponents at least as good as the Tigers. These are the confidence-builders the Tigers have lacked under Odom, the wins that start pushing a program over the hump.
“As a player or a coach, (a win like that) is something you can fall back on and know that you fought through some adversity, you fought through some tough circumstances and you came out of it on the good side,” Muschamp said.
Odom and his team have a litany of issues to clean up. Missouri has turned the ball over five times in the past two games. The Tigers committed 10 penalties that cost them 83 yards against South Carolina. One was a costly false start on third-and-3 as the offense approached midfield. They gave away two personal fouls. Johnathon Johnson dropped a touchdown pass. Tucker McCann botched what appeared to be a surprise onside kick attempt but might have actually been a mis-struck pooch kick.
And most of that was before the rain started pounding at halftime. The pristine turf had turned to muck by the start of the third quarter, which only served to amplify Missouri’s sloppiness. Drew Lock tossed a pick-six while attempting to throw the ball away inside his own 20. McCann missed a 25-yard field goal. The waterlogged playing surface may have been a factor, although it didn’t appear to slow down the Gamecocks.
“That one I missed was all on me,” McCann said. “Nothing else. It’s my fault.”
On one drive, Damarea Crockett ripped off a 59-yard run to the 10-yard line before a number of penalties and stagnant plays backed the Tigers into a fourth-and-33. Corey Fatony muffed a high snap — both teams had difficulty punting in the rain — and gave South Carolina excellent field position.
“It was a strange third quarter,” Odom said. “We’ve got to make sure our focus is dialed in no matter the circumstance.Obviously, you get knocked back 20 yards, then you’re not playing very good football.”
Worst of all, the defense suffered a complete coverage breakdown with less than a minute to go when South Carolina backup tight end and St. Louis native Kyle Markway ran uncovered down the seam for a 27-yard completion, the longest of the junior’s career, that moved the Gamecocks to Missouri’s 27-yard line. The game all but ended there.
“That can’t really happen,” Odom said. “But it did.”
The fault does not lie with Odom when one looks at each mistake as an isolated incident. Take a macro view of the last two games, and one sees a different story. Missouri beat itself in the past two games due to a storm of unforced errors. That usually reflects coaching.
“You’ve got to take in the information, you’ve got to fix it and you’ve got to find a way to do it,” Odom said. “And then you drive that and use it as motivation. Believe me, we’re not walking around singing and dancing like everything’s alright.”
The 2018 Tigers returned 10 offensive starters led by a record-setting quarterback and a defense anchored by battle-tested veterans such as Terry Beckner Jr., Cale Garrett and Hall. If they can’t beat average Southeastern Conference East competition this season, one can only assume Missouri will remain confined to mediocrity under Odom.
The sky hasn’t fallen yet. But Odom needs to bust out his tallest stepladder if he’s going to seal the cracks.