LEXINGTON, Ky. — It couldn’t possibly get any worse than Vanderbilt, right?
Missouri found a way to debunk that bit of attempted consolation in a 29-7 loss to Kentucky on Saturday night, further sinking its 2019 season toward oblivion. Two weeks ago, the SEC East title felt within reach. The Tigers (5-3, 2-2 SEC) face-planted into rain-drenched Kroger Field in a second straight loss to a sub-.500 team.
Both losses lacked certain qualities, such as discipline and fundamentals and leadership and successful running and edge-blocking and decision-making and timely defense.
And most of all, points. The Tigers had scored more than 30 points in 11 straight games before Vanderbilt. Now they have combined for 21 points in the last two games. They finished with just 289 total yards on offense Saturday.
“Offensively, we couldn’t get anything at all going,” coach Barry Odom said. “And when we did, there were some self-inflicted things that took us back.”
Odom is yet to beat Kentucky since taking over the program. Missouri has lost five straight years to the Wildcats, dating back to 2014. Odom is 5-11 in October across his four years at the helm.
With the fate of a bowl ban against MU pending, the relevance of a sixth win has been debatable all season. Now the existence of a sixth win might be debatable. The Tigers play Georgia and Florida in their next two games.
“We’ve got to get better,” linebacker Nick Bolton said. “We’ve got to execute. That’s not on the coaches, that’s not on anyone else in our locker room.”
After the game, Missouri players all had a positive attitude about the week of practice they had in preparing for this game. After the loss to Vanderbilt, they were also positive about that week of practice. So what’s not adding up in the on-field product?
“To be honest, off-field stuff,” center Trystan Colon-Castillo said. “On field, everything feels complete. Everything feels good. Then some of us aren’t taking care of our business outside the facility or outside of practice. That’s something where you’ve got to get home and you’ve got to look in the mirror and look at yourself: What are you doing wrong? Everybody’s got to quit pointing fingers. Oh, it’s this. Everybody needs to look at themselves in the mirror.”
Losing for a fifth straight year to Kentucky (4-4, 2-4 SEC) took a unique amount of moments that ranged from head-scratching to jaw-dropping. The game was at least within distance until the last minute of the first half, when Kentucky kicked a 43-yard field goal to take a 15-0 lead. Missouri had 44 seconds left playing from its own 25-yard line and a chance to kneel its way into the locker room.
But even after quarterback Kelly Bryant was sacked to set up a third-and-8, Odom chose to use his second timeout and stop the clock instead of letting time run out. When MU came out of the timeout, Bryant’s arm was hit as he threw and Kentucky recovered the fumble at the 20. Colon-Castillo said the offensive linemen didn’t see the ball while it was in the air before Kentucky recovered.
“I wanted to give an effort there to go get some points,” Odom said. “Looking back now, I shouldn’t have taken (the timeout), right? But in the moment of when we took the timeout, felt like we had an opportunity before half to try to get a little momentum. We also knew (Kentucky was) getting the ball coming out for the second half. Trying to do everything we could with the possessions we had.”
The turnover — one of two for MU — left just enough time for the defense to be flagged for a face-mask penalty and for Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden to run for a 10-yard touchdown with 10 seconds left in the half. The game deteriorated from 12-0 to 22-0 in 45 seconds. All 22 of those points were scored in the second quarter.
Bowden, a receiver by trade, torched Missouri all night with his legs. He only attempted seven passes — completing three for 54 yards — but he rushed 21 times for 204 yards and two touchdowns.
While Bowden scrambled, Missouri’s quarterback situation was simply scrambled. Odom said after the game that Bryant suffered a strained hamstring on Missouri’s second possession, during a run play on which he could be seen grabbing his leg. He played for more than two quarters afterward before losing his mobility.
The Tigers brought out backup Taylor Powell for a late third-quarter possession while down 22-7, and he drove them into the red zone. But a fourth-and-2 slant pass to Dominic Gicinto was low, if catchable, and Gicinto couldn’t corral it.
“I could have delivered a better ball,” Powell said. “We should have scored. That was on me.”
Kentucky drove 83 yards with the ensuing possession for a game-clinching touchdown to make it 29-7 in the fourth quarter — a 33-yard Bowden scramble.
Powell played the rest of the game. Bryant was not made available for comment on his injury after the game.
“I didn’t even know he came out,” receiver Jonathan Nance said. “I feel like he tried to tough it out as long as he could.”
Even before Powell entered at the point of no return, Missouri’s chances of rallying seemed doubtful with a floundering offense that looked as clueless as it did against Vanderbilt. The only hope came on a 74-yard screen-pass touchdown to Tyler Badie in the third quarter.
Missouri’s efforts to purge any uncertainty about the offense weren’t going to get any help from the conditions in Kentucky. The Tigers tried passing in the rain on their first play of the game and got behind on downs early. A three-and-out looked ominously familiar. It set the tone.
“We can’t let negativity go around the locker room,” Nance said. “We’ve got to make sure we stay together, keep a good attitude, come ready to practice.”
Another two of the biggest problems for Missouri at Vanderbilt — aside from the offense — were detrimental penalties and missed field goals.
Now, in Kentucky, Bryant converted a third down by scrambling into the red zone (the play on which he injured his hamstring). But a holding call on Yasir Durant brought it back. Penalty: check.
Missouri had to settle for a 43-yard field goal attempt, but Tucker McCann booted it a mile wide right. Missed field goal: check. It was McCann’s third straight miss.
Then the third possession came and more opportunities went. MU had third-and-8 at the Kentucky 40, but tight end Albert Okwuegbunam bobbled and dropped a pass around the first-down marker. Odom said last Tuesday that the team needed to target Okwuegbunam more. He wasn’t targeted again after that drop.
Kentucky finally scored the breakthrough with 12:27 left in the second quarter. The Tigers were exposed multiple times on the drive; Bowden completed a 44-yard pass downfield as cornerback Christian Holmes was beat in coverage and safety Josh Bledsoe wasn’t over the top. Bowden juked Bledsoe on the next play and ran 18 yards to the goal line — “I should’ve made that play,” Bledsoe said — then Kavosiey Smoke punched it in on the next play.
“That’s just everybody keeping their assignments and being in their gaps and reading their keys,” Bledsoe said. “We’ve got to play better as a whole on defense.”
Missouri’s next three-and-out featured an Okwuegbunam false start and a Bryant fumble for minus-9 yards.
Bowden went down briefly on the following series. He was out for three plays, during which MU contained Sawyer Smith to 8 yards. But Bowden returned to run for a first down on fourth-and-2, and Asim Rose ran for a 20-yard touchdown.
“I’d like to think whether we’re at home or on the road that we’d play the same, but obviously we haven’t,” Odom said. “There are ways you develop real confidence, and for whatever reason, in times where things didn’t really go our way, I don’t see the same group yet.”
There was one play that epitomized it all. Kentucky had complete control in the fourth quarter already, but on a punt from the Wildcats’ own 22-yard line, Missouri dropped back so many in punt coverage that Kentucky audibled a fake punt and ran for 26 yards.
“It was bananas,” Kentucky center Drake Jackson said. “It was fun.”
It was just one of those things for Missouri.
This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.