In a year that has provided and endless array of forgettable moments, the Missouri Tigers were able to send most of the 51,000 shivery fans home with a smile as they concluded the 2016 season with a 28-24 upset victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks.
It looked like more of the same in the first half as Arkansas completely dominated time of possession and total yards in route to a 24-7 halftime lead. Some fans even trickled out of the stadium, unable to subject themselves to further futility. It appeared that linebacker Eric Beisel’s strong words for “Ar-Kansas” earlier in the week had fallen on deaf ears and Missouri was destined to wind up in the SEC East cellar once again.
“Well, we weren’t that far off in the first half.” Head coach Barry Odom said following the game. “There were some things we left on the field we felt like. The offensive staff did a great job sticking to the plan and making a couple adjustments throughout the game.”
The second half was indeed a different story as quarterback Drew Lock caught fire going 9-15 for 212 yards and a touchdown. The big-armed sophomore quarterback continuously tested the Razorback secondary down the field and receivers Johnathon Johnson and J’Mon Moore answered the call as the Tigers clawed their way back in the game.
After giving up 24 points in three red zone trips in the first half, the much maligned Mizzou defense kept Arkansas off the scoreboard entirely in the second half as they turned the scrappy Razorback offense away during three red zone visits. Defensive end Marcell Frazier wreaked havoc all day in the Arkansas backfield and with one final play on 4th-and-goal from the Missouri 20 yard line, quarterback Austin Allen was bludgeoned by the Tiger front, ending any hopes of a last-second miracle.
The victory certainly cannot completely erase the frustrations of a 4-8 season, but no team in the country needed a shred of positive momentum quite like the Missouri Tigers. This program has faced its share of strife in the past 16 months and knocking off a border rival as an underdog can only shed perhaps a ray of light on a team that is still trying to find its way under a new coaching staff.
Reasons For Hope
A 4-8 season is certainly not the benchmark for success in Columbia, MO. The Tigers will miss a bowl game for a second consecutive season and there are plenty of reasons to question the direction that the program is heading at this point. How big of a role are last November’s protests having on recruiting? How can Missouri continue to expand facilities to keep up in the SEC arms race? Will recent allegations of academic fraud provide further distractions? These are questions with few answers at this point but there are reasons to believe that the Tigers can be much improved next season.
Schedule. There is no such thing as an easy schedule in the SEC but 2017 could provide a map for a return to bowl eligibility. The Tigers get Florida, South Carolina, Purdue, Tennessee and Auburn at home while the road games will include Arkansas, UCONN, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky.
The Offense. It wasn’t perfect in 2016 but Josh Heupel’s up-tempo offense could be scary good next year. Mizzou returns a stable of running backs including star freshman Damarea Crockett, incumbent Ish Witter and emerging force Nate Strong. 10 starters in all return on offense and Drew Lock could be poised to have a special season with another year in Heupel’s system.
Program Stability. Things couldn’t have been more chaotic for Missouri football in the past 16 months. A new head football coach, a new athletic director and leadership changes at the top of the University certainly caused a rough transition. Athletic Director Jim Sterk seems to be providing very solid leadership and has the ball rolling on facility upgrades. Year two under Barry Odom will really show us a lot about what he’s made of as rumors of possible staff changes loom in the offseason after Missouri’s defense went from top-10 in the country to woeful in a year’s time. If he’s the right guy for the job, the 2017 Tigers should be much improved and playing in a bowl game next holiday season.