Missouri gets bitter taste in SEC-opening loss

By Ryan Hood

Redshirt freshman center Brad McNulty called facing Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones “an awakening.”

The same description could be applied to Missouri’s first foray into the nation’s premier football conference in its entirety.

MU as a whole had an eight-month honeymoon with the Southeastern Conference. The marriage is off to a rocky start on Missouri’s end, as the exchanging of pleasantries abruptly ended Saturday night inside Memorial Stadium.

Shortly after the final seconds ticked off the clock in No. 7 Georgia’s SEC-initiating 41-20 victory over Missouri, Georgia players took to the southwest stands of Memorial Stadium, mocking the home Tigers with whiteboards that read “Grown man football” while chants of “Old man football” — inspired by junior Sheldon Richardson’s quip against Georgia last week — rang out from the throng of red-clad Bulldogs fan who made the trek to Columbia.

Finally, the Tigers had been initiated into the SEC.

For about 52 minutes Saturday night, it appeared the first chapter of their SEC existence would end happily. And then Jones happened.

The hype surrounding the reigning SEC sack leader centered on his superb pass-rushing abilities, but it was the play Jones made defending the pass instead of trying to prevent one that cemented a Georgia victory Saturday night in Missouri’s inaugural SEC game.

With eight minutes remaining and the Tigers down 27-20, junior quarterback James Franklin stood in the pocket, looking for an open receiver. His pass found a man with nobody near him: Jones.

It was the first career interception for the preseason All-SEC selection that disrupted the Tiger offense throughout the game, recording eight tackles, one sack and a forced fumble.

Freshman tailback Todd Gurley delivered the dagger when he crossed the goal line from one yard out on the following play to give the Bulldogs a commanding 34-20 lead.

A Jones sack on Missouri’s next drive forced a Franklin fumble, a turnover that also resulted in a Georgia touchdown.

“He’s just a great, great football player,” coach Gary Pinkel said of Jones.

While Jones certainly contributed, the Tigers were responsible for their own demise, turning the ball over three times.

“They kill you,” senior receiver T.J. Moe said. “You can’t expect to beat a team with that much talent that’s that well coached when you have that many turnovers.”

Failing to capitalize on the two turnovers they forced in Georgia territory, off which they scored three points, didn’t help, either.

“You can’t make the kind of mistakes we made in a game like that and survive,” Pinkel said. “You’re not going to win games like that against people like that.”

After a sloppy start offensively, Franklin and Co. put together a three-play, 63-yard drive that culminated in a 41-yard touchdown pass to junior Marcus Lucas, giving the Tigers a 10-9 halftime advantage.

After stopping Georgia’s second-half opening drive, the Tigers put the Bulldogs on upset alert when junior L’Damian Washington took a Franklin pass 69 yards to the end zone to stretch the lead to 17-9 with 11:48 remaining in the third quarter.

After a methodical 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive in which Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray got into rhythm, the Tigers clawed back, as a 25-yard field goal by redshirt freshman Andrew Baggett put the Tigers back on top, 20-17.

But it would be downhill from there, as Georgia flexed its SEC muscles by finishing the game with 24 unanswered points.

“We had a lot of mental errors out there, and we beat ourselves up a lot,” Lucas said. “They were a good team. We knew it was going to be a dogfight the whole game, but we can’t have that many turnovers that late in the game. We had the sack, and then we don’t get the fake punt. Different things like that hurt us.”

Lucas was referring to Pinkel’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-11 from their 35-yard line down four with 13:52 left, in which punter Trey Barrow picked up just three yards.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and a coach never calls something he thinks would not work,” Pinkel said. “When they work they’re good calls, and when they don’t work, they’re bad calls. And I’ll take responsibility for that.”

Franklin would finish the night 25 of 41 for 269 yards, two touchdowns and the interception. Murray finished 22 of 35 for 242 yards and three touchdowns. The Tigers gained 102 yards on 39 rush attempts; good for a feeble 2.6 yards per carry average.

And it all culminated in a bitter end for Missouri, its SEC life just on the brink.

“They understand now,” Jones said.

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