It was a ball Wes Kemp would probably tell you he catches nine times out of 10. But, for the Missouri sophomore receiver, it was not meant to be.
Not for the Tigers. Not on this night.
Deadlocked in a back-and-forth battle, Missouri was in a position to take the lead heading into the locker room on the road at No. 16 Oklahoma State. After an Oklahoma State field goal tied the score at 17, Missouri, seeking momentum, had possession in the waning moments of the first half.
Instead, what the Tigers got was the beginning of the end.
Faced with a seemingly unmanageable third-and-21 from his own 25, Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert avoided a sack, found Kemp streaking behind the Oklahoma State secondary, and winged a perfect pass off his ailing right ankle. But the ball descended through Kemp's outstretched arms and collided painfully with the turf.
A completion would have given Missouri the ball inside the Oklahoma State 20-yard line and an excellent chance to not only put up seven points, but to run out the clock on the Cowboys.
For all intents and purposes, after Gabbert, Kemp, and the MU offense made their way to the sideline, the game was decided. What ensued after Kemp's drop was a miserable 29-yard punt to set up OSU near midfield, and the Cowboys' offense needed only go 53 yards to seal the Tigers' fate.
A likely seven-point halftime lead transformed into a seven-point deficit, and eventually swelled to a two-touchdown defeat.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not picking on Kemp. Earlier, fellow receiver Jerrell Jackson had a pass deflect off his hands and land in the gut of an Oklahoma State defender, leading to an interception return and score that effectively began turning the tide of a game on which Missouri (4-2, 0-2) seemed to have a grasp.
When evaluating the comedy of errors that was Missouri's 33-17 loss to Oklahoma State (5-1, 2-0), it seems only responsible to dissect each problem area with equal fervor, especially considering the unexpectedly golden opportunity that awaited the Tigers at Boone Pickens Stadium Saturday night.
With Missouri players planted comfortably in front of their hotel room television sets earlier in the afternoon, fellow division contenders Kansas and Nebraska each stumbled to leave the door wide open in the Big 12 North. Once thought to have been nothing more than a minor threat for the division title following its loss to Nebraska nine days prior, all Missouri had to do to pull even in the three-horse race was something it has had no problem doing in Stillwater, Okla., since 1992: win.
Alas, bloodied and battered from a number of torturous blows—some of the self-inflicted nature, some more the work of the officials—the Tigers limped off the field in front of a Homecoming crowd of 55,752, lamenting a failed attempt to capture the most crucial game of what has become a season with potential to go south in a hurry.
A win would have given Missouri a 1-1 record in the Big 12, as well as injected new life into a team arguably still reeling from the Nebraska collapse. As fate would have it, the Tigers are now chasing surprising division leader Kansas State (4-3, 2-1) and occupy the division cellar as they prepare for next weekend's nationally televised contest with the No. 3 Texas Longhorns .
Missouri's ineptitude against Oklahoma State was widespread. But, above all, it was the schizophrenic and sloppy nature of the offense that cost MU the chance to re-establish an identity as a Big 12 contender.
Making his first conference road start, Gabbert was equal parts bionic sensation and true sophomore. Noticeably still hobbled by a gimpy ankle, which only seemed to worsen as the game wore on, he threw for nearly 260 yards in the first half, including three completions of 30 yards or more.
Highlighted by the exploits of Gabbert and receiver Danario Alexander, who caught six passes for a mind-boggling 161 yards, the Missouri spread attack blistered the Cowboys for 313 yards in the opening 30 minutes. Had Gabbert and Kemp connected on the aforementioned pass, that total gets pushed towards the 400-yard mark.
Unfortunately, as spectacular as Gabbert was in the first half, he was as ineffective down the stretch against Oklahoma State's 89th-ranked pass defense.
His completion percentage across both halves remained constant (12-for-24 in the first; 10-for-20 in the second), but Gabbert had trouble adapting to OSU's defensive adjustments, completing just two passes of more than 10 yards and throwing two back-breaking interceptions during the final two quarters.
After having thrown the first 131 passes of his career without incident, Gabbert has now thrown five interceptions in his last 87 passes to coincide with the onset of Big 12 play.
And as Gabbert struggled, the entire MU offense caved, bumbling its way to an 80-yard second half as the defense was doing its part to keep the game close. With the OSU lead only 10, the Tigers gained a paltry 17 yards on three possessions in the third quarter, which had statistically been Missouri's most successful quarter this season.
A maligned and criticized running game that appeared rejuvenated inexplicably vanished. In the second half, backs Derrick Washington and De'Vion Moore produced only 14 yards on five carries after combining for 63 yards on 12 carries during the Tigers' first-half barrage.
Now one-dimensional, the Missouri offense became predictable and Oklahoma State took advantage, forcing the Tigers into their first scoreless second half of the season.
And that predictability can be traced directly to the press box, where offensive coordinator David Yost fought an apparent bout with insanity.
Case in point: Fresh off an abysmal third quarter, the Tigers were deep inside OSU territory and threatening to cut into a 16-point lead, yet Yost called two passes on consecutive short-yardage situations. Both fell incomplete, and a huge opportunity was wasted.
Later, after a nifty reverse on a punt return provided the Tigers with excellent field position, a visibly handicapped Gabbert threw three straight passes to get MU inside the Cowboys' 10-yard line. However, on fourth-and-three, Yost called a dreaded slow-developing read option for Washington, who was stopped for no gain, killing the drive with just over five minutes to play.
It was a curious call to say the least, especially considering Yost had shocked MU faithful everywhere when he put Gabbert under center on consecutive short-yardage plays in the second quarter to cap a scoring drive.
As well as it played on Saturday, some of the blame should be placed on the defense. It held an explosive, albeit undermanned, OSU offense to two touchdowns and just nine points in the second half, but the Missouri defense also failed to produce a turnover for the second time this season and once again featured a feeble and lethargic pass rush.
The Missouri defense also failed to register a sack against Oklahoma State, and has just 10.5 sacks through six games this season.
And when the Tigers were experiencing struggles on both sides of the ball, they couldn't exactly count on a mistake-free game from the officials.
On back-to-back kickoff returns by Missouri's Jasper Simmons , officials made what could surely be argued as the wrong calls. First, it was freshman linebacker Donovan Bonner 's phantom holding infraction that, according to replays, could just as easily be enforced on every return in every college game. As it were, Bonner was flagged and an 88-yard return was nullified.
And then there was Simmons' bogus fumble that lead to Oklahoma State's final points of the night. After several minutes of what turned out to be unnecessary review, the call on the field was upheld, although television replays clearly indicated that Simmons' knee was down before the ball was jarred loose.
It's debatable to what degree these instances impeded Missouri's comeback, but head coach Gary Pinkel won't make any excuses for his team's second straight loss. After the defeat, he preferred to put an asterisk next to the Tigers' offensive gaffes, specifically the 4-0 disadvantage in the turnover battle—and rightfully so.
Since posting a plus-seven turnover ratio during its 4-0 start, Missouri has given the ball away seven times while taking it away just twice.
The result is an 0-2 in-conference record and a remaining schedule during which Missouri will not only face its opponents and attempt to strengthen a frail psyche, but wager war with history. Since the Big 12 was formed in 1996, only three of the 44 teams that have begun the conference schedule with two losses have recovered to post winning records.
And just to top it off, no team has ever finished with a winning conference record after losing its first three.
Bring on Texas.
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