KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Missouri pin-pricked Joshua Dobbs’ bubble of invincibility Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
The nationally ranked Tigers drove a stake in Tennessee’s heart with Maty Mauk’s 73-yard touchdown pass to Jimmie Hunt in the fourth quarter, held Dobbs in check most of the game and beat the Vols, 29-21, before 95,821 fans on a chilly night on the banks of the Tennessee River.
“We knew it would be a tight game,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
“We also knew we’d have to earn every yard we got. I’m proud of our kids. They didn’t quit. They kept hanging in there, kept scratching, kept clawing, but, as we know, winning is fragile.”
Mauk also had a 13-yard touchdown pass to Bud Sasser, both scores coming in the fourth quarter when the Tigers pulled away for the win – their 10th straight on the road.
“I think we focus well on the road,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of the away-from-home win streak. “I really felt today our players were feeling it.”
Running back Marcus Murphy scored twice on runs of 1 and 7 yards, running 19 times for 82 yards – that’s 29 more yards than Tennessee’s entire offense gained.
Tennessee’s offense had averaged 47.5 points in Dobbs’ two previous starts with wins over South Carolina and Kentucky.
Missouri sacked Dobbs six times, forcing one fumble, intercepted a pass and limited the sophomore to 208 yards of offense after he averaged 406 against the Gamecocks and Wildcats.
“In my limited time I’ve only seen a couple of front sevens,” Dobbs said, “but they were an aggressive front seven.”
The Vols managed only 53 yards rushing on just 29 carries, a paltry 1.8-yard average. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who had 125 yards on the ground at South Carolina (most by a Tennessee rookie since Jamal Lewis in 1997), had a team-high 40 yards on 11 tries against the Tigers.
He has 756 yards on the season.
“I would definitely say that is the best defense that we have played,” Hurd said. “There were many times we were in three-and-out situations. That can’t happen. And we didn’t take advantage of those red zone opportunities.”
Down 29-13 in the fourth quarter, Tennessee scored when Dobbs threw a 4-yard touchdown to Jason Croom and ran for the two-point conversion with 1:52 remaining.
The Vols, who faked a field goal for its first touchdown, tried an onside kick.
They recovered the first one, but an offside penalty forced a re-kick. Justin Coleman recovered the second, but officials correctly ruled the ball went only 9 yards, rather than the required 10.
The Tigers got the ball at Tennessee’s 39, ran out the clock and prevented the Vols from winning their third straight game, which hasn’t happened since 2010.
Tennessee simply never found an offensive rhythm against the Tigers.
“We knew coming into the game what was in front of us,” Dobbs said. “We have to fix the things we messed up on tonight and get ready for Vanderbilt. Our dreams, goals and aspirations are still (ahead) of us. So we’ve got to win a sixth game and get to a bowl game.”
The Tigers (9-2, 5-1 SEC) have won all three meetings with the Vols, including a four-overtime marathon here in 2012. They can wrap up the East Division title on Friday and earn a trip to the SEC championship game with a win over Arkansas, which suddenly is a mighty dangerous team.
A Razorbacks victory would hand the title and a trip to Atlanta for the title game to the Georgia Bulldogs, who pasted cream-puff Charleston Southern, 55-9, Saturday. The Bulldogs close their regular season against bitter rival Georgia Tech next weekend.
Tennessee (5-6, 2-5) travels to Vanderbilt next week needing a win over the Commodores to gain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.
“It’s a one-game season,” Jones said. “Now we have to go on the road. We have to come back and regroup, which we will.”
Vanderbilt was humiliated by Mississippi State, 51-0, on Saturday.
The Vols, who were favored by odds makers to win Saturday’s game, finished with 279 yards of offense, but played out of sync most of the game, unable to crack the Tigers’ defense after scoring 13 first-half points.
After the Vols scored on a fake field goal with 11:14 left in the second quarter, they went scoreless over the next 39-plus minutes while the Tigers stretched a 16-13 lead to 29-13 on Mauk’s two fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
Mauk completed 12-of-25 attempts for 230 yards and two touchdowns. The Tigers also had 180 yards rushing for 410 total yards.
Hunt had 106 receiving yards on just three catches.
After 10 quarters of offensive firepower in a relief role against Alabama and the starts against South Carolina and Kentucky, the Tigers slammed the door on Dobbs for three-plus quarters.
Tennessee’s first two scores came on an Aaron Medley field goal (38 yards) and field-goal trickeration.
With a drive fizzling at the Tigers’ 31, Medley came on to try a long 48-yard field goal.
Holder Patrick Ashford, a junior, took the snap, stood up and threw a touchdown strike to senior tight end Alex Ellis and the Vols had a 10-7 lead.
It was the first career pass for Ashford and first career touchdown reception for Ellis – both are walk-on players.
“Coach Jones called (the play) in from the sidelines,” said Ashford, who was a quarterback in high school. “We had worked on it a couple of weeks. We just had to execute the play. Don’t make it a bigger deal than it is. Just find Alex and give him the ball.”
Why call the play then?
“Gut feeling,” Jones said. “I can’t say enough about their execution. I love those kids. They give everything for Tennessee.”
The last time Tennessee converted a fake field goal into a touchdown was against the Tigers, when Tyler Drummer ran 5 yards for a score to put the Vols up 42-35 in overtime in 2012. Missouri went on to win that game, 51-48, in four overtimes.
Murphy’s second touchdown gave the Tigers a 13-10 lead, but freshman Evan Berry rambled 58 yards to the Missouri 40 on the ensuing kickoff. Ten plays and 19 yards later, Medley kicked his second field goal.
Midway through the third quarter, Andrew Baggett broke the tie with a 43-yard field goal, the drive a roughing-the-passer and pass interference penalties.
Mauk struck twice in the fourth period to put the game out of reach.
The touchdown bomb to Hunt stunned the Vols and the partisan crowd. Mark hit Hunt in stride, he pushed aside one last defender and strolled into the end zone with the game-changing score. The Mauk-to-Sasser touchdown, as it turned out, was the clincher.
After the long scoring drought, the Vols dug deep for the Dobbs-to-Croom touchdown toss. Croom caught three passes for 42 yards in the game.
That set up the hectic sequence of onside kicks, neither of which worked.
Tennessee was able to threaten the Tigers late despite playing school-record seven true freshmen, a necessity caused by the suspensions of linebacker A.J. Johnson and cornerback Michael Williams – due to a rape investigation – and defensive back Brian Randolph, who sat out the first half after being penalized for targeting in the Kentucky game.
The Vols also were without injured center Mack Crowder and wide receiver Marquez North, and Jones said North would miss the rest of the season.
Missouri 7 6 3 13 – 29
Tennessee 3 10 0 8 – 21
MIZZ — Marcus Murphy 1 run (Andrew Baggett kick), 10:23
TENN – FG Aaron Medley 38, 3:41
TENN – Alex Ellis 31 pass from Patrick Ashford (Medley kick), 11:14
MIZZ – Murphy 7 run (kick failed), 7:50
TENN – FG Medley 39, 3:49
MIZZ – FG Baggett 43, 7:40
MIZZ – Jimmie Hunt 73 pass from Matt Mauk (Baggett kick), 10:42
MIZZ – Bud Sasser 13 pass from Mauk (kick failed)
TENN – Croom 4 pass from Joshua Dobbs (Dobbs run), 1:52
Attendance – 95,821
First Downs 19 18
Rushes-Yards 45-180 29-53
Passing Yards 230 226
Att-Com-Int 12-25-0 25-38-1
Total Yards 70-410 67-279
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 2-1
Punts.-Avg. 6-40.5 6-46.5
Penalties-Yds. 12-82 5-40
RUSHING — Missouri: Marcus Murphy 19-82, Russell Hansbrough 15-68, Maty Mauk 9-31, Ish Witter 1-3, Team 1-minus 4; Tennessee: Jalen Hurd 11-40, Joshua Dobbs 17-13, Marlin Lane 1-0.
PASSING — Missouri: Mauk 12-25-0 230; Tennessee: Dobbs 24-37-1 195, Patrick Ashford 1-1-0 31.
RECEIVING — Missouri: Jimmie Hunt 3-106, Bud Sasser 4-76, Sean Culkin 2-18, Murphy 1-15, Darius White 1-9, Hansbrough 1-6; Tennessee: Alton Howard 8-90, Von Pearson 3-42, Hurd 6-40, Alex Ellis 1-31, Jason Croom 3-10, Ryan Jenkins 1-6, Johnathon Johnson 1-6, Lane 1-2, Daniel Helm 1-minus 1.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)
Matt Darr punted six times for a 46.5-yard average in Tennessee's loss to Missouri on Saturday while playing his final game in Neyland Stadium. He had a 55-yarder in the first quarter.
- Photo2 by Dennis Norwood