Second-quarter explosion fuels Tigers to rout of Tennessee

November 18, 2018

As the play unfolded in the secondary at Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon, DeMarkus Acy focused on Keller Chryst’s hands.

Just like he did in the film room.

In their preparation last week for Missouri’s battle in Knoxville with the Volunteers, Acy and his fellow defensive backs picked up on hand signals used by Tennessee’s quarterbacks that tipped their intentions. So when Acy, the Tigers’ junior cornerback, saw Chryst drop his hand below his waist at the 28-yard line with 57 seconds remaining in the first half, he knew it meant a fade route from UT wide receiver Marquez Callaway was coming his way. He sat back and waited for the pass.

The result was an interception, and Acy returned it 76 yards, all the way to Tennessee’s 11-yard line. The timely pick gave quarterback Drew Lock and the Tigers’ offense the ball in the red zone with 44 seconds left before halftime.

Three plays later, Lock hit Johnathon Johnson for a 3-yard touchdown to vault Missouri ahead 26-10. The score was the Tigers’ third in as many possessions, and helped cap off a dominant second quarter that fueled Missouri to its 50-17 victory over the Volunteers.

“It was a huge play for us,” Acy said. “That momentum carried us on through the rest of the game.”

The Tigers have been hot in the month of November on the road. Their Week 12 win over Tennessee (5-6, 2-5 SEC) is their third straight victory; they’re now 9-2 in the year’s eleventh month in three seasons under Barry Odom. Saturday’s potent second quarter, followed by an equally powerful performance after halftime, helped the Tigers overcome a slow start against a Volunteers’ team still playing for bowl eligibility.

Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley dialed up all the right moves in his return to Knoxville — he served as Tennessee’s head coach from 2010-2012 — as his Tigers racked up 484 yards and their third-highest point total this season against his former team. Lock completed 70 percent of his passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns, passing Georgia’s David Greene for second on the SEC’s all-time passing yards list in the process. Larry Rountree III was the running back of choice in this game, with Damarea Crockett limited by an ankle sprain, and the sophomore back ran strong for 126 yards and a score on 26 carries.

Defensively, the Tigers clamped down on Tennessee, holding the Vols to just 255 yards of total offense.

The contest this week was framed as a revenge game for Dooley ... by all but the man himself; the Tigers’ first-year coordinator refused to play into that notion. But his players took up the cause for Dooley on Saturday, both with their offensive output on the field and with their words after the game.

“I actually saw him on the field for the first time after a game,” Lock said. “Normally, I wait to get to the locker room and that’s where he’s at. I think he wanted to come down and step foot on that field after he put a little 50-ball up on his old boys. It meant a lot to me, I know for sure.”

Despite the wide margin of victory, the breathing was not altogether easy on Missouri’s sidelines for the entire 60 minutes. The Tigers trailed 7-6 at the 10:45 mark of the second quarter until they surged to the 21-3 run that changed the complexion of the game.

“That swung everything,” linebacker Cale Garrett said.

Before it, the Volunteers were in the game solely because Missouri had failed to capitalize on the listless start by a Tennessee offense that gained minus-17 yards on nine plays on its first three possessions. On the third play from scrimmage, Vols’ quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, a redshirt sophomore, took a shot to the head on a sack by Tigers’ safety Tyree Gillespie. Guarantano returned for the next two possessions — drives which yielded Tennessee minus-8 yards — but exited early in the second quarter with a “head injury.”

But while the Vols’ struggled, Missouri could only muster Tucker McCann field goals on two red-zone trips and closed out the first quarter leading 6-0. It left the window open for Tennessee; and when Chryst replaced Guarantano early in the second quarter, the backup took full advantage. The six-play, 69-yard scoring drive he pieced together on his first possession put the Volunteers in the lead, and breathed life back into the 88,224-strong Neyland Stadium crowd that had been silent for much of the first quarter.

It was then, though, that Missouri asserted itself with the trio of scores that put the game to sleep.

Tyler Badie, making his return from a foot injury, got things started with a 4-yard run for the Tigers’ first touchdown of the day with 8:15 remaining in the half. Seven minutes later, Lock helped increase the lead at the end of a 13-play, 75-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide-out Dominic Gicinto.

Then came Acy’s interception. The play took the momentum the Tigers had been building and pushed it over the edge. They entered the locker room leading by 16, but the play and points that came from it carried so much more. Missouri cruised from that point on.

“We needed that one,” head coach Barry Odom said. “Being able to get down there and come away with a touchdown from it was huge.”

The Volunteers showed brief life after the half, scoring on their first possession. But Missouri responded with a touchdown from Rountree and a 39-yard scoop and score by safety Joshua Bledsoe on a fumble one possession later, sealing things for the Tigers.

Coming on strong as an impact defensive back for the Tigers in recent weeks with strong performances against Florida and Vanderbilt, Acy delivered his finest game yet on Saturday. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound corner had two tackles and a pass break-up to go with a second interception, this one in the fourth quarter, in the win. But no play was bigger than the interception just before halftime.

Acy’s late-season emergence is representative of the steps the rest of the Tigers have taken in the late stages of 2018 as well. Much as Missouri has learned now how to smother opponents and hold onto leads, the junior defensive back has used his size and physicality to do the same to opposing receivers.

In tandem, Acy and the Tigers are firing on all cylinders at this point in the season, playing as well as they have at any point over the past few years. That was on full display Saturday.

Missouri now heads into a short week and its annual matchup with Arkansas, slated for Friday afternoon. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. CT, and the game will be shown on CBS.

Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.

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