Old man football beat new kid football on Saturday night in Missouri’s SEC home opener against Georgia.
The atmosphere was electric, the Zou was rocking, heading into halftime, the Tigers had the lead on the number 7 team in the country. The Missouri Tigers perpetual trivia answers for questions about miracle teams that went on to win improbable national titles — remember Colorado’s fifth down win and Nebraska’s miraculous kicked ball catch, both came against Mizzou — were going head-to-head with one of the best teams in the SEC.
This was a new birth of program freedom, a national television audience, one of the SEC’s top powers down eight midway through the third quarter with a raucous crowd chanting along and cannons exploding on the field as big play touchdowns piled up.
For the past ten months this is exactly what Missouri players, administrators, and fans had wanted to see. Their team going toe-to-toe with one of the SEC’s bluebloods.
After months of Big 12 fans mocking the Tigers, jealous over their departure for Southern football, validation was near. Beat Georgia and come what may for the rest of the season, the Tigers had proved they could play with the best in the SEC. To hear all those Big 12 conference foes tell it the Tigers would be fortunate if their games against SEC luminaries ended with anything short of death or dismemberment.
The criticism was deafening, Mizzou was in for beating after beating, an old careworn homemaker in a conference full of beguiling debutantes.
But now after months of listening to the critics, here it was, a chance for an upset that would vault Mizzou into the top ranks of the SEC east race. After months of ridicule from their jilted Big 12 foes, the Tigers finally had their chance to make a statement, to enter the SEC on a nationally televised stage against a top ten team and prove that they had the mettle, the fortitude, the discipline to play against the best in the country. But then Missouri coach Gary Pinkel played young man football, faking a punt on 4th and 11 from his own 35. Georgia stopped the fake and kicked a field goal to go up seven. Pinkel rolled the dice on young man football and lost.
Then came old man football.
More specifically, Georgia’s all-everything defensive end Jarvis Jones ripped the wheels off Mizzou’s offensive sports car and punted them deep into the Missouri night.
First Jones picked off a pass and returned it to the Missouri one-yard line. What had been a tight one score ballgame was suddenly a two-score bulge.
Then Jones struck again, flattening James Franklin on a blitz and causing a fumble that the Bulldogs recovered at the Mizzou five.
Just like that the old man had knocked out the young challenger.
“You can’t make mistakes like that, a one yard drive and a three yard drive, you can’t do it,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of his team’s late fourth quarter turnovers.
A sea of red-clad Bulldog fans began to chant, “Old man football,” as the final seconds of Missouri’s first SEC contest ticked off the clock. As soon as the game ended Georgia’s players climbed into the crowd and joined their fans in the chant. Georgia, without four of its top defensive players, had come on the road into a crazy atmosphere and held the Tigers to just twenty total points.
Mizzou will have better days in the SEC — and come Monday I’ll write about why the Tigers are a great addition to the league — but the second half of the fourth quarter was a disaster. For fifty-two minutes Mizzou showed it belonged in the SEC, over the final eight minutes the Tigers fell apart.
The SEC gave Mizzou and Texas A&M a chance to knock out a heavyweight with double home openers scheduled against Georgia and Florida.
Wins against either would prove that the Tigers and the Aggies were ready to compete at the top of the SEC. For a while it looked like both Mizzou and A&M would win — each team led late into the game — but the old men took every punch the new guys could muster and came back stronger.
Turns out the old men still know how to fight too.
In time so will Mizzou and Texas A&M.
But not yet.
Tonight belonged to the SEC veterans, the old men of the trenches.