Florida head coach Dan Mullen watched the football arc through the Missouri night sky, thrown off the back foot of Tigers quarterback Connor Bazelak as he evaded collapsing pressure. The ball hung suspended in the air for a moment before returning to the earth.
The pass found its target, tight end David Parker Jr., for the game-winning 2-point conversion. As the Missouri sideline erupted into pandemonium, Mullen wordlessly removed his headset and walked to midfield. The Tigers capitalized on a few Florida mistakes in the first half and rode the hot hand of star running back Tyler Badie in the second half Saturday to prevail 24-23 in an extended defensive prizefight in Columbia, Missouri.
Florida and Missouri entered Saturday’s contest with two of the worst defenses in the Southeastern Conference. The Gators surrendered at least 34 points in each of their past four games against opponents like Samford and South Carolina, and Missouri allowed 30 or more points in six of its first 10 games.
So naturally, the first half became a defensive chess match.
Neither team could reach the end zone as placekickers Chris Howard and Harrison Mevis traded haymaker after haymaker in a desperate struggle for the high ground.
The maligned UF defense, playing its first conference game since the dismissal of former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, held the Tigers to 118 first-half yards as Missouri converted one of its seven third down attempts.
Despite their anemic offensive work, Missouri waltzed to the locker room with a 9-6 lead. Mevis connected from 39, 46, and 31 yards to build the lead, as Florida blunders let its SEC foes create three successful drives.
The Gators’ second possession began with their own end zone breathing down quarterback Emory Jones’ neck. After failing to move the chains, punter Jeremy Crawshaw’s first effort of the afternoon went 12 measly yards, setting the Tigers up within the red zone for field goal number one.
On the second scoring drive, Florida’s kicking unit left a seam, which let the Tigers’ Elijah Young scamper all the way to the 37-yard line. Bazelak hit tight end Niko Hea for 26 yards two plays later, and the Tigers moved well into Florida territory.
Missouri faced a fourth and 1 on the next drive and left the offense out, but Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate jumped into the neutral zone to extend the drive. A 50-yard prayer from Bazelak to Mizzou wideout Tauskie Dove later, and the Tigers reached scoring range for the third time.
“A couple of plays we didn’t make in a couple key moments of the game,” Mullen said after the game. “That’s on us coaches, got to create the mental toughness for the guys.”
After a touchdown-free opening half, Florida found the end zone with whiplash-inducing tempo in the third quarter. Jones found wide receiver Trent Whittemore for a 45-yard catch-and-run over the middle on the first play to set the Gators up five yards from the goal line.
Running back Dameon Pierce took a handoff two plays later and found contact initially, but the senior’s legs churned the earth and forced the pile forward into the end zone, taking three defenders with him. The Gators surged ahead for their first lead, 13-9.
From there, Badie seized control. The conference’s leading rusher looked like he had been told to run circles through a phone booth in the first half, but he rattled off three straight carries of 28, 17 and 19 yards late in the third quarter to climb over 100 yards for the afternoon.
After a lackluster 119 yards on his first 21 attempts, Bazelak came through. He found Hea streaking alone down the right sideline for a 41-yard touchdown, and Missouri led again, 16-13.
Howard knotted the game at 16 points apiece with a 33-yard field goal on the next drive, and both teams needed more than four quarters to decide a winner. As the clock expired, the tie remained and the Missouri crowd was treated to free football.
Florida’s offense charged down the field to score on the first possession of overtime, with a trick pass from Whittemore to Jones reminiscent of the Philly Special giving the Gators a 23-16 lead.
Badie went right back to work. He ripped through tacklers down the left sideline on back-to-back carries, the latter ending with him barging through into the end zone. Badie ended his day with 146 yards on 27 carries.
Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz wasn’t satisfied with a tie game, however. He sent his offense back onto the field for a 2-point conversion. With the entire game on the line over 2 yards, Bazelak found Parker for the score.
Florida finished 2-6 in its SEC schedule this season, the team’s worst record since increasing to eight games in 1992 and least conference wins in a season since 1986.
“We’re out there trying,” Mullen said. “We’re giving it everything we have every single week. We go in there, try to coach our guys up, try to put them in position, try to motivate them.”
The Gators sit 5-6 on the season and need to defeat Florida State at home next Saturday to earn bowl eligibility.
Contact Ryan Haley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.
Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.