Crim: Comeback against Florida shows Mizzou football team not destined to continue trend of disappointing finishes

Missouri Tigers wide receiver Luther Burden III (3) runs with the ball during the second half of the SEC football game between the Florida Gators and Missouri Tigers on Nov 18, 2023 in Columbia, MO.  Mathew Kirby.

Wide receiver Luther Burden III and the Mizzou football team rallied to beat Florida last Saturday to improve to 9-2. | Mathew Kirby photo

QUINCY — Maybe the perception of the Missouri football program is changing.

Coming off a 36-7 demolition of Tennessee after going toe-to-toe with top-ranked Georgia between the hedges, the Tigers moved up to ninth in the College Football Playoff rankings. There was talk of a New Year’s Six bowl game. They were double-digit home favorites against Florida.

It was a game past Missouri teams — dogged by the memories of the Fifth Down, the Fleakicker, and other deflating twists and turns that so often snatched defeat from the jaws of victory — would have lost, especially when the Gators rallied to take the lead three times in the second half Saturday.

Only this time, the Tigers answered not once, not twice, but three times.

Down one with 96 seconds remaining and a fairy-tale season hanging in the balance, Brady Cook, the quarterback fans loathed earlier in the season, used a 27-yard completion to Luther Burden III on fourth and 17 to march his team 62 yards into field goal range for Harrison Mevis to win it with five ticks left, 33-31.

Beat Arkansas Friday and Mizzou will record 10 victories in a season for the first time since 2014, finish second in the SEC East after being projected for sixth and earn a top-tier bowl invitation.

Raise your hand if you saw this coming?

The biggest turnaround has been on offense under first-year coordinator Kirby Moore. While the Tigers converted only 1 of 5 trips into TDs against Florida, they lead the nation in percentage converting red zone trips into points at 97.9 percent, or 47 for 48. They’re averaging nearly 33 points per game.

With more of a focus on attacking downfield, Cook has emerged as one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, completing 67 percent of his passes for 3,077 yards, 18 TDs and just six interceptions. He has also run for seven scores.

Former walk-on Cody Schrader leads the SEC with 1,272 rushing yards. Burden, with 1,142 receiving yards and eight scores despite some nagging injuries, has become the explosive threat he was envisioned to be coming out of high school.

The question will be whether this season is sustainable or just another flash in the pan. That’s a discussion for another day. For now, enjoy this improbable ride while it lasts.

• Bowling Green advanced to the Missouri Class 2 high school football semifinals for the second straight season with a convincing 50-22 victory Saturday over two-time defending Class 1 champion East Buchanan, which moved up a class this year.

Running back Bleyne Bryant scored three of his five touchdowns in the first half as the Bobcats bolted to a 38-0 lead in winning their 13th straight game. Next up is a road date with Lamar, which is north of Joplin.

Lamar was the Class 2 runner-up in each of the last two years after winning eight titles between 2011 and 2020. The Tigers defeated Lafeyette County 41-7 in the quarterfinals, their eighth straight win after suffering their only loss in 12 games to Seneca in Week 4.

Bowling Green was ousted in the semifinals last season by eventual champion Blair Oaks 66-48. First-year coach Mark St. Clair, who won 185 games during his 22 seasons at Hannibal before being coaxed out of retirement, is two wins shy of 200 for his career, so a title would be doubly sweet.

Unbeaten Fair Grove and once-beaten Valle Catholic meet in the other semifinal. Fair Grove beat undefeated Columbia Father Tolton 27-13 and Valle knocked off Lift for Life Academy 47-14.

Bowling Green and Fair Grove are two of five unbeaten teams left in the Missouri playoffs in all classifications. The others are Marionville (12-0) in Class 1, Seneca (12-0) in Class 3 and Cardinal Ritter (12-0) in Class 5.

• Hannibal saw its season end in the Missouri Class 4 quarterfinals for the third time in four seasons — and the sixth time since 2015 — when it lost a 70-61 shootout to Lutheran North despite a seven-touchdown performance by University of Notre Dame-bound running back Aneyas Williams.

The game turned when the Crusaders scored three straight times to close out the first half and again on their first two possessions of the second half to turn a 27-22 deficit into a 54-27 lead before the Pirates mounted a late comeback.

Still alive in Class 4 is Jefferson City, which Hannibal manhandled 42-21 in Week 2. Once one of the state’s dominant programs, winning 10 titles between 1976 and 1997, the Jays have won four postseason games after finishing the regular season at 5-4.

Jeff City faces Kearney (11-2) in one semifinal, while Lutheran North (11-1) plays Hillsboro (11-1) in the other.

Meanwhile, Jefferson City Helias, which handed Hannibal its only regular-season loss in Week 1, was bounced in the Class 5 quarterfinals by Republic 28-21.

• Truman State won nine games for the third consecutive season to inch Bulldogs coach Gregg Nesbitt closer to becoming the school’s all-time wins leader. Nesbitt is 89-59 in 14 seasons, trailing only Maurice “Red” Wade, who went 99-41-2 from 1951-66.

Only Wade has been the head coach more seasons at Truman (16) than Nesbitt, a Hannibal native who lettered for the Bulldogs in 1978 and 1979 and served as the team’s defensive coordinator/linebacker coach from 1990-93 after six seasons as head coach at Hannibal High School.

Nesbitt also coached for 13 seasons at Columbia (Mo.) Hickman, winning the Class 6 state championship in 2004 to earn Missouri Coach of the Year honors from the Associated Press, before returning to the collegiate ranks.

The Bulldogs finished second behind Indianapolis in the Great Lakes Valley Conference this season.

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