If you were asked to pick the most important play in Missouri's 21-20 upset of South Carolina, it probably wouldn't take too long to decide. Russell Hansbrough scores the game-winning touchdown on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1-yard line with 96 seconds left in the game. Easy, right?
Sure, the Tigers don't win if Hansbrough doesn't get the ball past the goal line. But there were plenty of other key moments that, if they had gone awry, could've doomed the Tigers to their second straight loss. Alas, they didn't, and now Missouri controls its fate in its division.
These five plays, ignoring that pesky game-wining touchdown, were the biggest factors in unranked Missouri pulling off the upset.
Q1 13:14, South Carolina ball, fourth-and-1 at Missouri's 42
Four plays into the game and the Head Ball Coach is already going for it. The Tigers sent linebackers Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer up the middle, and Brothers, who tackled tailback Shon Carson in open space the play before, ran untouched through the gap to the left of Shane Ray, playing tackle. Brothers made the tackle on Brandon Wilds for no gain.
Judging by the way he turned and gave a passing flail at Brothers before settling on a downfield block, the Gamecocks' center was most likely supposed to chip Brothers on the play. Instead, Brothers had a clear path to Wilds and gave Missouri its best starting field position of the game.
Q1 12:49, Missouri ball, first-and-10 at South Carolina's 27
For a game with so much late-game drama, you might not expect two of the most crucial moments to have come from the first three minutes. Yet, as it became abundantly clear over the next three quarters, scoring would be at a premium for the Tigers, and a team's first touchdown is as important as its last.
On Missouri's second play from scrimmage, Maty Mauk sailed a downfield pass over the head of Bud Sasser, who caught a screen pass and gained 15 yards on the previous play. Sasser was running up the seam, but there appeared to be some miscommunication between the senior receiver and his quarterback. Sasser looked to be mid-adjustment by the time the ball landed in double coverage, into the hands of Gamecocks safety Chaz Elder.
As the Gamecocks celebrated the apparent interception, a yellow flag sat on the field. Offsides. Glass-half-full Tigers fans may have thought Mauk recognized the free play and decided to launch a deep ball. However, on review, Mauk's pass and the flag were thrown simultaneously, and the offsides player was not blatantly enough across the line for Mauk to notice. (In fact, he might not have even been offsides at all.) Plus, Missouri quarterbacks coach Andy Hill looked pretty angry at Mauk afterward.
In other words, Missouri got lucky. The Tigers got to keep the ball and scored three plays later to take a quick 7-0 lead.
Q3 8:12, South Carolina ball, first-and-10 at Missouri's 6
As Gamecocks receiver Nick Jones streaked down an open field, ball in hand, and cut past Duron Singleton at the Tigers' 20, it looked highly doubtful South Carolina would end this drive with anything but seven points. But Charles Harris and Kenya Dennis chased Jones down, and on the next play the Gamecocks let their best chance to extend the lead to 10 slip through their fingers.
Missouri put seven men on the line, and one, Aarion Penton, dropped back into coverage. South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson faked a play-action run to Wilds, and Penton bit, giving tight end Rory Anderson space in the corner of the end zone. Harold Brantley got his hands in Thompson's face, and Shane Ray ran back from the flat to try to tip the pass, but it landed safely in Anderson's hands.
Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, it didn't stay there. The ball slipped through the tight end's fingers and off his foot, right in front of the Missouri cheering section. Anderson squatted and put his hands to his facemask in dismay and Thompson whipped his mouthguard out in disbelief.
Ray's pursuit on the ball might have distracted Anderson, though the senior seemed to look up as his hands hit pigskin. Either way, the Tigers notched tackles for loss on the next two plays, and Misouri saved four points, which proved to be crucial.
Q4 7:19, Missouri ball, first-and-10 at Missouri's 32
The game seemed all but over at this point. South Carolina had just scored on a 23-yard pass to Pharoh Cooper to take a 13-point lead, and Missouri's last 12 drives had all ended in either a punt, a missed field goal or the end of the half.
But Mauk didn't let his 9-of-29 passing deter him from launching a ball downfield on the first play of the drive. Like much of the game, South Carolina was giving extra attention to Sasser, as senior receiving threats Darius White and Jimmie Hunt were out with injuries.
This time, however, it didn't matter. Mauk managed to thread the ball between two defenders and Sasser turned, leapt and pulled down the 41-yard reception. The play resulted in more yardage than Missouri's previous three possessions combined.
Sasser had run straight down the left sideline. It was a pretty throw and a pretty catch, nothing more. But suddenly, the Tigers looked capable of moving the football, and they continued to prove it, scoring two plays later to cut the lead back to six.
Q4 5:35, South Carolina, third-and-12 at South Carolina's 23
Though Missouri made it a one-score game again with a surprising three-play scoring drive, the Tigers had proved incapable for much of the game of closing a six-point gap. They needed a stop.
This play itself was nothing spectacular, but it was both necessary - it forced a three-and-out to get Missouri the ball back - and representative of what the Tigers' defense had done so well throughout the game. After the defense forced stops on first and second down, Ray put pressure on Thompson on third to force him to use his checkdown option. Brothers, who made a tackle on the previous play, quickly downed Anderson in open territory to hold him to a 2-yard gain.
Brothers and Ray each finished the game with eight tackles, and Ray notched two sacks on his way to Southeastern Conference defensive lineman of the week honors.
More important, the Tigers got the ball back with enough time to take the lead.