COLUMBIA -- Missouri escaped.
The Tigers got a couple of big first downs on their final drive, a decisive one coming on a defensive pass interference on third-and-27 from their own 40-yard line, to hold on to beat the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 23-19 on Saturday and avoided an early-season letdown loss.
“Hard-fought victory,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “Hats off to Middle (Tennessee) for the way they played and competed, which is what they do every time they’ve been here. There’s a lot of stuff for us to improve on, but I’m going to focus on the positive.”
The biggest decision of the night came at the end of Missouri’s third drive in the second half. The Tigers started on their own 34, got a big run from quarterback Brady Cook to get to the 47, then got stuffed on third-and-one on the Blue Raider 44. At fourth-and-one and up 23-10, Drinkwitz decided to punt.
“Up 13, punt the ball, our defense has been playing pretty good defense,” Drinkwitz said. “Up 13, they’ve got to go 83 yards, which they did. But their chances of scoring are a lot less than at the 50. I think that’s the right play every time.”
Middle Tennessee then drove 84 yards on 11 plays, ending with a Nicholas Vattiato pass to Justin Olson for a 13-yard touchdown, cutting the lead to 23-17. Missouri thought it had a fourth-down stop when the Blue Raiders had goal-to-go, but after the pass was batted down, a false start was called, giving Middle Tennessee another chance. That led to the pass to Olson, who made multiple big grabs to finish the night with four catches for 51 yards.
The ensuing kickoff was caught backtracking into the end zone, but Marvin Burks decided to bring it out and was stopped at the Tiger 14.
On the first play of the drive, Cook was pressured and strip sacked in the backfield, with the fumble going out the side of the end zone for a safety to cut the lead to 23-19.
“Obviously we got beat on the protection there,” Drinkwitz said. “Brady got pressured and tried to make a throw. We can’t do that, we’ve got to be better in protection. Four sacks is way too many and I’m definitely disappointed by the amount of pressure we faced tonight.”
Missouri kicked to Middle Tennessee and the Blue Raiders got moving once again, converting multiple long third downs to keep the drive alive, but eventually faced a fourth-and-7 from the Tiger 42. Vattiato was pressured into a bad throw that fell short of his open receiver across the middle, giving Missouri the ball and a chance to run the clock out after the final defensive pass interference.
“I think there’s a lot of things to work on,” Drinkwitz said. “… There’s just so much to work on.”
Missouri got the scoring started in the first half when Harrison Mevis hit a 38-yard field goal with 3:58 left in the first quarter, finishing an eight-play, 34-yard drive. Nathaniel Peat controlled the drive, taking five consecutive carries for 45 yards, before penalties stalled the drive and forced the field goal.
Peat ended the game with eight carries for 51 yards to go with one catch for a 49-yard touchdown, totaling 100 yards.
Middle Tennessee responded with a 14-play, 86-yard drive, it’s first effective drive of the game, ending with Vattiato connecting with Kalani Norris on a 3-yard screen for a touchdown with 8:14 left in the first half.
Missouri was able to take the lead into halftime with a 16-play, 75-yard drive that seemed to end when Cook got around the end on a draw from the 3, but after review, the play was overturned and the Tigers had third-and-goal from inside the 1.
Cook then got a push on a quarterback sneak to get it on the next play, taking a 10-7 lead into halftime.
Middle Tennessee received the ball to start the second half, putting together a 14-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a Zeke Rankin 25-yard field goal to tie the score at 10 with 6:21 left in the third.
Missouri scored on the next two drives, the first an eight-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a Cook pass to Theo Wease for a 5-yard touchdown. Wease caught his first career score as a Tiger on a jump ball at the goal line, just beating his defender.
“I saw man coverage, so my eyes got extremely big,” Wease said. “It was a routine play.”
The Tigers then used seven plays to go 82 yards on the next drive, with Peat going in motion after the quarter break and no one following his wheel route to leave him wide open for a 49-yard touchdown catch.
“I was a little surprised being that wide open,” Peat said. “I went out in motion and saw nobody was coming after me so I went upfield. Saw the ball and had to score.”
Peat’s touchdown was the Tigers’ final score before the Blue Raiders’ late comeback attempt.
Cook completed 14-of-19 passes for 204 yards for the Tigers, including eight catches and 117 yards to Burden.
The Tigers also ran for 112 yards on 46 carries. Cody Schrader led the way with 23 attempts for 84 yards, pushing him past 4,000 career yards rushing.
“That wasn’t the game plan going in at all,” Drinkwitz said of the split between runs and passes.
Middle Tennessee (0-2) completed 22-of-36 passes for 214 yards and ran 29 times for 71 yards.
Missouri (2-0) will face its toughest test of the early season slate when it hosts No. 15 Kansas State at 11 a.m. next Saturday. The Wildcats (2-0) won 42-13 on Saturday against Troy.