Still no answers: The Tigers’ slide continues in loss to No. 11 Florida

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You might remember the 21st afternoon of September.

That’s the afternoon on which Ronnell Perkins stepped in front of a pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, preventing a game from unraveling. The afternoon on which Cale Garrett made a heads-up play to recover a fumble for a touchdown. The afternoon victory over South Carolina in which the Tigers made it appear as if they were different than past Barry Odom-coached teams.

That afternoon was one in which Missouri found ways to win instead of ways to lose. That victory was the signature on a five-game home winning streak. It helped make home a haven for the Tigers, and it provided at least a glimpse of hope for Saturday, when Missouri returned to Memorial Stadium after a three-game road trip with three losses.

But now? No longer do the Tigers have road woes. They just have woes.

Missouri, which lost 23-6 Saturday to No. 11 Florida, looked like a shell of the team that once made game-defining plays and looked nearly invincible in Columbia. The Tigers (5-5) have now lost four consecutive games.

Clearly, there has been a mental shift with this Missouri team.

“You’ve got to go in and you’ve got to have that mentality that you are going to make something happen,” receiver Barrett Banister said. “You’re going to make that play instead of sitting there and saying, ‘OK, what’s the next bad thing that is going to happen?’”

On Saturday, the next bad things seemed to happen in threes.

There were three moments and three penalties that best display the ways in which Missouri isn’t making the game-deciding plays or the right-thinking decisions it mustered during the winning streak.

There’s Nick Bolton’s drop. He jumped a route on third down in the fourth quarter, but he didn’t catch the football. No one would have stopped him en route to the end zone. That’s a play he made during the home stand when he picked off a pass for a touchdown against West Virginia. If he makes the same play against Florida, Bolton brings Missouri within 13-10 midway through the third quarter.

“If I consider myself a playmaker, I’ve got to make those plays,” Bolton said. “As a whole, we’ve just got to find ways to make plays down the stretch.”

Cornerback DeMarkus Acy also appeared to have an easy interception that might have changed the game. But he dropped it, too.

The third play that could have significantly affected the outcome had it gone down differently was a non-interception interception by safety Khalil Oliver. After a 28-yard Tucker McCann field goal, Missouri had drawn within 13-6 with 6:49 left in the third quarter. On the next drive, Oliver came up with a pass from Florida quarterback Kyle Trask intended for tight end Kyle Pitts. But after conferencing, the officials ruled it a catch for Pitts. Then a review let the play stand.

“I don’t think the receiver ever had complete control of the ball to secure the catch,” Odom said. “They saw it differently.”

Either way, Missouri didn’t get the call, and the play advanced a Florida drive. Gators running back Lamical Perine capped it with another touchdown, giving Florida a 20-6 lead with 2:58 left in the third.

“If you get your hands on the ball, you’ve got to take advantage of it,” Oliver said. “If you’re in a position to make a play, you need to make it. I think that’s probably where, if we look at the film, some of our guys weren’t in the right position sometimes, and that’s why they got some of the big plays.”

Missouri penalties also helped set up the Gators for success and the Tigers for failure. Many of them could easily have been avoided, but this team often snatches defeat from the jaws of victory in these moments.

Florida held only a 6-3 lead at halftime, a significant start for Missouri considering how poorly the Tigers have played over the past three weeks. Then on the Gators’ first drive in the second half, they marched down the field and scored in three plays to take a 13-6 lead as Trask threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to receiver Josh Hammond.

The play that set up the touchdown? Missouri defensive end Tre Williams was called for a hands-to-the-face penalty that gave Florida 15 yards.

“The hands there, they slid up and the helmet comes off,” Odom said. “We’ve got to aim lower.”

There was also the penalty on tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. With his extracurriculars, he nullified a Missouri first down after Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate tackled Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant out of bounds.

Then there were the three penalties on one play — yes, one play — at the beginning of the fourth quarter that put Missouri’s offense in third-and-38. Yes, third-and-38. Florida declined the illiegal procedure call but accepted the holding call on tackle Larry Borom and the personal foul on guard Case Cook.

Odom said Missouri hoped to come close to the yard marker when it was third-and-13 to set up a manageable fourth down. The Tigers planned to go for it on fourth down if they were relatively close to the sticks, Odom said. Thirty-eight yards, though, made that all but impossible.

Penalties happen, and teams don’t always produce touchdowns off turnovers. But remember that 21st afternoon in September? When Missouri was back at home winning every game, the Tigers didn’t commit unnecessary penalty after unnecessary penalty. The Tigers didn’t drop easy interceptions.

Back then, they made plays. In the critical moments that might have gone either way, Missouri found ways to make the numbers on the scoreboard reflect the little victories on each snap.

Now the Tigers are finding ways not to win those moments. And the scoreboard at the end of the game reflects that, too.

“We built a culture around that we don’t lose in November,” cornerback Christian Holmes said. “We built a culture around we don’t lose at home. It really hurts to see everything unfold.”

Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.

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