From the very beginning, this one had the feeling of a stagecoach being pulled way, way too fast, down a very, very steep hill. And there was Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, hanging on to the reins for dear life amid the sweat and the dust, while the Lockheed Malzahn flew little Lockheed circles around Tigers.
It says here in the manual that the SEC Championship game is supposed to run like a monster-truck race. Pinkel had his men fitted with 48-inch tires and the kind of engine that could bring Jim Morrison back from the dead.
Only Auburn showed up in a Lamborghini, and away they went.
Auburn 59, Mizzou 42 was pure judo in cleats. Auburn took Pinkel’s greatest strength — namely, the upfield rushing of star defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy — and turned it against the Black and Gold, either rushing to a lane Mizzou had already vacated, or sending its defenders on a wild-goose chase while the rock was, in reality, somewhere else.
And you can’t say Mizzou didn’t do its part to try and settle the Heisman Trophy race: Auburn tailback Tre Mason — whose father, Vincent, is a member of the hip-hop group De La Soul — rumbled for 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. Although, really, the Tigers’ skill guys just took turns with the carving knife. Quarterback Nick Marshall picked up 101 on the ground via 16 totes and a score; Corey Grant, 65 on five and a score; Cameron Artis-Payne had 36 on two, including a massive 15-yard touchdown scamper that pushed the lead to 44-35 with :31 to go in the third quarter.
“You have to be a very disciplined assignment defense,” Pinkel told CBS’ Gary Danielson after the game. “Everybody’s got to be in gaps at a certain time.
“One minor error, with the skill that they have, can turn it into a 25-30 yard gain. I don’t think we played our best game on defense, but I think they did a great job and they deserved to win.”
You didn’t, they did and they did. It was a masterpiece for Gus Malzahn, who’s orchestrated several as a coordinator already. Auburn’s coach plays sleight-of-hand games with the ball — and with defenders’ fragile minds. You think the fullback has it, then the tailback, and it turns out the quarterback was the one holding it the entire time.
It’s like the shell game, only with the football. The perfect con.
Mizzou wanted to win. Malzahn wanted to win 55-45, or somewhere thereabouts. Auburn’s coach put the pedal to the floor right from the get-go, even unleashing an onside kick with four minutes and change left in the first quarter and while leading, 14-10. He gambled that his Tigers’ big plays could overcome the occasional mistake — two Auburn turnovers accounted for 10 Mizzou points in the first half — and that he could dance at a tempo that not even Pinkel’s offense could keep up with for four quarters.
And he was right. On both counts.
Malzahn’s troupe is the anti-Bama, the anti-LSU, the Oregon of the Waffle House Belt. It wasn’t that Mizzou couldn’t move the ball when it had to. It was that it always had to. The SEC East champions had the lead on four different occasions. For a grand total of exactly 8:59. By the time the smoke cleared, Auburn had collected 677 yards, a staggering 545 via the ground.
This Mizzou team was built differently than Pinkel’s previous Big 12 contenders, leading with the defense first. The Tigers came in to Saturday night surrendering just 119 rushing yards a contest, second-best in the SEC, thanks largely to that aforementioned pass rush of Ealy and Sam, constantly pushing opponents backwards.
Not this time, though. The 55 combined first-half points were the most ever scored in the history of the SEC title game. Of the 21 league championship tilts prior to this one, the final score failed to reach 55 in 15 of them.
Despite a cadre of NFL-caliber receivers and a salty offensive line, this Mizzou team wasn’t made for this kind of shootout, in this kind of venue, against this kind of opponent. When Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel went to a three-man line, The Flying Malzahns routinely found lane after lane, gash after gash.
It was the kind of evening that raised questions about in-game coaching, adjustments, focus. The kind that tended to dig up old gripes against Pinkel as a “big-game” coach, now that he’s 0-3 with the Tigers in league title games and 2-4 at Mizzou against ranked competition in December.
But what it doesn’t do is cast a pall on a remarkable, 11-2 autumn. Nor does it underscore that the Tigers somehow don’t have the chops to ball with the SEC’s bad boys. To write this smacks of condescension, but it isn’t: Regardless of this dumpster fire, for Mizzou to even be here, in Year 2 of the SEC Era, is a remarkable feat in and of itself.
Arkansas joined the SEC in 1990. It didn’t make this game until it was four years old (1995). South Carolina joined the SEC in the same year as the Hogs; it didn’t reach this stage until 19 of them had been played (2010). That December, the Gamecocks drew Auburn, too, and lost, 56-17.
Pinkel will dance again. Someday. You just hope, when that moment comes, he’s finally got the right horses. Or a good set of brakes.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter (@seankeeler) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.