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COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Missouri Tigers came to the Southeastern Conference’s other Columbia as favorites for the first time this season. They played like it for the game’s first half Saturday at South Carolina.

Then the second half lived up to 2020’s pledge to make nothing easy.

On the field for their first game in three weeks and with a roster depleted by injuries COVID-19 contact tracing, the Tigers outlasted South Carolina 17-10 in a battle of attrition.

Players were missing. Coaches were missing. As always in the Year of COVID, the fans were missing. Just 13,603 were stationed around Williams-Brice Stadium.

Those who stuck around had their hearts in their throat … up until Mizzou linebacker Devin Nicholson snagged Luke Doty’s pass to clinch the Tigers’ victory and their first on the road under Eli Drinkwitz.

With the win, Missouri (3-3) retained the Mayor’s Cup trophy and heads home to host Arkansas on Saturday.

In the Tigers’ first visit here since their meltdown in the monsoon in 2018, they tempted fate again in the second half, ceding momentum to the home team after racing to a 17-0 halftime lead. In a chilling reminder of another Mizzou collapse against South Carolina, a second-half quarterback change sparked a surge for the Gamecocks.

With 4:59 left, the Gamecocks punched in a 1-yard touchdown to make it a one-score game. This time, though, Mizzou’s lead proved durable enough. The Tigers punted on their next series—their fifth straight punt of the second half—but Grant McKinniss dropped his kick on the USC 1-yard line.

Doty, USC’s freshman quarterback, managed a few first downs but didn’t see Nicholson covering the middle of the field and hit him square in the hands to extinguish the rally.

The Tigers, with only 52 scholarship players available, outgained South Carolina 311-283 but could barely move the chains in the second half.

It wasn’t the most awe-inspiring first half of offense for the Tigers, but a touchdown pass by Connor Bazelak and a 1-yard TD run by Larry Rountree III was more than enough scoring to complement a swarming defense. With coordinator Ryan Walters back home in COVID-19 contact tracing, his defense stopped South Carolina on six of eight third downs and logged seven tackles for loss. Linebacker Nick Bolton played one of his best halves of the season — and that’s saying something — and led all players with nine tackles, two in the backfield.

All it took Missouri was one offensive series to shake off the cobwebs from its three-week chasm between games. Following a quick three-and-out possession, the Tigers visited the end zone first on Bazelak’s first touchdown pass in six weeks, a beautiful 20-yard back-shoulder fade to Tauskie Dove, who snagged the TD falling on his back into the end zone.

South Carolina’s offense, with interim coach Mike Bobo trying to salvage a spiraling season, spoiled a promising opening drive then simply collapsed. On USC’s opening possession, standout receiver Shi Smith struggled getting up after a collision in the flat and the Gamecocks never seemed to recover without their best playmaker. Two plays later running back Kevin Harris dropped a fourth-down pass out of the backfield. USC’s next three drives covered just 6 yards, all three-and-out possessions. The Gamecocks failed to move the chains on their first four third downs and had no answer for Mizzou’s blitzers. Twice strong safety Martez Manuel blitzed off the front edge and dropped quarterback Collin Hill for sacks.

By then, the Tigers led 14-0 with Rountree adding a 1-yard touchdown plunge.  

On his eighth carry of the night, Rountree made Mizzou history with an 11-yard run off the left side, giving him 19 yards for the night, the exact figure he needed to pass Zack Abron for No. 2 on the team’s career rushing list and making him the program’s all-time leader for running backs. Abron finished his career in 2003 on top of the list with 3,198 yards, later eclipsed by quarterback Brad Smith, still the record-holder with a healthy lead on the pack at 4,289 yards. Rountree finished the night with 58 yards on 21 carries.

On the same drive the Tigers crossed midfield but from the USC 25-yard line, Bazelak underthrew his third-down pass to Dove near the front pylon — but didn’t underthrow cornerback Cam Smith, who made the interception, Bazelak’s first since the Tennessee game in the season’s second game.

The Gamecocks couldn’t do anything with the extra possession and punted for the fifth straight series. Mizzou got as close as the 2-yard line but settled for a Harrison Mevis field goal to close out the half.

With their season wheezing its last breaths, the Gamecocks made a quarterback change in the second half — a scenario Mizzou fans know too well. It was in 2013 when a hobbled Connor Shaw came off the bench for Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks and rallied his team to an overtime victory at Mizzou, handing the Tigers their only regular-season loss that year.

MU’s biggest lead that night? 17-0. With the Tigers in front by the same score Saturday, South Carolina turned to Doty, who delivered his team’s first points on the board, setting up a field goal with a few completions and first-down runs.

Coincidentally, Saturday was Shaw’s debut game as South Carolina’s newly promoted quarterbacks coach. He had served as the team’s director of player development until USC fired coach Will Muschamp last Sunday, opening a spot on the coaching staff.

This time, though, no karma, no curses,  the rally ran out of life.

HALFTIME UPDATE

 

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The Missouri Tigers came to the Southeastern Conference’s other Columbia as favorites for the first time this season. They played like it for the game’s first half.

Mizzou, with a streamlined roster and its defensive coordinator back home in quarantine, took a 17-0 lead into halftime, holding South Carolina to just 68 yards of offense.

It wasn’t the most awe-inspiring half of offense for the Tigers, but a touchdown pass by Connor Bazelak and a 1-yard TD run by Larry Rountree III was more than enough scoring to complement a swarming defense. With coordinator Ryan Walters back home in COVID-19 contact tracing, his defense stopped South Carolina on six of eight third downs and logged seven tackles for loss. Linebacker Nick Bolton played one of his best halves of the season — and that’s saying something — and led all players with nine tackles, two in the backfield.

All it took Missouri was one offensive series to shake off the cobwebs from its three-week chasm between games. Following a quick three-and-out possession, the Tigers visited the end zone first on Bazelak’s first touchdown pass in six weeks, a beautiful 20-yard back-shoulder fade to Tauskie Dove, who snagged the TD falling on his back into the end zone.

South Carolina’s offense, with interim coach Mike Bobo trying to salvage a spiraling season, spoiled a promising opening drive then simply collapsed. On USC’s opening possession, standout receiver Shi Smith struggled getting up after a collision in the flat and the Gamecocks never seemed to recover without their best playmaker. Two plays later running back Kevin Harris dropped a fourth-down pass out of the backfield. USC’s next three drives covered just 6 yards, all three-and-out possessions. The Gamecocks failed to move the chains on their first four third downs and had no answer for Mizzou’s blitzers. Twice strong safety Martez Manuel blitzed off the front edge and dropped quarterback Collin Hill for sacks.

By then, the Tigers led 14-0 with Rountree adding a 1-yard touchdown plunge.  

On his eighth carry of the night, Rountree made Mizzou history with an 11-yard run off the left side, giving him 19 yards for the night, the exact figure he needed to pass Zack Abron for No. 2 on the team’s career rushing list and making him the program’s all-time leader for running backs. Abron finished his career in 2003 on top of the list with 3,198 yards, later eclipsed by quarterback Brad Smith, still the record-holder with a healthy lead on the pack at 4,289 yards. Rountree finished the half with 36 yards on 11 carries.

On the same drive the Tigers crossed midfield but from the USC 25-yard line, Bazelak underthrew his third-down pass to Dove near the front pylon — but didn’t underthrow cornerback Cam Smith, who made the interception, Bazelak’s first since the Tennessee game in the season’s second game.

The Gamecocks couldn’t do anything with the extra possession and punted for the fifth straight series. Mizzou got as close as the 2-yard line but settled for a Harrison Mevis field goal to close out the half.

PREGAME UPDATE

Greetings from the Palmetto State, where it’s a gorgeous, 70-degree evening with no monsoons in the forecast. If you remember Missouri’s last visit to South Carolina, it was a dreary, wet day for the Tigers.

Kickoff for Mizzou-South Carolina is set for 6:30 p.m. (St. Louis time) at Williams-Brice Stadium on SEC Network Alternate. 

Lots of roster updates for the Tigers. First off, Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is in COVID-19 contact tracing and did not make the trip. (He did not test positive for the virus and missed nearly the last two weeks of practice, a team spokesman confirmed.) Cornerbacks coach David Gibbs will serve as MU’s coordinator tonight. Staffer Grant O’Brien was elevated to defensive assistant in Walters’ absence.

Several players are out of the game while in COVID contact tracing, including starting defensive tackle Markell Utsey and key backup cornerbacks Ish Burdine and Adam Sparks. Others in contact tracing include receivers J.J. Hester and Boo Smith, backup quarterback Shawn Robinson, offensive guard Dylan Spencer, outside linebackers Sci Martin Jr. and Johnny Walker.

Another big loss for Mizzou tonight: defensive end/outside linebacker Trajan Jeffcoat will be unavailable. He made the trip to Columbia - his hometown - but he's out of uniform and will be held out. 

Spencer and Utsey were suspended by the SEC for the first half of their next game for their role in the fight at Florida on Oct. 31, but after discussions with the league office this week, including commissioner Greg Sankey, the SEC will allow their suspensions to be served tonight, even though neither is available. Also, linebacker Chad Bailey’s half-game suspension will be pushed back to later in the season so that he can be available for all of tonight’s game, as ruled by the SEC.

Mizzou has 56 scholarship players here overall, including three who have been out with injuries and are available only in emergency situations: offensive guard Xavier Delgado, offensive tackle Larry Borom and nose tackle Kobie Whiteside.

The defense is in experienced hands. Gibbs has been a coordinator at four different FBS schools, most recently Texas Tech from 2015-18. 

With Robinson unavailable, freshman Brady Cook (Chaminade Prep) is the only other scholarship quarterback available. He has not appeared in a game this season.

MU will be limited at nose tackle without Utsey or Whiteside. Expect Akial Byers to get major snaps inside. 

Luke Griffin, a redshirt freshman, is expected to make his first career start at left guard in place of Spencer and Delgado.

Burdine and Sparks are the team's Nos. 3 and 4 cornerbacks. Some untested players will have to see some action - unless starters Ennis Rakestraw Jr. and Jarvis Ware play every snap.

Dave Matter

@dave_Matter on Twitter

dmatter@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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