KNOXVILLE — The football sailed through the uprights behind Neyland Stadium's north end zone.
Tennessee's potential first Southeastern Conference win of 2012 slipped through its grasp long before that kick by Missouri's Andrew Baggett.
The first-year SEC member overcame an awful first half, rallied from a two-touchdown second-half deficit with a late tying drive and outlasted the Volunteers 51-48 on Baggett's 35-yard field goal in the fourth overtime Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium.
"That was a hard one, guys," Derek Dooley said after a loss that dropped his SEC record to 4-18 in three seasons as Tennessee's coach. "We had a lot of opportunities to win the game. Our players played their tails off, but we just didn't execute at the end to win the game.
"It's a tough locker room right now."
The Vols dominated the first half and led 28-14 midway through the third quarter after LaDarrell McNeil scooped up a fumble forced by nose tackle Daniel McCullers to set up a touchdown. An SEC-worst defense that entered the game 112th nationally in yards allowed surrendered just 64 yards, forced two three-and-outs and picked off one James Franklin pass in an impressive first half, while the Vols rolled up 383 yards of offense.
Yet a lead that felt much bigger was just 21-7 at halftime after Tennessee allowed a kickoff-return touchdown, Marlin Lane fumbled inside the Tigers' 10 and Michael Palardy missed a field goal.
"Guys are real down," said senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner. "[It's disappointing] any time you have a tough loss like this when the game was pretty much in your hands throughout the final seconds of the game."
An offense that imposed its will in the first half faltered after its fourth touchdown. The Vols had three possessions up 28-21 and punted each time. A sack derailed one, a short route on third down and an incompletion ruined Tennessee's chances to finish off the Tigers.
"I don't want to say we were stressing," said quarterback Tyler Bray, who threw for 404 yards and four touchdowns on 37-of-54 passing. "We have a powerful offense. Everyone's trying to make plays, and sometimes it doesn't happen."
The Vols managed just 19 rushing yards on six runs in the fourth quarter.
"I take pride in what I do, and I think the offensive line will take pride in what we do, and like I said, when you're not able to get that first down or that touchdown that you need, it just eats you up inside," left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said. "The disappointment is that we had them on their toes and that we didn't finish. That's the emphasis we've been putting on ourselves the whole offseason and the season is finishing."
Even with no help from its usually helpful offense, Tennessee's defense was keeping the Tigers from tying the game until the final drive. Quarterback Franklin, who's had a tough season of his own, scrambled for 23 yards and completed fourth-down passes to Marcus Lucas and Dorial Green-Beckham. The second one, on fourth-and-12, was the tying touchdown with 47 seconds left after Tennessee's entire team huddled near its sideline during the preceding timeout.
After the Vols began their ensuing possession at their own 39 with 44 seconds and two timeouts left, Dooley elected to go to overtime after two plays lost 1 yard.
"I was just letting the coaches do their job and getting ready to go out there for the overtime," tailback Marlin Lane said. "We practice for overtime. I thought we were going to pull it out.
"We thought we would let the time run out, get our breath back, go out there and try to dominate in overtime."
The teams went back and forth in the first three overtimes, with Franklin throwing three touchdown passes, Bray tossing two and Vols holder Tyler Drummer scoring on a fake field goal run in the second overtime.
Dooley decided to go for a fourth-and-2 at Missouri's 17 in the fourth overtime, and Bray's pass intended for Zach Rogers was broken up by Missouri's Ian Simon.
"I didn't have a lot of confidence we were stopping them on the other side," Dooley said. "We went to our bread-and-butter and we didn't execute it. We didn't get it done."
When Baggett's kick sailed true, the Vols sulked off the sideline while the Tigers erupted and celebrated with a number of their fans that saw their trip rewarded with the program's first road win in its inaugural SEC season.
"We were pretty quiet in the locker room," said Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson, who scored a touchdown. "Everybody's upset. I'm tired of losing. I don't play to lose."
"We played hard, we executed and it just didn't show in the end," added linebacker Jordan Williams. "What was it, three overtimes, four overtimes? Yeah, it definitely hurts."
How much another 0-6 SEC start will hurt the uneasy status of Dooley's future in unclear.
"I don't know," the coach said about that. "I'm hurting because of the game. The kids played their tail off, man.
"There's a lot of negativity, and that comes with the territory. I'm just proud of how they are going out there and they lay it on the line. We just didn't make the plays we needed to make at the end of the game."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...