COLUMBIA, Mo. — Any thoughts, however misguided they were, of a second chance at salvaging this season for the University of Tennessee were lost (mostly) on third down.
In the worst sequel since "Caddyshack II," the Volunteers followed the same tired script from earlier this season at Florida, which led to a repeat of the humbling loss when the defense failed to stop Missouri on third down and the offense continually self-destructed.
The only question that remained after Saturday evening's 36-7 humbling at Faurot Field was on which side of the ball did the Vols look more feeble.
It wasn't just that the Tigers converted an absurd 11 of 17 third downs, it was how easy they made it look.
Mizzou kept its first scoring drive alive by converting five of six third downs into firsts, including a third-and-9. After Tennessee took the lead, the Tigers made sure it was short-lived by answering with Brady Cook's 22-yard completion to Cody Schrader, which set up a 7-yard touchdown run by Schrader for a lead the Tigers would never give up.
Later, facing third-and-10, Cook hooked up with Schrader for a 23-yard gain to the UT 7-yard line, eventually leading to another field goal that pushed the lead to 22-7. And then the absolute back-breaker came on the first play of the fourth quarter when, backed up at his own 1 and facing third-and-10, Cook broke loose for a 24-yard gain.
"We knew the quarterback was a good athlete," Vols defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally said. "You've got to commend him, he made some plays on third down when we had it covered up pretty well. At the end of the day, we've got to be able to get down there and tackle the quarterback before the first down."
In all, Mizzou gained 112 yards on third downs, which was 29 more than Tennessee rushed for.
But a loss this embarrassing doesn't fall merely on one aspect. There was enough blame to go around, starting at the top where Vols boss Josh Heupel, who fell to 3-6 in road games with UT, suffered his most lopsided defeat as a head coach.
Similar to this year's 13-point loss at Florida, where the Gators were 7-of-8 on third down (including six conversions when they needed to gain 5 yards or more) in a first-half scoring barrage of 26 unanswered points — as well as last year's bewildering 25-point defeat at South Carolina — Heupel's offense looked befuddled and overmatched.
Asked for his perspective on the defense's inability to get off the field on third down and his offense's miscues, a visibly frustrated Heupel shook his head and said, "Really disappointed in the performance of our football team. We didn't play smart enough or good enough early in the game to win this one. Some huge penalties (on offense) that put you in first-and-20, and multiple turnovers are tough to overcome.
"Brady Cook made a bunch of plays with his feet. He extended a bunch of drives on third down. The line of scrimmage, there was a stark difference. I said earlier in the week that would be a pivotal part of the football game. They were able to run the football and we weren't. End of the day, we've got to play smart football and extremely physical. We did not do that."
Tennessee committed nine penalties for 95 yards — most of which came on mental lapses — including two holding calls on the same play, bringing back a third-quarter completion that would have set the Vols up inside Missouri's 10 when the deficit was still a manageable 15 points.
Even worse, a UT ground attack that entered leading the nation (227.8 rushing yards per game) was completely shut down as Missouri manhandled the Vols up front, limiting them to 83 yards on 23 carries. Mizzou coach Eli Drinkwitz rightfully pointed it out in his on-field interview with CBS immediately after the game when he said, in part, "Our defense kicked their (butt) tonight."
When the offense wasn't sputtering — the first possession of the third quarter went three plays for 6 yards and a punt — it was turning the ball over in spectacular fashion. Jaylen Wright's fumble deep in Mizzou territory just before halftime cost the Vols a chance to at least even the score with a field goal, and then, with UT trailing by 15 but driving, Joe Milton III lost a fumble after failing to make sure running back Dylan Sampson had cleared the area near him on a play-fake (the two collided, causing the ball to pop free from the quarterback's hand).
The icing came with just less than six minutes remaining when Milton threw a pick-six.
"Pretty much the same thing that happened in the Florida game," said a dejected Milton. "Shooting ourself in the foot. All the self-inflicted wounds. False starts, holding, all those things that can kill a drive."
Going into Saturday, there were two clear roads to redemption for Tennessee.
One was to come to the Southeastern Conference's northwestern outpost and claim a fifth straight win in the series, then hope for an Ole Miss upset over Georgia so that next weekend's showdown with the Bulldogs in Knoxville would be for the league's East Division crown.
Or at worst, beat a Mizzou program the Vols had scored an average of 54 points against over the past three meetings and, even if Georgia were to handle the Rebels to end any drama in the East, Tennessee still could have been set up for a 10-win season by simply taking care of business at home against Vanderbilt followed by a win in one of the prestigious Florida bowl games.
Instead, after being mauled inside the Zou, the Vols may have played themselves out of the Sunshine State and into a position of ending their season in the same city where it began — in Nashville for the Music City Bowl.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com.