COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gary Pinkel was prepping a different sort of postgame talk midway through the fourth quarter.
The Missouri coach had watched his team struggle offensively and fall behind No. 13 South Carolina 20-7 with less than 8 minutes left at sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium.
That’s when the Tigers turned things around for a stunning 21-20 victory and a strong start in defense of their Southeastern Conference Eastern Division crown.
A repeat seemed unlikely as the Gamecocks’ defense kept Missouri off kilter for most of the game. Instead, Russell Hansbrough scored two of his three touchdowns in the final seven minutes to complete the comeback.
“These are games,” Pinkel said, “that change a football team.”
They can certainly give you a strong foothold in the East against the preseason favorite to supplant the Tigers. Missouri (4-1, 1-0) entered off an embarrassing home stumble to Indiana last week and looked lost most of the way against South Carolina (3-2, 2-2).
“When things got tough we stayed positive. The defense kept us in it but we stayed totally positive with the offense the whole time,” Pinkel said. “I thought was very crucial for us to have the mindset to get back.”
Quarterback Maty Mauk, from Kenton, got things flowing Missouri’s way with a pair of big throws —41 yards to Bud Sasser and 26 yards to Wesley Leftwich — to South Carolina’s 1. Hansbrough followed with a score just 36 seconds after South Carolina’s TD.
Mauk said that perked up Missouri and gave them confidence. Once the defense got the ball back from South Carolina, Mauk was pointed to completing the comeback.
“We sat down as a group and said we have to finish. That’s what we do around Missouri. Everybody bought in and brought everything they had for that drive,” he said. “The offensive line gave great protection and when they needed to power through to get Russell in the end zone they responded.”
When the Tigers reached South Carolina’s two, Missouri was stopped short its first three tries getting in. Pinkel said the coaches decided to just run right at them, Hansbrough bursting through with 1:36 left.
Andrew Baggett kicked the extra point through for the go-ahead points. It was a year ago that Baggett’s kick clanged off the Missouri goalpost in the Gamecocks’ 27-24 double-overtime win.
“I wasn’t thinking anything. I just had to go in there and get it done,” he said.
Along with Hansbrough’s three TDs, Marcus Murphy ran for 98 yards.
Mauk completed just 12 of 34 passes for 132 yards, but made his biggest throws at the most crucial times.
South Carolina had one last chance. But Dylan Thompson threw four incomplete passes and Missouri ran out the clock. The Tigers sprinted to their fans in the corner of an emptying Williams-Brice Stadium to celebrate their seventh straight road win — two shy of the school’s all-time best mark.
It looked like the Gamecocks defense would win this one, holding Missouri to two first downs in the first 23 minutes of the second half and continually harassing Mauk into poor throws.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he made a mistake not going for a two-point conversion on that score, but did not consider it because of how well the Gamecocks defense had performed.
“Gosh, we were stopping them so well,” he said.
South Carolina would soon regret that as Mauk led the Tigers back.
Missouri wrenched early control of the division from South Carolina, which was the preseason pick to take the East and had taken down Georgia on this field two weeks earlier.
Missouri has stood strong in the SEC since entering before the 2012 season. The Tigers won the Eastern Division a year ago and came into this one with a six-game winning streak on the road.
Defensive end Shane Ray, the SEC sacks leader coming in, got two more against Thompson as the Gamecocks could not move the ball. They trailed 7-3 until Mike Davis’ 17-yard TD run with 1:36 left in the half. That score was set up by Thompson’s simple screen to Davis, who took off 24 yards the play earlier.
South Carolina’s defense, one of the best in the league in the past years led by NFL No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney, came in next to last in the SEC with 36 points allowed per game this season.
But their pass defense — also next to last in the SEC — limited Mauk to 57 yards the first 30 minutes. Mauk, the SEC leader with 14 touchdown throws, ended the half 6 of 19 and missed on his last eight throws.
In fact, it was Spurrier’s insistence on getting his attack started that led to Missouri’s first TD. The Gamecocks went for a fourth-and-1 on their 42 their first series, but came up short. Four plays later, Hansbrough ran for an 18-yard score.