There was an uneasy feeling swirling around Memorial Stadium.
Before many of the 52,012 returned to their seats after halftime Saturday afternoon, South Carolina tripled its first-half yardage on a mega play to open the third quarter.
True freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski found senior wide receiver Bryan Edwards for a 75-yard touchdown, cutting the Gamecocks’ deficit to three points. This was just the type of moment the Tigers were unable to overcome in losses to South Carolina the past three years.
"We knew coming out of the half that drive was going to be so important, and all of sudden for them to have that 75-yard touchdown, that's hard and it tests you," Missouri head coach Barry Odom said.
Enter Kelly Bryant.
The senior quarterback, a native of Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, marched the Tigers right back down the field for a 10-play, 75-yard drive in which he delivered two third-down conversions — the first for 10 yards to Albert Okwuegbunam and the next a 15-yard completion to Jonathan Nance.
Two plays later, the Clemson transfer guided a perfectly-timed screen pass to Tyler Badie, who covered the final 21 yards to the end zone to put the Tigers back up 10. Badie originally lined up as a receiver on the play, but after Bryant scanned the defense, he brought Badie into the backfield to set up the touchdown.
"We just had to pick the defense up because they did a really good job in the first half picking us up," Bryant said.
"You come out and you get punched right in the mouth, to be able to go respond to it, that was huge," Odom echoed.
Ronnell Perkins intercepted Hilinski in the end zone on the ensuing drive and returned the ball 100 yards to the end zone to all but ensure the Tigers’ third straight win.
The Tigers secured a 34-14 Southeastern Conference victory for their first win over South Carolina in the Barry Odom era and since 2015.
Bryant left much to be desired in the first two quarters, starting 5 of 14 with a costly interception over the Tigers’ first seven drives of the night. The second-quarter pick, a screen pass Bryant threw straight into the gut of the Gamecocks’ D.J. Wonnum, helped South Carolina stay within striking distance.
Bryant pushed Wonnum out of bounds at the Missouri 1, and Rico Dowdle didn't dawdle — punching the ball into the end zone on the next play for South Carolina’s first touchdown.
"It was just a bad play," Bryant said. "I could have just burnt it. ... But you know, there are plays like that and we've just got to continue to play, and that's what we did.
"I just had to take a step back and breathe."
Odom said Bryant's first-half struggles were a matter of forcing the issue too much against his home-state school.
"All the familiarity he's got with that program, he was pressing, but he finally settled down into his comfort zone," Odom said.
Bryant, a veteran accustomed to the spotlight, took his game to another level after his painful interception, finding a wide-open Okwuegbunam slanting out right for a 3-yard touchdown pass with just over four minutes left in the first half to help the Tigers lead 17-7 at halftime.
He found his stride in the running game, too, rushing for 77 yards on 17 attempts overall. Bryant was the Tigers' second-leading rusher behind Larry Rountree's 88-yard performance.
Hilinski, conversely, was never able to gain traction in his third career start after taking over for Jake Bentley, who was injured in South Carolina’s season opener. Hilinski, who South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said was limited in practice with an elbow issue this past week but was cleared to play Saturday, looked uncomfortable at times and took a third-quarter hit that temporarily forced him out of the game.
One week after he admirably threw for 324 yards during a loss to Alabama, Hilinski passed for only three yards in the first half, when he was 4 of 15 passing.
He finished 13 of 30 on the day for 166 yards with one score and one pick.
“It’s not all going to be perfect,” Muschamp told reporters after the loss. “It’s tough, and we can’t put him in tough situations, especially in that first half. We’ve got to find ways to run the football and take some pressure off of him, and we did not.”
The SEC East has been hit hard by quarterback injuries in the opening month of the season. Florida is without Feleipe Franks, Kentucky is without Terry Wilson and South Carolina is without Bentley. Those teams are what stand in Missouri’s way of second place in the division and a shot at No. 3 Georgia.
Bryant provides the Tigers with a leader who's cool under pressure — capable of bouncing back from difficult momentum swings and his personal mistakes.
"It was tough. I was struggling. I just wasn't throwing it the way I wanted to," Bryant said. "But I just kept telling everybody and everybody kept telling me, the plays are going to come, just keep pressing on. So that's what I did and that's what this offense did as a unit."