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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee's difficult week ended with a painful loss.
Maty Mauk threw a pair of touchdown passes and Marcus Murphy ran for two scores Saturday night as No. 19 Missouri defeated Tennessee 29-21 to maintain control of the SEC East race.
Tennessee, which started a school-record seven true freshmen on offense and defense due to injuries and off-field issues, squandered an opportunity to make itself bowl-eligible. The Volunteers (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) must win next week at Vanderbilt to have a shot at their first bowl bid since 2010.
"We've got a lot to accomplish with this football team," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We're not going anywhere. Some people never even thought we'd be playing for a bowl game."
Missouri (9-2, 6-1) can clinch the East Division and a second consecutive appearance in the SEC championship game by winning at home Friday over Arkansas. A loss would send No. 9 Georgia (9-2, 6-2) to Atlanta instead.
Georgia is 10th and Missouri 20th in the College Football Playoff standings.
Tennessee played without leading tackler A.J. Johnson and cornerback Michael Williams, who were suspended from all team-related activities Monday, one day before both were named as subjects of an ongoing rape investigation in which no charges have been filed.
The Vols also didn't have injured center Mack Crowder and receiver Marquez North. They played the first half without safety Brian Randolph, who had committed a targeting penalty in a 50-16 victory over Kentucky last week.
Jones said after the game that North's shoulder injury will sideline him for the remainder of the season.
Freshmen in Tennessee's starting lineup included running back Jalen Hurd, wide receiver Josh Malone, safety Todd Kelly, defensive end Derek Barnett, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, linebacker Jakob Johnson and guard Jashon Robertson. The number of true freshman starters would actually go up to eight if you add kicker Aaron Medley, who made both of his field-goal attempts.
"This is a resilient group of kids," Jones said.
Andrew Baggett's 43-yard field goal broke a 13-all tie midway through the third quarter. Mauk threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Jimmie Hunt and a 13-yard scoring strike to Bud Sasser in the fourth quarter.
The Vols cut the lead to 29-21 when Joshua Dobbs threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Jason Croom with 1:52 remaining and delivered a two-point conversion on a quarterback keeper. Tennessee then rested its hopes on an onside kick.
Tennessee recovered its first attempt, but an offside penalty forced the Vols to kick again. Although Tennessee's Justin Coleman recovered the next kick, officials ruled the Vols had touched the ball before it went the required 10 yards.
Missouri won by containing a Tennessee offense that had averaged 47.5 points per game in Dobbs' two previous starts. Missouri had six sacks and kept Tennessee's offense out of the end zone until the final 2 minutes. The Vols' only touchdown before that came when holder Patrick Ashford threw a 31-yard pass to Alex Ellis on a fake field goal.
"We felt going in we had to get after Josh Dobbs to win this game," said Missouri defensive end Markus Golden, who had two sacks. "That's exactly what was on our mind."
Tennessee still seemed on the verge of tying the game or taking the lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers were clinging to a 16-13 advantage when a pass-interference penalty gave Tennessee a first down at the Missouri 29. But on the next play, Dobbs threw a pass that bounced off the hands of Malone and was picked off by Kenya Dennis at the Missouri 20.
Three plays later, Mauk threw a deep pass to Hunt, who beat Coleman to catch the ball inside the Tennessee 40, then stiff-armed cornerback Cam Sutton inside the 25 before heading into the end zone. The touchdown extended Missouri's lead to 23-13 with 10:42 remaining.
Mauk capped Missouri's next drive by finding Sasser in the left corner of the end zone with 6:22 left.
"They're a good defense," said Dobbs, who went 24 of 37 for 195 yards. "We definitely made some mistakes out there that we've got to clean up. We knew coming into the game what was in front of us. We've got to fix the things that we messed up on tonight and get ready for Vanderbilt. Our team's goals and aspirations are still in front of us. We've got to get to win six and get to a bowl game."