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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - For a freshman making his first career start, Johnny McCrary doesn't lack ambition.
"I feel like I'm possibly one of the best quarterbacks in college football, possibly make it to the NFL," the Vanderbilt quarterback said. "But you've got to have that confidence every time you're on the field."
Still, McCrary wished he was more consistent in Saturday's 24-14 loss at Missouri. He completed 17 of 31 passes for 196 yards, two touchdowns and an interception as the team's fourth signal caller to start this season because of injuries.
"I think Johnny McCrary is just continuing to get better every time he touches the grass," coach Derek Mason said. "He's earned playing time. He gives us a different dimension; he plays hard and does a great job of managing our offense."
The loss forces Vanderbilt (2-6, 0-5 Southeastern Conference) to win its final four games of the season to extend its string of postseason appearances to four.
Missouri (6-2, 3-1) ended its two-game home losing streak behind two touchdowns by receiver Bud Sasser and a third by running back Russell Hansbrough. The offense only reached the end zone once in its previous two contests combined.
The Tigers gained 385 total yards, easily eclipsing their combined total of 266 yards over the past two weeks. Maty Mauk completed 11 of 23 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns while Marcus Murphy added 93 yards on 16 carries.
The team also committed 14 penalties for 100 yards, for which coach Gary Pinkel held himself accountable.
"I just want to win all of our games," he said. "You want everything to go perfect all the time, everything to go great all the time. It doesn't happen."
Missouri leaned heavily on its rushing attack, running 46 times for 244 yards and possessed the ball for 31:09, passing the 30-minute mark for the first time in four games.
While the Tigers struggled to maintain much of a rhythm offensively, they did enough to take advantage of a Vanderbilt defense allowing a league-worst 34 points per game.
Sasser scored on a 13-yard pass from Mauk with 2:27 left in the third quarter on the heels of a 36-yard run by Mauk, who shook off some of the frustrations of a 20-yard performance last week.
The play gave the team its first passing touchdown since Sept. 27 at South Carolina.
"It was really big, man," said Sasser, who finished with 74 receiving yards. "We've been waiting on that for a while now."
The score provided Missouri a 17-7 advantage, but C.J. Duncan pulled the Commodores to within three points after hauling in an over-the-shoulder, 29-yard touchdown pass from McCrary with 6:53 remaining.
The freshman-to-freshman play capped a 76-yard drive.
Despite Vanderbilt having 31 freshmen receiving playing time this season, and a winless conference record, the team trailed by just a field goal with fewer than three minutes remaining and Missouri facing a 2nd-and-20 on Vanderbilt's 44-yard line.
But linebacker Stephen Weatherly grabbed Mauk's facemask on a run, giving the Tigers a first down on the Commodores' 19-yard line. Two plays later, Mauk found Sasser in the back corner of the end zone for a 26-yard score.
"It was nice to solidify the win," left tackle Mitch Morse said. "That was bigger than the drive itself."
Vanderbilt finished with 240 yards, including only 44 on the ground, and only 53 on its first four drives. The Commodores then traveled 75 yards on their next possession as McCrary found fourth-string tight end Nathan Marcus for a 9-yard touchdown.
The touchdown narrowed Vanderbilt's deficit to 10-7 with eight second remaining in the first half after Hansbrough scored on a 10-yard run three minutes earlier. Missouri's running backs accounted for all 77 yards on the drive, including 10 carries for 60 yards and a 17-yard reception by Hansbrough, who finished with 87 yards rushing.