Monday, December 27, 2010

Tigers earn Braggin' Rights win over Illinois

The last two weeks have made one thing as clear as such things can be in December: Missouri should at least compete for a Big 12 Conference title this year. Missouri has not won a regular-season conference title since 1994, so one can imagine the excitement this brings to Tiger fans.

The No. 10 Tigers (12-1) impressed with a 77-64 win over Illinois in St. Louis last week. At times the Missouri offense struggled, but they kept putting pressure on their ranked Big Ten opponent all night. It paid off in the final minutes, when Missouri played a beautiful two minutes of basketball to close out the win.

With the game tied at 58, Mizzou’s Michael Dixon, back from a brief suspension, made a tremendous scoop shot that he banked high above the backboard box and in. This circus shot was followed by Marcus Denmon steal and Ricardo Ratliffe layup for a four-point lead. An Illinois steal and three-pointer cut Missouri’s lead to one and heaped pressure on the Tigers.

Missouri’s response showed a team that can handle adversity. Kim English rapidly inbounded the ball to Denmon, who fired a pass down the court to Laurence Bowers, who was running behind every Illini defender. Bowers made the layup and drew an intentional foul on Illinois’ Mike Tisdale. The Tigers hit free throws and played solid defense to close out the confidence-inspiring win.

In another good sign, there was no letdown after the Illinois game. On Monday night, Missouri destroyed Northern Illionis, 97-61. Missouri roared to leads of 15-0 and 43-9 in the game. This is what great teams do; they absolutely crush the inferior teams. Missouri showed good focus and decision-making with two wins by at least 36 points to bookend the Illinois game. The Northern Illinois game was coach Mike Anderson’s 100th win at Mizzou (100-46).

And about contending for what would be the 16th regular-season conference title in program history? Some of Missouri’s key competition in the Big 12 showed vulnerabilities over the last two weeks.

Kansas received a boost when the ridiculously talented Josh Selby became eligible, but his heroics couldn’t overshadow that Kansas showed it isn’t a juggernaut in only beating USC by 2 at home. It should be noted the Nebraska Fightin’ Doc Sadlers also beat USC by 2 this season.

Meanwhile Kansas State was inept offensively in a loss to Florida, and then played shorthanded in a loss to UNLV in Kansas City. Embarrassing off-court issues have caused key players to miss a few games, and the Wildcats may be missing Denis Clemente’s leadership.

But all this means is the door is open. Kansas is still No. 3 in the nation, has won at least a share of six (!) straight conference titles, and there’s the problem that they never lose at home. Kansas State is No. 17 despite a rugged nonconference schedule, and coach Frank Martin uses adversity to teach and motivate as well as anyone. Plus a handful of Big 12 South schools (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M) will have a say in the conference race.

But Missouri's play in recent weeks has made it clear that the Tigers are a conference contender, and that has to be exciting for Missouri fans as the Tigers near big 12 play.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An ode to Trenton

Last Sunday night as I was driving through Trenton to my grandparents' house for a Christmas gathering, I got to talking with my sister about the town. It was hard to explain, but as we drove down a street I'd gone done so many times before, as the town glowed after dark with Christmas decorations, I realized there was a quality to Trenton that I enjoy quite a bit. My hometown is Gilman City, and I live in Columbia, which has its own charms, but there is a certain catchiness to Trenton, a town I have plenty of ties to.

Trenton is covered with snow in the winter and smothered with humidity in the summer. It's spring floods in the Thompson River bottom and dry spells and some of the bluest sky you ever saw in the fall.

Trenton is that wonderful Grundy County Courthouse, particularly when viewed coming into town from the west on Highway 6, with all those spires, looking like a European castle. It's the Hyde Mansion, a tasteful, dignified, North-Missouri-sized mansion. It's the Adams Middle School and Trenton Foods and the Rock Building.

Trenton is the patchwork hub of Five Points, starting point for so many directions. It's the learning and potential of North Central Missouri College, the Rock Island Line (she's a mighty good road), and Trenton Lake, that ever-changing canvass of the seasons.

Trenton is Leonard and Andy Hill and so many great people. It's the Republican-Times, the chronicle of Grundy County, and my brother's great game previews. It's KTTN and 101.7 and slowly getting the signal when I'm getting close to home.

Trenton is, maybe as much as anything, the packed bleachers at C.F. Russell Stadium, the band playing the fight song, cheerleaders dancing, and a flash of black and gold down the green field. It's Jesse Owens racing a horse, the Sugar Bucket, NCMC Holiday Hoops, the Bluejays hitting a baseball back toward the fence at Burleigh Grimes Field, and Amber Vandevender pulling up on a fast break and burying a three.

Trenton is kids driving around listening to Waylon Jennings on the radio and kids driving around listening to Metallica on tape and kids driving around listening to Garth Brooks on CD and kids driving around listening to the lovely Katy Perry on their iPods. And much of that driving is up and down Ninth Street.

Trenton is plenty of nostalgia and memories. It's where so many farmers from the surrounding farming empire go to retire and share stories. It's a town where people love to talk about all that's happened and how things were. But it's also a town with hope and a fascinating future, hope annually visible in, among other things, the new crops in the fields and the new crops of graduating seniors. And in NCMC's and the hospital's projects. And in the dreams and ambitions and hearts of its people.

Nearly 24 years ago, I was born in Trenton's Wright Memorial Hospital. And Trenton is a pretty good place to start.

(courthouse photo by americasroof)

Monday, December 20, 2010

A farewell to the Greinke Era

He's gone. Possibly the most sensationally talented Royal in my time as a fan, and certainly my favorite, has been traded for prospects. Just like Johnny Damon. Just like Carlos Beltran. Even like David DeJesus. (Can't add Jermaine Dye to this list; he was traded only for Neifi Perez).

And now that Zack Greinke's fascinating time in Kansas City is over, I'm not going to obsess over how it ended right now. I've got far more disappointment, heck maybe even sadness, than anger right now. We'll see how the trade works out, and I can see the thought behind it, but I've seen this movie end badly before. In any event, the only legitimate reason to watch the Royals over the last two years is gone.

Sure, plenty of Royals fans or media types are in a way glad he's gone. Billy Butler had some strong, but not too strong, statements about how you have to want to be here. Without really bashing Greinke, Billy made it clear the team is better off without people who don't want to be there. Fair point, but even Billy, as much as I enjoy watching him go bam-bam and lumber around the bases, can't comprehend what Greinke has labored through. Billy has been on bad teams, yes, but he has never played on a Royals team that lost 100 games. Greinke has done this three times.

But no, no anger here. And since it's done and my team was going to be awful in 2011 either way and maybe the trade will pan out, it's time to get over the sadness. Instead, I think back to the indelible memories Greinke gave Royals fans in his eventful time in Kansas City, some bad and bizarre ones followed by greatness emblazoned on the mind.

I remember his debut in 2004 in Oakland as a 20-year-old. I listened to it on the radio at home. He left with a lead; the bullpen blew it. Quite a foreshadowing of things to come. He posted a sub-4 ERA that year as the team, picked by some to win the Central, lost 104 games.

I remember the wild, terrible 2005 season, when Greinke pitched pretty awfully, and was so disinterested he decided to throw a pitch exactly 50 mph for fun, and then he did just that. I remember he hit a home run at Arizona that year. I was at a lake house at the Lake of the Ozarks when that happened. The team lost 106 games that year.

I remember when he left spring training in 2006 to deal with his social anxiety disorder. As someone who can be quite awful in social situations, I liked the way he dealt with his issues, talked about it, left but came back. I loved how the Royals organization didn't give up on him.

I remember he slowly worked his way back. By 2008 he became a very good starting pitcher again, posting a 3.47 ERA. (Don't let anyone tell you Zack had only one good year.) The team was better, but absurd futility was always prowling at the door. After being no-hit in Boston launched the Royals on a long losing streak, Greinke took the hill as the streak-buster. This team should be past these embarrassing double-digit losing streaks by now, everyone said.

I remember Greinke threw eight innings, striking out eight while only allowing three runs to the Twins. KC took an 8-3 lead to the ninth, so manager Trey Hilllman took Greinke out. After Ramon Ramirez struck out the leadoff hitter, he gave up a single. Then Ram Ram picked up another strikeout. The Royals were up five, two out, only one on. The losing streak was all but dead. But of course, the KC bullpen couldn't hold: single, single, single, homer. Tie game. KC lost in 10. I listened on the radio in my car driving home, pulling in the drive just in time for that devastating Twin homer. It was Kansas City's 10th straight loss en route to 12 in a row.

Then, gloriously, 2009.

I remember Zack starting on fire, throwing nearly 30 scoreless innings to start the season. I remember he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with an article by Joe Posnanski and a title reading: "The Best Pitcher in Baseball."

I remember an April game against the Tigers, when I was there with a bunch of my friends. One had never been to a Royals game, the rest hadn't seen the renovated version of Kauffman Stadium yet. Like a proud parent, I beamed as my friends and I watched Greinke dominate and the Royals look good. They had that great start in 2009. Mirages are still beautiful, right?

I remember Greinke threw a complete game, striking out 10, allowing only three hits and one unearned run to move to 4-0 with that 0.00 ERA.

I remember after that unearned run in the fifth, Greinke was as perfect as any pitcher I ever saw. He retired the last 13 batters after than run scored, striking out six of the last nine batters. As he struck out the side in the eighth, the crowd got louder and louder, roaring tumultuously as the Detroit batters waved at Greinke's dancing pitches. It was absolute poetry, one of my best Kauffman Stadium experiences ever.

I remember often pestering my friends to come to Royals games, to come see Greinke pitch. I tried in vain to get Barron and Bethany to see him, and I tried with success to get Foster and Mabes and Hayes and Yount and Brittney and Yount's mom to come see Greinke take the hill.

I remember his one-hit shutout at Seattle, losing my composure a bit when the bullpen blew his leads, his 15 strikeouts against the Indians, and his duels with Joe Mauer in a late September game in the Metrodome, regardless of whether or not first base was open.

I remember when he won the Cy Young Award after that 2009 season (during which he posted a 2.16 ERA). I heard it on the radio in the Subway parking lot in Monroe City on my lunch break. I sent a wave of excited texts and received congratulatory texts. Greinke had made the Royals legitimate, at least every fifth day.

I remember the disappointments of 2010, but also the great games mixed in, the pride out shutting down the Cardinals in a rare game with people paying attention.

But then came his comments in August, about being tired of wave after wave of failed rebuilding efforts. This offseason, with starting pitching a premium commodity and Greinke dissatisfied in KC, it became more and more clear he would be traded. Even if the trade didn't net the superprospect fans wanted, GM Dayton Moore seems happy with the trade. There are plenty of people who have analyzed the trade who know more than I do, so check them out if you would like.

But for this blog, for now, we'll focus on the memories. The good ones are special; the bad ones are part of the Royals epic tales of failure over the last 15 or 20 or 25 years. Plus he gave fans a mountain of funny and quirky quotes to enjoy. I won't begrudge Greinke for wanting out. This is a team that even made the ridiculously upbeat Tony Pena resign in the middle of a series in Toronto, saying, "I just can't take it any more." Yes, I wish it could've worked to keep the talented, homegrown, and (for my money) likeable Greinke. But it didn't.

There are plenty of reasons to be upset or disappointed or vaguely optimistic, but first, let me tip my cap to the thrill-inducing, memory-producing Greinke Era.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Friends reunite for Fastest 40 Minutes demonstration

As the Tigers rolled to 10-1 with a 116-63 home win over Central Arkansas last Saturday, Tiger fans tempted to be looking ahead to Wednesday’s showdown with Illinois had to at least pause to consider the prodigious point total the Tigers ran up, the most points a team has ever scored in the Tigers’ seven seasons in Mizzou Arena.

Though it was in some ways just another big win against an overmatched nonconference opponent, it was still a 53-point win. The 10-1 Oklahoma State Cowboys only won by 12 against Central Arkansas, and OSU scored 47 fewer points than Missouri did against coach Corliss Williamson’s UCA squad.

That name, Corliss Williamson, will tell you why the Tigers scheduled this game with Central Arkansas, a team trying to lift itself out of the Southland Conference basement in Williamson’s second season as head coach. Williamson was the star player on the great Arkansas teams of the 1990s, including the 1994 National Champions. Missouri coach Mike Anderson was an assistant coach for Arkansas under Nolan Richardson on those teams.

Williamson the player and Anderson the assistant coach developed a friendship during their shared time at Arkansas, where the team succeeded using Richardson’s famed “40 Minutes of Hell” style of play, with its frantic pace, full-court pressure and up-tempo style. Anderson employed the system in his first head-coaching job, at Alabama-Birmingham, and now his teams use it at Missouri, where they call it the “Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball.”

Williamson is working to have his teams play this way, too. He knows Central Arkansas likely won’t reel in the best recruits, but this system can harass and overwhelm opponents with better physical talents. It could also help Williamson’s Bears make that move in the Southland Conference. He wanted to give his team a chance to play against a good team playing the “40 Minutes of Hell” style well. Anderson is building the Mizzou program with system, and Williamson wanted his players to learn from how the Tigers play.

The Tigers put on a fine demonstration, with seven Missouri players scoring in double figures, the first time since 1995 that they’ve done that.

For Anderson, basketball and family, or the family-like ties he develops, go hand-in-hand. He has said he talks with Richardson about every other day. Anderson is certainly building his own program his own way, but he hasn’t forgotten what he’s learned from his mentor Richardson, and he keeps in touch.

You can also see these ties to friends and family in Anderson’s recruiting. His son and nephew have played for him. The nephew, DeMarre Carroll, is arguably the most accomplished player in Anderson’s tenure at Missouri.

Two of Missouri’s new players this year, Matt and Phil Pressey, are the sons of former NBA player Paul Pressey, who was Anderson’s college roommate.

And, simply by being himself with his genuine style, Anderson continues to make the new connections that build the program, as is seen in the other players in this great recruiting class who aren’t the offspring of his old roommates.

After Wednesday's matchup with Illinois in St. Louis, the Missouri basketball family will take a break for Christmas before returning to action on Dec. 27 against Northern Illinois.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My favorite line from Elf

Have you ever had one of those “Aha!” moments that nobody else really got? Maybe it’s because the moment is personal to you, or because people are wired differently, or because you’re crazy and there wasn’t really anything much to be Aha-ed anyway. I’ll admit I’m a bit different than most (Eccentric? Quirky?), so it’s often kind of hard for me to vocalize what I mean when something resonates with me.

Anyway, last Saturday night I had one of those “this is brilliant” moments that my friends didn’t really see and I couldn’t vocally give words to, so I thought I’d try a blog.

We were watching the holiday classic “Elf.” You know, Will Ferrel, Zooey (Zoe-ee? Zoo-ee?) Deschanel (Desh-an-ell? Dash-N-L?), and Ed Asner as Santa.

Ah, Ed Asner as Santa. I had seen the movie earlier that holiday season with my family, and there was a line in it that struck me for some reason. It was in Central Park, when Santa’s sleigh is broke down. Michael, Walter Hobbs’ son and Buddy the Elf’s, um, half-brother, the one who wears a Wayne Chrebet jersey, is up on the sleigh.

In this instant, as he sees the sleigh and the giant bag of gifts, his transformation is complete, from that kind of grouchy, cynical person who yells, “Go away!” at Buddy to a kid, full of wide-eyed wonder and pure, childlike joy. At that point, Santa/Asner pulls out his great book, looks up Michael’s name, and reads him exactly what he wants. Beautiful. Michael’s face lights up. The great sleigh, which is supposed to run on the wonder of “the Christmas Spirit,” rises off the ground briefly and then settles back down. Michael asks what happened.

“You made my sleigh fly.”

Santa’s response, with that St. Nick twinkle in his eye, and that brief, perfect burst of a storyteller’s tone, resonated with me. It’s hard to say why (though I’m sort of trying in this blog).

So as I watched “Elf” with my friends on a snowy, dark, chilled Saturday night in my apartment in Columbia, the above line drew near.

Just sort of talking out loud, almost without thinking, I said, “My favorite line of this movie is coming up.” I think they expected a knee-slapper, or some suggestive humor. (Do I have a reputation?)

Instead, they got Santa telling a beaming kid that his joy, his euphoria, his spirit had made the sleigh fly, had made the Christmas season what it is. It appeared to be a letdown for them of 2010 Houston Texans proportions.

But maybe that’s just how it is with things that stir the soul. Everyone’s different, wonderfully. But here’s at least a stab at why I love this line:

The wonder of the kid on the sleigh is what drives it all. It’s shows us the joy and wonder that are fitting for this holiday season. Santa says, in a way that makes me think he’s telling an ancient secret, that this is the kind of joy that makes the world fly, that makes life worth living.

Too much of life, all that ordinary stuff, is kind of a dreary grind at times. But joy like Michael’s when he made the sleigh fly, the joy and love and wonder of Christmas and a Savior’s birth are what make us fly, what make our lives soar.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tigers become familiar with close finishes

Somehow, the Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball has been even more dramatic early in this young college basketball season, as almost all of Mizzou’s games have been in edge-of-the-seat territory. From the unexpected battles and escapes against Western Illinois, Wyoming, LaSalle, and Oregon to the heartstopping overtime games with good Georgetown and Vanderbilt teams, the Tigers have been appointment viewing.

It’s become something of a tradition, the Faster 40 Minutes distilling into the longest five seconds as opponents fly down the court and fire up buzzer-beaters. Sometimes they go in (Georgetown) and sometimes they miss (Oregon, Vanderbilt).

But it has all been riveting, and last Saturday’s 70-55 home win over Presbyterian improved Missouri to 8-1, with the lone defeat being that tough overtime loss to Georgetown in Kansas City. Missouri faces Oral Roberts on Thursday and Central Arkansas on Saturday before the Dec. 22 showdown with Illinois in St. Louis (8 p.m. on ESPN2), which should be another key indicator of how good this Missouri team will be. Here’s a look at some of the key storylines Tiger fans will be following as the season heats up.

Expectations: Missouri was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 preseason coaches’ poll. The preseason publications I’ve seen have the Tigers anywhere from third to fifth in the Big 12, with most projecting a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament.

It seems most Missouri fans have reasonable confidence in this team. Anderson’s teams often finish above their position in the preseason conference poll.

All in all, it’s reasonable to expect the Tigers to contend for the Big 12 title, even if they appear to be just a notch below frontrunners Kansas and Kansas State. But Missouri has a fine homecourt advantage (14-2 in Big 12 home games in the last two seasons) and lots of upside, so they should remain in the hunt.

The new Tigers: Missouri’s highly-touted newcomers include brothers Matt and Phil Pressey, sons of former NBA player Paul Pressey; junior college transfer Ricardo Ratliffe; Toronto’s Kadeem Green; and Columbia’s Ricky Kreklow, the son of Missouri volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow.

This Tiger team has a mix of experienced players to go with all the new faces. Six of the top seven Missouri players in terms of minutes and points per game so far were on the team last year. The players with experience will do the heavy lifting for now, although there likely will be times during the season when the new players are needed in desperate situations.

Denmon's emergence: Junior guard Marcus Denmon has emerged as the team's best offensive threat early in the season, leading the team with 16.4 points per game. I think he has a chance to pull off the rare feat of shooting at least 50 percent on field goals, 40 percent on three-pointers, and 90 percent on free throws. It's a mark of Denmon's improvement that this difficult standard is possible. Through nine games, he's at 51 percent on field goals and threes and at 88.9 percent on free throws.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What this year's playoff would look like

Update: Turns out that beyond being unfair, the BCS is also inaccurate. Jerry Palm discovered an error in the final standings when he checked out the one computer poll that has a public formula. An FCS playoff game wasn't factored in, and after it was counted, the BCS folks realized Boise is actually No. 10 in the final standings and LSU is No. 11, a reversal of where they were before the error was discovered. Makes you wonder about the other polls or past BCS results. And why an FCS game is determining whether Boise or LSU are better. And why the formulas aren't all public. Anyway, here is the updated playoff format.

Sometimes, in this imperfect world, you're left to turn to the wonders of the imagination. Dreams, realistic or otherwise, make the world go round. Whether it's Mizzou advancing to the Final Four, dating Candice Swanepoel or college football having a playoff, it's wonderful to imagine how things would be.

For this blog, let's take a look at this last one: a Division I-A (FBS) college football playoff. Obviously most fans want it. Almost all objections to it are ridiculous or hypocritical based on how things already are, so I will spare you a point-by-point argument of why a playoff would be great for college football and its fans. This is a post for the dreamers, for the wonders of the imagination, so here is how a 16-team playoff bracket would look, based on the 11 conference champs getting automatic bids and five at-large selections. I used the final BCS standings to pick the at-larges. The team with the better seed hosts the games, then maybe a neutral-site title game.

1. Auburn (SEC)
16. Florida International (Sun Belt)

8. Arkansas (at-large)
9. Michigan State (at large)

4. Stanford (at-large)
13. Central Florida (C-USA)

5. Wisconsin (Big Ten)
12. Virginia Tech (ACC)

3. TCU (MWC)
14. Connecticut (Big East)

6. Ohio State (at-large)
11. LSU (at-large)

7. Oklahoma (Big 12)
10. Boise State (WAC)

2. Oregon (Pac-10)
15. Miami-Ohio (MAC)

Notes: Missouri is the first team out in this playoff format, which is exactly what Brent Foster would expect... How about Boise State playing at Oklahoma? (And the potential Boise-Oregon quarterfinal?)... Great matchup in the Horseshoe (OSU-LSU)... Hot Virginia Tech team could try to spring classic 5-12 upset... Can UConn pull an upset for the ages? It would actually mean something, as opposed to if they upset Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Nuts and Bolts: Maybe cut a noncon game, go with an 11-game schedule, so no team ever plays more than 15 games, even if they go to the title game. Teams have played 15 games in a season before (K-State in 2003, for one) so forget the too many games/injuries argument.
First round: Four waves of games, two games per wave. Central time kickoffs: 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m., 6 p.m., 9 p.m. (Possible date: end the season a week earlier and have it first Sat. in December, Dec. 4 this year)
Second round: Quadruple-header, one game at a time, same kick times as first round. Dec. 11.
Third round: 2:30 and 7 p.m. kickoffs. Dec. 18.
(The real) National Championship Game: 7 p.m. kickoff. Saturday, Jan. 1. New Year's Day is back, baby!

Still want bowls/a fulsome glut of games? Here's some addition bowl matchups, if you want to saturate the holidays. They're based on BCS rankings and not allowing teams from the same conference to play:

Missouri vs. Nevada
Ok. State vs. Alabama
Texas A&M vs. Utah
Nebraska vs. South Carolina
Mississippi State vs. West Virginia
Florida State vs. Hawaii

(Feel free to just do away with the bowl system altogether.)

So there you have it. I'd watch. But then I'll probably watch the bowls. It just won't be as fun as a playoff could be.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tigers to play Iowa for first time in 100 years

The convoluted bowl selection process rewarded Missouri (10-2, 6-2 in Big 12 play) with a fine matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Insight Bowl at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 28 in Tempe, Ariz. The game will be shown on ESPN.

This came as a pleasant surprise after three straight years of Missouri getting selected for bowls behind teams with equal or worse records. Really, though, the bowl selection process is based on so many factors, and the Big 12 had five teams finish at 6-2 in league play, so good fortune plays as much of a role as anything in who gets which bowl. For example, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ unwillingness to play his brother’s Arizona team was a key factor in how the bowl situation would shake out until Oklahoma secured the conference title and an automatic Fiesta Bowl berth.

For the record, the Insight bowl is fourth in the Big 12’s bowl selection order. It’s probably fair to call it a middle-tier bowl.

But in any event, it will be an exciting matchup for fans in these bordering states. The Iowa and Missouri campuses are only about 240 miles apart, but the two schools haven’t played since 1910. Missouri leads the all-time series, 7-5. The teams were in the same conference for a few years in the early years of each program.

Missouri infamously backed out of a deal for the two to play annually from 2005 to 2008, pretty much because Iowa was pretty good in the early 2000s and the Tigers preferred to instead pad their record with easier games. (Can’t know what would’ve happened, but the teams both went 7-5 in 2005 and Missouri actually had better records in 2006 through 2008.)

While Iowa isn’t one of the nation’s most prestigious programs, the Hawkeyes have plenty of tradition and intrigue. Hayden Fry, the storied former coach, and Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman winner who died in a World War II training flight, give the Iowa program some history. The Hawkeyes, have won or shared 11 Big Ten titles, although only one outright conference title since 1958. This year’s Hawkeye squad (7-5, 4-4 in Big Ten) features Ricky Stanzi, Iowa’s senior quarterback. Stanzi is third all-time in Iowa passing yardage.

I like this matchup for the Tigers. Iowa is a talented, disciplined team, but they finished a bit below preseason expectations. The struggled with pass protection at times, particularly in their loss at Arizona, and Missouri has a fierce pass rush. It’s a little stereotypical, but it bears mentioning that Big Ten teams sometimes struggle with speedier offenses, and Missouri’s spread is all about speed and timing.

The win would give Missouri 11 wins, which would be the second-most under Pinkel and tie for the second-most by a Tiger team ever, trailing only the 12 wins in 2007. The pick here is a close, defensive game with the Tigers breaking through late to earn the win.

Pinkel’s ten-year tenure: This season was coach Gary Pinkel’s 10th season at Missouri. There have been challenges, but he appears to be gradually improving the program. Overall, Pinkel is 77-48 at Missouri, including 42-38 in regular season league play.

Splitting his Mizzou tenure in half shows stark progress. In his first five seasons, his teams went 29-30 overall and 16-24 in Big 12 games. In the last five seasons, his teams have gone 48-18 overall and 26-14 in Big 12 games while winning two North Division titles in 2007 and 2008. (Yes, Missouri technically was also co-North champs with Nebraska this year, but division titles are only useful things if they net you an appearance in the conference title game.)

Perhaps more encouraging is Missouri’s increased ability to beat “good” conference opponents. Against Big 12 teams that finished with a winning record in conference play, Pinkel is 5-22. But he started 1-16 in such games, and has now won four of his last 10 against teams that finish 5-3 or better in conference play. He won two of three this year, beating Oklahoma and Texas A&M, losing to Nebraska.

I do think much of Pinkel's legacy at Missouri will be tied to whether or not he breaks through with a conference title or not. I'm hopeful this can happen one of these years if the Tigers keep climbing. What's already known is that Pinkel has tangibly improved the program in his time here, and he's done it without any NCAA investigations or violations, and he deserves to be commended for these accomplishments.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why you should cheer for Nebraska

As you may know, longtime rivals and two of the most storied programs in college football history will meet in the last Big 12 Championship Game, with the format switching to round robin next year. Nebraska and Oklahoma. Oh boy. They're proud, they're passionate, they're draped in red. Pretty much everyone in the Big 12 universe except Husker fans wants Oklahoma to win, wants to send Nebraska packing without the Big 12 title. I'm here to tell you that you don't have to go with the resentful hordes, that there's another way. And since you've made it this far, I trust you'll at least hear me out before pausing, clearing your throat and yelling "Boomer Sooner!" anyway.

The Rivalry
First, quick background. There are books about Nebraska and Oklahoma, but here it is in a nutshell. Both have over 40 conference titles and they have won a combined 12 national titles and eight Heisman Trophies. Oklahoma has the highest winning percentage since World War II, Nebraska has the most wins since 1970. Year after year after year, they played for the Big Eight Championship. Even in the Big 12 era (last 15 years), these two have played in the Big 12 title game more than any of the other schools.

Both fan bases are very aware of the game's traditions, and both have, by and large, a heaping helping of Midwestern manners and sensibilities (both schools play visitors' fight songs before games). These manners are supplemented with a pride bordering on arrogance at times. In summation, more than anything else, with apologies to Kansas hoops and the pure joy that is Big 8/12 hoops, these two football schools and their rivalry have shaped the identity of this conference more than anything else.

And now, the case for rooting for the Huskers:

"Any one of you woulda done the same!"
Yes, Nebraska will leave this conference for the Big Ten at the end of the season, this after 103 years in the Big 12/8/MVIAA, and even longer before that in primitive conferences with neighbors Kansas and Missouri. A long, beautiful history is being broken, and it's okay to be upset. But don't blame the Huskers, don't harbor a grudge for their decision to leave. Most other schools in the league, certainly every other non-Colorado North team would have leapt and cartwheeled into the Big Ten if asked. Gov. Nixon and plenty of Mizzou fans politicked to do the same thing Nebraska has been vilified for. To hate the Huskers now for it smacks of envy or bitterness.

I'm (still) not sure how I feel about the move, but I know Nebraska did what they felt they had to do. Tom Osborne saw a shaky league that we all though was blowing apart, that may yet do so, and he had to make a tough call. With the program he'd help build hanging in the balance, he did what he always does: steady his hands, study the play sheet/situation, and make the best call he could. Nebraska is going to a fine, well-run, prestigious conference. The remaining teams in the Big 12 still have a legit league and will soon get a fat TV contract payday. Everyone is okay here. Yes, it's rough the tradition was sacrificed. But some tradition was already lost in the Big 8/Big 12 transition. Again, everyone is okay. There doesn't need to be a villain.

There is no shame is Nebraska wins the conference and then leaves. There will still be a Big 12 (or whatever they'll call it) champion next year. Nebraska is in the league in 2010, and if they are the best in 2010, it doesn't matter what will happen in 2011. If you just don't like the Big Red, fine, but don't give me this leaving the conference/looks bad bit. I guess I just don't see it. If you want to talk about this league looking bad, we'll examine its NCAA tourney history, but I don't want to... Not in this post, anyway.

Nebraska's fan base is known for their passion and manners. Even despite the lunatic actions of some on the fringe during this rocky season, the people I interacted with in my road trip to Lincoln were good people. Yes, they won so maybe it's easy to be nice, but they were also friendly and offered to take my group's picture before the game, before the deluge.

But this year has no doubt been a challenge for Husker fans and the high standards they set for themselves. Most were too stunned to give the traditional postgame applause to the visiting Texas Longhorns after the Huskers lost in October. Some Nebraska players said they were heckled by Husker fans. Then came coach Bo Pelini's sideline meltdown at A&M, caused by (and the cause of?) the stupendously awful officiating in that game.

Ugly fan behavior usually gets more publicity, and Husker fans were wrestling with the fear that the league was trying to keep them from winning. I want to say this is preposterous, and yet mounting evidence kept popping up. Exactly one player has been suspended by the conference office this year, and of course he's a Husker. Missing the Burkhead head-twisting at Iowa State and the crotch-grabbing of a Nebraska player at A&M as the Husker lay right by a referee were awful. They turned egregious when instead Nebraska players drew personal foul penalties on those plays. This pro wrestling referee incompetence amped up the fears of the paranoid part of the fan base, and then World Cup ref moves such as throwing flags, then saying "there is no penalty" without further explanation didn't exactly put out the fire. Neither did the way low penalty totals on Husker opponents this season. After the A&M game, Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe didn't have anyone from the league offices present the North trophy to Nebraska, citing the very negative mail his office had received, saying it wasn't safe. What a shame.

I don't know how much a league could/would orchestrate such a thing, and I really believe the Huskers issues here were a mix of their own mistakes and the referees, um, human struggles, not anything dark or evil or planned. But the above incidents only made this season more difficult. It's been a struggle, a mix of successes and failings.

But that's life. Now the fans can show up in Dallas in droves, and hopefully the good fans, the real fans, will be at the forefront. This could be a happy ending for the fans, coaches and players who have endured a rough year, some their own doing, some just situational. But regardless, to see them overcome all the storm, to get better and be better for all this, would be a sight to see. It would be a redemption story, and I like those.

For the outnumbered, for the underdog, for ol' Benskie
This game has the feel of Nebraska against the world. Husker fans may say that's about fair, given their, um, pride. Nebraskans went up against the wild, untamed, unbreakable prairie. They went up against the grasshoppers who descended on the plains and ate everything (hence the old mascot name, the Bugeaters). Now they stand up against an angry conference, naturally playing in Dallas, where league offices relocated to when the Big 8 became the Big 12, a move Nebraska tried to block.

And yes, Oklahoma is a slight favorite in this game. Nebraska has had injury issues on offense, at the one position toughest to overcome injuries at: the quarterback. I don't think freshman sensation Taylor Martinez will be fully healthy for this game, and that may be the difference. But he has been hurt a lot this season. The Huskers have had to adjust, swallow their pride again, and try to win on the Blackshirt defense, the Rex-cat formation (direct snap to the running back), and old reliable, kicker/punter Alex Henery. If they pull out this one with a limited Martinez, or no Martinez, these kids have guts to spare.

Lastly, yes, this is one of my teams, quite possibly my most beloved sports team after Mizzou, in any sport. More than any other team, the Huskers are a link to my youth and my ancestry. They're the team I watched as I fell in love with college football, the team I emulated as a kid in my Nebraska backyard, the team my dad heard on the radio while working on the farm as a kid. And this Saturday night, I want them to win. And maybe, just maybe, you might root for them as well. Either way, should be a great game.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mizzou earns 10th win with rout of Kansas

A blowout win over Kansas is, for most Missouri fans, an ideal way to end a regular season. Add the fact that last Saturday’s 35-7 Tiger romp in Kansas City was Missouri’s 10th win this season, and it was extra fun for the fans wearing black and gold.

Yes, the game lacked the buzz typical of this rivalry. Everyone on both sides—fans, coaches, players—seemed to know what was going to happen before the game started. Kansas entered the game at 3-8, 1-6 in Big 12 play, struggling mightily in the first year under coach Turner Gill.

One could have reasonably predicted a smaller crowd for this mismatch, but the tens of thousands of empty seats were a bit jarring. This was the fourth straight Border War game at the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium. Each of the first three games there had crowds of at least 70,000. Saturday’s announced attendance was 55,788. Capacity is around 80,000.

Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden estimated about 35,000 of these were Missouri fans, and that was probably a conservative estimate.

It seemed that most Kansas fans just stayed home, kept the shades drawn and waited to come out until their strong basketball team played that night rather than show up to witness this dismantling.

Missouri took just over three minutes to score a touchdown on its opening drive, racked up two sacks while forcing a Kansas three-and-out, and then scored another touchdown just after the halfway point in the opening quarter. The Tigers piled up a 21-0 halftime lead and then coasted through the second half for the 35-7 win.

It was the 119th time Missouri and Kansas have played in football. There have been 9 ties, and each team has won 55 games on the field. Missouri counts a 56-54-9 lead, due to Kansas fofeit in 1960. On Saturday, this rivalry didn’t seem nearly as competitive.

Now, as the Tigers (10-2, 6-2 Big 12) wait for the up-in-the-air Big 12 bowl selection process to sort out, Missouri fans can begin to evaluate the completed regular season.

Most preseason publications had Missouri going 9-3 and finishing second to Nebraska in the Big 12 North Division. Missouri did tie with Nebraska, moving to second due to losing the head-to-head tiebreaker, and actually won 10 games. The Tigers gave us that breakthrough win over Oklahoma, a special Saturday night we can remember for a long time. The defense was probably the best in Pinkel’s 10 years at Mizzou, posting two shutouts.

Tiger fans are likely wondering what might have been, however. That’s fair. The blown 17-3 lead at Texas Tech cost the Tigers the North and a shot at their first conference title since 1969. The absolute crushing at Nebraska in the de facto North title game stung. The 7-0 start stoked expectations to the point that 10-2 seems somehow less satisfying.

It’s good that the program is to the point that not winning the division is viewed as a letdown, but this was still a fine season. It was only the fourth 10-win season in program history (1960, 2007, 2008).

It was certainly a season Missouri fans can be proud of as they await the Tigers' bowl selection.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bring on the Jayhawks

It was not pretty, but then football games in November in Ames, Iowa, are rarely pretty. But Mizzou's 14-0 win at Iowa State last Saturday was an impressive display of defense from the Tigers, some of the best open-field tackling I've ever seen from the Black and Gold. Mizzou (9-2, 5-2 in Big 12 games) now owns three of the five shutouts in Big 12 play since 2006.

Yes, Iowa State (5-7, 3-5 Big 12) did outgain Missouri in total yards, and matched the Tigers with 17 first downs. But the Tigers staked out an early 7-0 lead and then held Iowa State at bay. Iowa State missed two field goals, and Missouri used a fake punt to pick up a key first down en route to the game-clinching touchdown.

Missouri’s offense overcame the adversity of the cold, windy conditions to do enough. Missouri managed another balanced offensive effort, with 134 yards rushing and 172 yards passing.

It was the kind of win that makes fans feel good about the overall program, as Missouri went on the road, in blustery conditions, against a team with everything to play for and didn’t stumble.

Mizzou now is assured of a winning record in conference play in three of the last four seasons, and a win on Saturday against Kansas would give the Tigers 10-win seasons in three of the last four years. However, the primary goal of winning Missouri’s first conference title since 1969 remains.

With that goal in mind, Mizzou still has a narrow window of opportunity to win the Big 12 North Division. If Nebraska loses its last game against resurgent Colorado and Mizzou beats Kansas, the Tigers will represent the North in the Big 12 Championship game.

While Colorado faces an uphill battle in Lincoln, Missouri should roll the struggling Jayhawks (3-8, 1-6 Big 12) at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City (11:30 a.m. on FSN).

This will be the 119th meeting in this epically bitter rivalry, the second most-played in college football. Both sides claim a 55-54-9 edge in the series. (In 1960, Kansas beat No. 1 Missouri but later was forced to forfeit the game for using an ineligible player, halting the momentum of MU-KU columns for decades thereafter. Both sides count this game as a win.)

Missouri fans will relish the chance to embarrass a weaker Kansas team, as they always have. In the 1960s, Mizzou was crushing Kansas when Jayhawk coach Pepper Rogers flashed the peace sign across the field to Tiger coach Dan Devine, who supposedly “returned half of it.”

Missouri fans will no doubt be wary though, given sparks of competitive play from Kansas in recent games and the Jayhawks' historic ability to rise up and give Missouri fits, regardless of their talent level. But in so many ways, even with the success of recent years, beating Kansas still determines much of how the season is viewed. A loss to this Kansas team would be among the most bitter in Missouri history. More likely, expect a week of jokes about the difference between Kansas and Missouri followed by a big Tiger win.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tigers get back on track against Wildcats

On the heels of back-to-back losses at Nebraska and Texas Tech, Missouri needed a turnaround game. They needed confidence. They needed to avoid the all-out meltdown a third straight loss would have unleashed.

In last Saturday’s Senior Day game, the Tigers (8-2, 4-2 in Big 12 games) achieved all of the above with a 38-28 win over Kansas State. Missouri controlled the game throughout most of the second half, leading by as many as 24 points before a pair of late Wildcat touchdowns narrowed the final margin.

The offense was more balance than it was in the two losses. Missouri had 208 passing yards and 232 rushing yards. Blaine Gabbert responded to a midweek pep talk from Gary Pinkel, who reminded the quarterback of how well he played against Oklahoma. It was surely helpful encouragement after Gabbert completed just 42 percent of his passes in the two losses, and the big quarterback responded by completing 17 of 25 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns.

Gabbert also ran for 89 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown run that was capped off by a crushing block from receiver Wes Kemp to clear the path to the end zone. Kemp was one of six different Tigers to catch a pass in the game, which was played in cold, overcast, windy conditions.

The defense got some huge turnovers in key situations. Whether they were Kansas State blunders, such as the fumbled snap at the Missouri one-yard line just before half, or forced by great Missouri plays, such as the Aldon Smith sack that caused a fumble that was returned for a Tiger touchdown, the takeaways kept the Wildcat rushing attack from rolling up too many yards. They battled to the end, but Kansas State is not a team built to come from behind.

Missouri’s pass rush overwhelmed the Wildcat comeback attempt. Brad Madison picked up another sack and leads the conference in sacks.

The win capped an undefeated home season for Missouri, their second in four years. This senior class, despite last year’s 3-3 mark at Faurot, finished with an impressive 20-4 record at home.

The win also kept alive the chance for a 10-win regular season and a prestigious bowl berth. No. 15 Missouri closes the season with games at Iowa State on Saturday and against Kansas in Kansas City on Nov. 27. Missouri will be a heavy favorite in both.

This week’s game in Ames (6 p.m. on FSN) could be a bit tricky. Iowa State (5-6, 3-4 in Big 12) needs this win in their last game to get to 6-6 and be eligible for a bowl game, which is a big deal for the Cyclones and coach Paul Rhoads, who is trying to build the program.

On the Cyclones' senior day, in what could be a very cold game, with so much to play for, Missouri will surely get Iowa State's best shot. But if the Tigers can play at the level they did against Kansas State, they should beat the Cyclones.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Missouri offense stalls in Lubbock

Tiger fans are no doubt disappointed with Missouri’s rather uninspired 24-17 loss at Texas Tech last Saturday.

Missouri (7-2, 3-2 Big 12) rolled into Lubbock with plenty to play for, in contention for a prestigious BCS bowl and needing to keep winning to keep the heat on Nebraska in the Big 12 North Division race. Texas Tech came into the game at 4-4, 2-4 in Big 12 play, struggling in coach Tommy Tuberville’s first year.

Missouri jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two long touchdown runs. When the game got to 17-3 late in the first half, Tuberville put the previously benched Taylor Potts in at quarterback. Potts led the Red Raiders on three straight touchdown drives in the second and third quarters, while Missouri’s offense completely broke down, not scoring in the second half.

Like last week’s loss at Nebraska, Missouri abandoned the run for long stretches of the game. It was just more bizarre since the Tigers led by two touchdowns early in the contest. Missouri roared to that lead on the strength of its ground game, but after taking a 17-3 lead, Missouri called 19 pass plays and only eight runs.

Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert struggled again, completing only 12 of his 30 passes for a scant 95 yards. Over the past two games, Gabbert has completed only 30 of his 72 passes. I’m not sure which is more jarring: a quarterback in a system built on high-percentage passes throwing 42 incompletions in two games, or a struggling quarterback throwing 72 passes in two games.

Gabbert’s receivers did him no favors, dropping multiple catchable passes. But it’s fair to question is backup James Franklin should have at least been given a chance to spark the offense.

I’m not one of those people calling for firings after every loss, but this loss will be especially distasteful for Tiger fans. Hopes of a BCS bowl or North title are likely out the window, meaning Missouri’s 41-year conference title drought will live on. The back-to-back losses, coupled with the realization that Oklahoma isn’t a great team (the Sooners lost at Texas A&M last Saturday) have caused quite a tumble for Tigers fans over the last two weeks.

Missouri could still win 10 games, 11 with a bowl win, but the Tiger outfit in Lubbock didn’t inspire any confidence the team’s ability to run the table.

Next up is the last home game with Kansas State (6-3, 3-3 Big 12). Last Saturday, the Wildcats continued their domination of Texas, winning 39-14 despite having no threat of a passing game. Nobody gameplans like Wildcat coach Bill Snyder, whose team ran on 50 of 54 offensive plays. The two complete passes went to the running back. Still, Snyder found what would work and he did it. Kansas State led 24-0 at the half with no complete passes.

They'll almost surely throw a bit more against No. 20 Missouri (11:30 a.m. on FSN). Snyder will have another solid gameplan ready for Missouri, but if the Tigers can get their offense going, they should beat Kansas State. That's just a big "if" right now.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tigers break down in last trip to Lincoln

From the beginning, when the public address announcer boomed, “Husker fans, this is gameday, and there is NO PLACE like NEBRASKA!” during the pregame ceremony, this was an ambush. Before the 309th straight sellout at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, the Huskers shattered illusions about Missouri being a national title contender.

The start of the game was surreal. Three and out by Missouri. A 66-yard touchdown run by Roy Helu Jr. on Nebraska’s first play. Three and out by Missouri. Nebraska field goal. Four plays and another punt by Mizzou. A 40-yard touchdown pass for Nebraska. Another Missouri punt. Helu with a 73-yard touchdown run. 24-0 Nebraska after 12 minutes. “Is this even real?” my friend Brent yelled.

The game was over at 24-0. The Huskers simply avoided risks and held on for the 31-17 win. With Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez out in the second half, backup Zac Lee threw all of three passes that half, completing one. Helu buried Missouri with a school-record 307 rushing yards.

Missouri was cripplingly one-dimensional. The Tigers ran 76 offensive plays. Gabbert threw 42 passes, 24 of which were incomplete. Six of the other plays were sacks. For a rough estimate, say half of Gabbert’s 16 non-sack rushes were designed runs and the other half were scrambles. (Missouri running backs combined for 12 rushing attempts.) That works out to 56 of 76 plays being called passes, about a 74-26 pass-run breakdown. So much for balance.

With Nebraska knowing passes were coming, the strong Husker secondary smothered the Tiger receivers, leaving Gabbert to dance around, running from both the real and perceived pressure that Nebraska generated with usually only three or four pass rushers.

And, in the most hostile environment he’s ever played in, facing relentless pressure and tight coverage, Gabbert freaked out. He took plenty of hits, but he also rolled out of decent pockets, away from phantom pressure. Missouri burned all its second-half timeouts in about nine minutes, and then Gabbert frantically signaled for a timeout he didn’t have in a goaline situation.

Why Missouri didn’t try running is a mystery. Maybe they thought they couldn’t. Maybe it was because they fell behind 24-0 so quickly. But I think if that’s the case, then you can say the coaches panicked a bit. After Nebraska went up 24-0, Missouri still had nine drives during the rest of the game. There were nearly 48 minutes of game time left at that point. The next three drives after this point featured one run by a running back.

However, Missouri (7-1, 3-1 in Big 12) still has plenty to play for. They are tied with Nebraska for first in the North, even though the Huskers now own the head-to-head tiebreaker. But if Nebraska (No. 7 BCS, No. 9 AP) loses one of its last four games, Missouri (No. 12 BCS, No. 14 AP) could win out and represent the North in the Big 12 title game. Also, an 11-win season and BCS bowl berth are possible.

Next Mizzou plays at Texas Tech (7 p.m. on ABC). Tech is struggling some under new coach Tommy Tuberville (4-4, 2-4 in Big 12), but they have skilled offensive players in Taylor Potts, Baron Batch and Detron Lewis. Mizzou will need a more balanced effort to get back on track in Lubbock.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tigers smash through Sooner roadblock

Missouri fans will likely remember Saturday, Oct. 23 for a long, long time. From the early morning, when ESPN’s College Gameday show broadcasted from the picturesque and passionate Francis Quad on campus, to the electric 36-27 win over BCS No. 1 Oklahoma that night before a national audience on ABC, this was a day, the day, for the Tigers.

A sellout crowd of 71,004 packed Memorial Stadium beneath the bright lights. The game began with a thunderbolt, an 86-yard kick return for a touchdown by Gahn McGaffie that set the tone.

Twice Missouri clawed for touchdown leads, twice Oklahoma tied it. Missouri benefited from two first-half Sooner turnovers inside the Tigers’ 20-yard line.

After Oklahoma grabbed a 21-20 lead late in the third quarter, Missouri fans could’ve been thinking, here we go again. The Tigers had lost seven straight to the Sooners and 19 of the last 20. But this Tiger team just kept playing, roaring with the crowd to a 36-21 lead and holding on for the epic win as thousands of jubilant Tiger fans stormed the field and carried the goalposts off to Harpo’s in downtown Columbia.

It was very possibly the biggest home win in Missouri football history, on Homecoming, over the No. 1 team, finally taking down the mighty Sooners who had so often in recent years stood in the way of the Tigers’ aspirations of rising as a program. It’s in the running for biggest Missouri win ever, though for now I’ll still give the nod to the 2007 “Armageddon at Arrowhead” win over Kansas.

Now Missouri has smashed through the familiar Sooner roadblock, and Tiger fans are dreaming like it’s 2007, that wild, beautiful year that saw Mizzou come within a win of playing for a national championship and finish No. 4 overall. It was a wacky year that saw the No. 1- and 2-ranked teams lose a combined 11 times. Three weekends that year No. 1 and 2 both lost.

Missouri’s win on Saturday was the third straight week a No. 1-ranked team lost, all in road games at that week’s College Gameday site. (To be fair, Oregon was No. 1 in the AP and Coaches’ polls last week. Oklahoma was No. 1 in the BCS, a combination of polls that determines who plays in the national championship game.)

Missouri is No. 6 in this week’s BCS rankings and the only undefeated team left in the Big 12. On Saturday they play at Nebraska (2:30 p.m. on ABC) in a game that will likely decide the Big 12 North Division winner. The Huskers (No. 14 BCS, 6-1 overall, 2-1 Big 12) are a formidable challenge.

Nebraska has lofty hopes for its final season in the Big 12. After a 5-0 start, the Huskers were dealt a bitter 20-13 loss to Texas in a game they desperately (perhaps too desperately) wanted to win. They recovered to beat a strong, previously undefeated Oklahoma State team on the road, 51-41. It was bizarre seeing Nebraska's stout defense give up 41, and equally bizarre to see the Huskers roll up 51 after looking so inept against Texas, when they couldn't get out of their own way or haul in passes when they were wide open. Freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez has been a sensational surprise for the Big Red, the Texas disappointment (not nearly a strong enough word for Husker fans) notwithstanding. Keeping him bottled up will be key if Missouri is to pull the upset. (The Tigers opened as seven-point underdogs.)

The stakes keep getting higher each week. A win would virtually seal up the North and put Missouri in position to remain in the national title picture to the end. It's also Missouri's last ever trip to Nebraska's storied "Sea of Red" as the Huskers are moving to the Big Ten next year. It should be a thrilling showdown between two fine teams with plenty on the line and, hopefully, another day for Tiger fans to remember in what is becoming a special season.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mizzou barrels into Sooner showdown

Last Saturday, Missouri (6-0, 2-0 in Big 12 Conference play) traveled to Texas A&M and turned in one of the finest all-around performances of the 10-year tenure of coach Gary Pinkel. The Tigers rolled up over 400 yards of offense, kept Texas A&M out of the end zone until midway through the fourth quarter (helped by three sacks from the ferocious Brad Madison), and rolled to a 30-9 win.

The win propels Missouri (No. 16 in Coaches’ Poll, No. 18 in AP, No. 11 in BCS standings) into a big-time Homecoming showdown with Oklahoma (6-0, 2-0 in Big 12) at 7 p.m. on Saturday in Columbia (televised on ABC). Oklahoma (No. 3 in Coaches’ and AP) is No. 1 in the BCS standings, which determine who plays in the National Championship Game.

So this game will impact both the national and Big 12 title races. ESPN’s College Gameday show will be broadcasting from Columbia. The eyes of the nation will be on this game.

And, perhaps even more, Missouri has a chance to take down the mighty Oklahoma Sooners at their peak. Under Pinkel, Missouri has not defeated Oklahoma or Texas, who have combined to win eight of the last 10 Big 12 titles. Mizzou finished 12-2 and No. 4 in the nation in 2007, but both losses were to the Sooners. This would be a breakthrough win.

12th-year coach Bob Stoops has rolled up a 123-29 record, an 80-17 mark against Big 12 competition, and six conference titles in the last 10 years, plus a national title in 2000. The sign in the Oklahoma locker room reads, “No excuses, win the Big 12.”

With that record of success, it’s perhaps not surprising that Pinkel and Mizzou have played Elmer Fudd to Stoops’ and Oklahoma’s Bugs Bunny: always chasing, never catching. Mizzou has lost 19 of 20 to Oklahoma, and Pinkel is 0-6 vs. Stoops.

Fortunately, if my childhood memory serves me, Fudd did defeat Bugs once, in the “What’s Opera, Doc?” episode. It’s a parody of an opera, and, as Richard Wagner’s classic “The Valkyrie” plays in the background, Fudd calls on typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes, smog (bizarrely) and lightning, which strikes down Bugs. (Cartoons were different then; but don’t worry, Bugs breaks character and lifts his head at the end, saying, “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”). It’s a classic, ranked as the No. 1 cartoon of all time by a fairly authoritative 1994 book on cartoons.

And if Fudd can defeat his longtime nemesis, then the Tigers can defeat the Sooners. Tiger fans and players have skyrocketing confidence. The Missouri crowd will be roaring for their Tigers. Mizzou has a strong defense, which is critical for beating the big boys.

This Missouri team doesn't have any great, great players, but it has several good ones, Pinkel says. It's a fun team to root for. It's a team on the brink of something big. This could be an epic win. Time to get excited.

* * *

And now, for those of you who enjoy ancient cartoons, here is the aforementioned clip of Bugs and Fudd. The action starts about the 0:47 mark, when Bugs' fairly obvious disguise falls off.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tigers enter defining four-game stretch

The Missouri Tigers’ 26-0 win over Colorado last Saturday to open conference play was at times not a thing of beauty, but Missouri thoroughly outplayed the Buffaloes to earn the big win.

The defense was especially impressive. The Tigers (5-0, 1-0 in Big 12 play) came up with stop after stop when Colorado got into Missouri territory, handing Colorado another shutout to go with Missouri’s 58-0 demolition of the Buffaloes in Columbia in 2008.

The defense has impressed so far this year. Last year, Missouri intercepted eight passes all season. This year, Missouri has already picked off nine passes.

It’s an encouraging sign as Missouri begins a crucial four-game stretch that will largely define the season. Starting Saturday, Missouri plays at Texas A&M, home vs. Oklahoma, at Nebraska and at Texas Tech. It’s a strong test: three road games, two games against top-six teams, a variety of offensive styles.

Winning one is a must, winning two is an ambitious goal, and winning three means this will be a transcendent season. It won’t be easy. Missouri is 1-7 in its last eight games against Big 12 south teams. Missouri hasn’t started conference play at 2-0 since 2006 and hasn’t started conference play at 3-0 since 1998.

But it’s fine to be optimistic. This is an undefeated, ranked (No. 19 Coaches, No. 21 AP) Missouri team. Let’s take a look at these four upcoming tests.

At Texas A&M, Oct. 16 (11 a.m. on Fox Sports Net): Missouri was 6-0 in 2006 and lost a tough 25-19 game in College Station. The “Home of the 12th Man,” Kyle Field, can be a daunting place to play, although the Aggies haven’t defended it well lately, going 9-11 in Big 12 home games since 2005. Texas A&M is 3-2 with both losses to top-20 teams away from home. Missouri opened as a slight underdog, but this is nearly a toss-up game.

Home vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 23: This game could be to get Missouri to 3-0 in Big 12 play, which last happened in 1998, also the last year Mizzou beat Oklahoma. Missouri has lost 20 of 21 to the mighty Sooners, despite being ranked coming into the last five meetings. Beating the No. 6 Sooners will be a tall order, but this is Missouri’s Homecoming, and this is college football.

At Nebraska, Oct. 30: Likely the North Division Championship. Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, the Sea of Red, is another rugged environment. The No. 4 Huskers have an ongoing streak of 307 straight sellouts and the kind of lockdown defense that makes crowds get loud. I think Missouri can win in Lincoln, but Missouri will probably need to have an edge in turnovers.

At Texas Tech, Nov. 6: Tech is still a mystery, but they appear to still be able to score plenty, hanging 45 points on Baylor last Saturday. Still, this is likely the easiest of these four games (Mizzou may even be favored in this one). Hopefully Missouri will have energy left for this one after the heavyweight bouts with Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Old Man and the Sea (of Red).

Some thoughts and perspective on Thursday's delightful Nebraska-Kansas State college football matchup (6:30 on ESPN).

In one corner on Thursday night, you have the Big Red. For pride (okay, maybe a bit of arrogance), sportsmanship and fan support, they may have no equal. No other program can touch the 307 straight sellouts Nebraska boasts, despite the state's relatively tiny population. It is one of the nation's most storied programs, by cold numbers the best since 1970, with five national titles, three Heismans and 25 more wins than any other program during that time. They are one of the giants of the sport.

The Huskers did, like all the great programs, have a down stretch during the just-completed decade, with a 7-7 record in 2002 and losing records in 2004 and 2007. But now they appear to be back, ranked No. 6 or 7, depending on your preferred poll, and the meat grinder defense, the Blackshirts, is back in full force. One of my favorite sports storylines is when a great player or team falls a bit and then rises again. This year, Nebraska has conference and even national title aspirations. But it's a young season. And the Huskers have a young quarterback. Winning titles takes some good fortune along with talent.

In the other corner is a 70-year-old man. Most of the other Big 12 schools are terrified of him. He took over the worst college football program in America, Kansas State, a team that had lost 27 straight. An assistant coach would later say that when the new staff arrived, they had probably two legitimate Division I players. Two. The program was located in the haunting Flint Hills, in seemingly hopeless Manhattan (turns out it's actually a delightful town). Never mind that 800 program wins talk, K-State was the only program to ever lose 500 games when Snyder took over in 1989.

He went 1-10 that first year, but he talked of the potential for a turnaround, he kept working so many hours, he told his program that losing was not who they were. He even designed a new logo to symbolize the new chapter for K-State, that Purple Powercat logo now painted on barn roofs and limestone rocks and mailboxes and grain elevators all across rural Kansas.

Slowly, impossibly, Snyder lifted K-State. They rose past all the other Big 8 schools (starting in 1996, past the other Big 12 North schools) except for mighty Nebraska. People pointed to Snyder's soft nonconference schedules, saying it wasn't a true power program. Then came 1998. Nebraska had defeated the North's have-nots, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State and Missouri, every single year for 20 years. Every. Single. Year. The Big Red had won 29 straight vs. the Wildcats. Finally, Snyder and his group of have-nots stood up to the emperor. This year, with Tom Osborne retired, K-State beat the Huskers in Manhattan, a program legitimizing win. It was the defining win for the Wildcat program until a certain game in 2003. More on that in a minute. (Yes, I have to say, as a Nebraska fan, a ghastly missed facemask call dramatically aided K-State, but it was still the win for K-State athletics. Google "K-State Nebraska 1998 facemask" if you want to see the carnage.) Many programs point to their first win over Nebraska in however many million years as a defining win, but for no program is this more true than K-State in 1998.

The Wildcats finished that regular season undefeated and ranked No. 1. But in the Big 12 title game, on the brink of an incomprehensible berth in the national championship, the Wildcats broke down feet in front of the finish line tape, blowing a double-digit lead in the 4th quarter, losing in overtime.

From 1998 to 2004, the Wildcats challenged Nebraska for North supremacy, beating the Huskers five out of seven years. There was some chippiness. In 2003, Bo Pelini, then Nebraska's fiery defensive coordinator, went after Snyder after K-State won big in Lincoln, screaming that Snyder had ran up the score. That wide margin of defeat may have factored in Husker coach Frank Solich being fired at the end of the season. Then-AD Steve Pederson, now a reviled figure in the state, said when announcing Solich's firing, "I refuse to let this program gravitate toward mediocrity." He also said, "We will not surrender the Big 12 Conference to Oklahoma and Texas." His failure to mention or recognize K-State in that last statement rankled the folks in purple.

It seemed especially silly when K-State destroyed No. 1-ranked, supposedly invincible Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 title game. It was unthinkable as a watched it, but Darren Sproles kept shaking loose, Ell Roberson kept throwing touchdown passes, and the Wildcat defense beat the heck out of Jason White, the Sooners' gimpy Heisman-winning quarterback. It's become the Wildcats' calling card, going into to battles with a massive chip on their shoulder, punching the bully in the face, showing no fear in pulling improbable upsets. Even after Snyder retired, coach Ron Prince's K-State teams beat Texas back-to-back years. (While I've got you Googling, search "Ron Prince high step vs. Texas." Thank me later.)

The thing is, not only did Nebraska gravitate toward mediocrity after 2003, K-State did so as well. After the stunning Big 12 title in 2003, K-State has had exactly one winning season since. The slipping of these two programs did clear the way for the Missouri-Kansas Armageddon at Arrowhead game, but it also changed the Big 12 landscape.

But both seem to be coming back. Nebraska's surging status was outlined above, and Snyder returned from a three-year retirement last year to lead K-State to a 6-6 season. The Wildcats nearly won the North, with Snyder game-planning to perfection and outfoxing other coaches despite his outgunned team. Nebraska and K-State met last November to decide the North, like it was the late 90s all over again. The Huskers won, but K-State remains a wild card and may have the best coach in the nation.

Snyder is known for bamboozling opponents, as I saw at his original last game in 2005, when I saw his four-win team defeat Mizzou and Brad Smith in Manhattan before a purple-clad, rocking, electric crowd. He conjured up four straight home wins against the Huskers from 1998 to 2004.

But even still, the Huskers always seem to be the team Snyder and his Wildcats are chasing. His record against the Big Red (5-13, .278) is his worst record against any Big 12 school, no doubt hurt by the nine straight losses Tom Osborne's machine teams. Nebraska has won five straight against K-State, although three of those were against Ron Prince. (Snyder is a stout 49-19 against the other four Big 12 North schools since 1990.) Aside from those four straight K-State wins mentioned above, Nebraska is 34-3-2 all-time in Manhattan, and the Huskers lead the overall series 77-15-2, owing to the history of each program. Nebraska's famous statue outside its stadium is of an absurd six Nebraska defenders tackling a poor K-State running back.

And so, with Nebraska going to the Big Ten next year, this game has an even more nostalgic feel. This is one of three Husker trips to old Big Eight stadiums, and the others, trips to Stillwater and Ames, won't come close to moving the needle like Thursday night's game will for these programs. K-State rose up and provided Nebraska with a high-stakes rival to fill the void left by the breakup of the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry. The two programs offer intriguing contrasts, yet similarities in their rural natures and the single-minded devotion of their fans.

On Thursday night, Nebraska's fans, the Sea of Red, will one last time fill great portions of K-State's stadium, now named Bill Snyder Family Stadium. It will be Snyder's 71st birthday. One last time Snyder will try to gameplan to outduel his most challenging rival. K-State fans will rock to the Wabash Cannonball. With both team's defenses and running emphasis, the game on the field could be a bit unsightly. But the scene will be beautiful. One last time.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why I love the land

My parents till the land, growing life and food and a living. So did my grandparents. So did my great-grandparents. So did my great-great grandparents. Ancestors as far back as I presently know were largely all farmers. They likely farmed in the Fatherland, Germany, and in Indiana, where my great-great-great-grandfather, John Herrold, was born in 1831. My ancestors, cut open the great endless sod of Nebraska, literally living in homes made of the earth and sod. And they have farmed the hills and bottoms of old Missouri. Generations have grown and been grown from the land.

I am, at present, not a farmer. I'm always a country boy, and I farm with varying skill on weekends at home. But my beloved farm is a part of me. It's pull is strong.

I can close my eyes and see its landscapes. I guess I don't even have to close my eyes, I can just stare in the middle distance, closer than the horizon but farther away than just in front of my face. They are the silhouettes and panoramas and vistas of my home. I can see the farms, the corridors of trees at the edge of fields, the waving crops or cold dirt in all seasons and weather. The contoured hayfields of the East Farm, the sharper hills around the ancient cemetery on the Home Farm, the ever-changing wall of trees fronting the Forty, as seen from my grandparents' picture window. I've studied them for hours while hunting and driving tractors.

I am, as you can probably see, quite proud of my home. In an era when people have never been more distanced from their food and the land and things that are natural and real, I get to see, touch, taste, live that reality.

The rural life surely has its faults. People who get an education usually leave the farm, seeking better opportunities as the industry continues to face assaults on multiple fronts. Rural North Missouri is the Sahara when it comes to unmarried women over 18 and under 30. The roads are awful.

And, simply, farm life can be hard. It's part of why I'm giving this writing thing a try. You work long hours. You work in the elements. For the most part, you don't get rich. You go out on cold nights when a heifer is having a calf, and she has no idea what's going on, and it's snowing. You pull calves, deal with death and bankers, and are subject to prices and weather. Rains in Brazil and Russia can dramatically affect your livelihood. This powerlessness despite such effort keep a person humble. It shows a person how dependent we are all on God.

But it teaches lessons and values. You have to do your best, really strive to do your best, then let God handle the rest. This simple lesson of striving and faith is one I'm still working to get in my head and put into practice.

It's taught me the folly of materialism, the value of using the talents God gave you, that no one person is born better or more entitled than another. Live simply, enjoy the wonder of the natural world. I'd rather see the Grand Canyon than some ancient cathedral in Europe. God's own monuments top anything built by man.

I know people who seem to be embarrassed or ashamed if they come from working class or small-town backgrounds. It's rapidly becoming one of the few things that can rankle my cool demeanor. (If you know me, you see a bit of sarcasm in that last line.)

I have to say here, because it may help explain things, that I am crazy proud of my parents. They lost their farm and their livelihood once, but they kept digging, they bought new farms, they made sure their kids could grow up on the farm and appreciate the simple joys and lessons of farm life.

I remember in my freshman year of high school, I joined the FFA, like pretty much all kids worth anything did in school. The real kids played basketball and were in the FFA. We learned some key skills that year, such as tying a tie. (Comes in handy when you meet the President.)

We also had to memorize the FFA Creed. I'm surprised how much of it I remember. It was written by E.M. Tiffany in 1930, a pretty darn scary time to be a farmer. It was revised at the end of the 80s, like much of the FFA organization (during this time it was changed from the "Future Farmers of America" to the "National FFA Organization") to reflect "the changing nature of agriculture." The phrases "farm" and "farming" were changed to "agriculture" and "agricultural pursuits." Farming as a way of life seemed to be collapsing in the 1980s. Farmers were protesting at USDA offices in Chillicothe, Mo., and banks were failing in rural areas like it was the Depression. Throughout the Midwest, horror stories emerged, tales of farmers losing everything, no longer able to provide, going crazy, killing bankers and themselves. Meanwhile, the President joked that he wished he could import farmers.

But the creed kept one farm reference. And farming survived the 1980s, as it has all other crises and challenges. Tiffany's words still ring true, 80 years later, saying what I struggle to: "I believe that to live and work on a good farm... is pleasant as well as challenging; for I know the joys and discomforts of agricultural life and hold and inborn fondness for those associations which, even in hours of discouragement, I cannot deny... I believe that American agriculture can and will hold true to the best traditions of our national life[.]"

I have, simply, a link with and a love of and a longing for the land, my land, and the natural world, one that is difficult for me to explain. Writing this gave me ferocious writer's block, trying to give words to how I feel about my family's spread of the world in Daviess County. But when it comes to the land and the farm's way of life, I just keep thinking, This is who I am. And I love it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Fifth Down Game(s)

This Saturday, Missouri will open conference play against Colorado. It will probably be the last time the Tigers and Buffaloes will face off for some time, as Colorado is moving to the Pac-10 Conference next school year.

Missouri has owned the series lately, winning four straight. The Tigers have outscored Colorado 149-27 in the last three games.

This week also marks the 20th anniversary of what is likely the most famous (infamous) moment in the series history, the Fifth Down Game. Now if you’re vaguely familiar with football and are thinking “Fifth Down Game” is up there with “Free $7.99 Buffet” and “Fuel-Efficient Hummer,” then you realize the absurdity of this game.

On Oct. 6, 1990, 12th-ranked Colorado was in trouble late, trailing unranked Missouri 31-27 in Columbia. The Buffaloes drove inside the five, and were, in theory, supposed to have four attempts to get the ball into the end zone for the win.

To make a medium story short, the officials failed to switch the down marker to third down during a timeout, essentially giving Colorado two second downs. On fifth down, with the down markers showing fourth down, Colorado backup quarterback Charles Johnson scored on a one-yard touchdown run as time expired, giving the Buffs a 33-31 win. Colorado finished the season at 11-1-1 and shared the national title with Georgia Tech.

Missouri chancellor Haskell Monroe Jr. asked the Big Eight to declare Missouri the winner. Commissioner Carl James said the mistake was “not a post-game correctable error” and the result would remain.

I was all of 3 at the time, but looking back I wonder, how did Missouri coach Bob Stull not run on the field and body slam someone? Or, perhaps more wisely, tell officials the four plays that had just happened?

Colorado coach Bill McCartney drew the ire of Missouri fans after the game, saying he would have forfeited the win, but didn’t because “the field was lousy.” Apparently Missouri played on something called Omniturf at the time.

As though the situation weren’t bizarre enough, McCartney later founded the Promise Keepers men’s ministry. At a Promise Keepers event in 1998 in Columbia, McCartney admitted mistakes in how he handled the situation. Again, times change.

They particularly changed from 1940 to 1990. In 1940, Cornell and Dartmouth played the original Fifth Down Game. Cornell was ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll and trailed unranked Dartmouth 3-0 late in the game. After Cornell failed to score on fourth-and-goal, officials mistakenly gave them another down, and they scored the winning touchdown.

The officials discovered their error after reviewing the game films, though it boggles my mind that they had game films in 1940. Those Ivy Leaguers are cutting edge. In a perhaps more baffling (and pleasantly surprising) development, the Cornell players, coach, athletic director and president all agreed they should forfeit. The NCAA records the game as a 3-0 Dartmouth win.

(Also, Miami and Tulane had their own Fifth Down Game in 1972, with Miami using the extra down to score a decisive touchdown.)

What a difference 50 years makes. And now, what a difference 20 years makes. Missouri is ranked (No. 22 in the Coaches Poll, 24 in the AP Poll), and Colorado has struggled mightily over the last four years. Missouri has won 22 more games over the last four years than Colorado.

Colorado did beat the morass formerly known as Georgia football on Saturday. It was an encouraging win for them, even if Colorado fans' storming the field after beating a 1-3 team is pretty ridiculous. So Missouri can’t sleepwalk to a win, but the Tigers remain a heavy favorite and should win by double digits. It would probably take more than five downs at the end of the game for Colorado to win this one, even if the Buffaloes are improved.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Microwaves and Dancing

I’m not really a simple person, if such a thing truly exists. I am introspective, and by turns excitable, melancholy, nostalgic, thoughtful and plenty of other things. I enjoy the little things, or I try to, but I’m also a big picture guy. I know that when I’m unhappy, the thing that helps most is God’s reassurance that He’s always with me.

But also, in the idea that all good things are from above, I’ve found brief interludes of dancing, or rather my restricted parody of dancing, to be very enjoyable, particularly in that interminable matter or minutes or seconds while waiting for the microwave to go off.

I use our microwave plenty, in the odd-but-typical human fashion. It’s routine, drudgery, like a lot of things, but it’s also an opportunity. When work has been especially boring and not fulfilling, when things don’t go as I’d hope they would, when I don’t feel content, when I think for the millionth time what I’d do if I had a bunch of money or where I’d travel if I had time and said money, when the Royals bleepin’ $11 million dollar middle reliever (Ol’ Gil) gives up a home run in a tie game (and it’s September and I’ve yet to find something better to do than watch it), sometimes, perhaps ridiculously, the soul feels like moving a bit.

Now, the word “dancing” should be put in quotes in this context, as my movements are quite limited, like I’m balancing a cup of water on my head, or emulating my athletic hero Steve Young, who joked about dancing in a chair (all upper body). In most situations, I’m not a big dancing fan. But it’s the understated dancing that fits me. It’s about the act, not the production.

And it’s usually to equally ridiculous songs, really anything with a good beat, like if you were asked to play music that sounded optimistic. Lloyd Price’s “Personality,” that bouncy song from the NFL commercial with all the personalized Drew Brees jerseys, is a good fit. Same for Merle Haggard’s classic “Rainbow Stew,” a song synonymous with Ben Herrold among my friends. Shooter Jennings’ “Solid Country Gold.” Maybe even some Statler Brothers. And, of course, my wonderful college fight songs. Sometimes I play the songs on the laptop, sometimes I sing my own music, sometimes it’s all in my head.

I heard a song called “Let Us Love,” on the radio the other day, and today, by some band called Needtobreathe (apparently a space bar was broken at some point). I thought to myself, now that’s good microwave dancing music. It just rolls. Nice words, too, as a bonus.

So, if you find yourself with 45 seconds (slice of pizza), 2:20 (hot chocolate) or 4-5 minutes (frozen vegetables, steaming in the bag) to kill, move the hips a bit and get the most out of your varying times with some "dancing," to the irritation of Baptists. Live life all out, and have some fun. No, I'm not always in a dancing mood, in fact often I'm not; but remember, the good things are from above, and He's always with you (Isaiah 41).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Looking at 21 straight regular season noncon wins

Missouri (4-0) wrapped up the nonconference portion of its schedule by rolling to a 51-13 win over Miami (Ohio) last Saturday. The Tigers wasted no time ensuring this game would need none of the previous week’s last-minute heroics, scoring on a fumble return for a touchdown eight seconds into the game. It was the fastest opening Tiger score in coach Gary Pinkel’s 10 years at Mizzou, and it may be the fastest Missouri score ever.

By the end of the first quarter Missouri led 21-0. By halftime it was 28-3, and it was basically over. It was the Tigers’ 21st straight regular season nonconference win.

This streak dates back to a 45-35 loss to New Mexico in the 2005 home opener. It’s largely peppered with wins against weaker competition, but it is admirable to go that many games without a hiccup loss to an inferior team.

Every year since 2006, Missouri has picked up a win against both a Football Championship Subdivision team and a team from the Mid-American Conference. From 2007 through 2010, each season has also included a win over Illinois, a team that has been competitive at times but largely disappointing in recent years.

A look at the location of these 21 straight nonconference wins, as well as the conference affiliation of these opponents, shows a schedule built for success and confidence-building. Of these 21 games, 14 have been at home, three were on the road and four were at neutral sites. Five came against FCS teams, five came against teams from the MAC, four against the Big Ten (all against Illinois), two against Mountain West Conference teams, two against Southeastern Conference competition (a home-and-home series with Mississippi) and one game against a Sun Belt team.

There have been a few decent wins to write home about during this time. The wild 40-34 win in 2007 against an Illinois team that would play in the Rose Bowl that year launched Missouri on its historic 12-2 season. Missouri also won at Mississippi that year, even though Ole Miss didn’t win a single SEC game that year. Last year’s win at Nevada was impressive, especially after the Wolf Pack won eight straight after the Tigers beat them.

For the most part, the August and September nonconference challenges have been light, with each 4-0 start rousing fan interest, leaving them to wonder whether they had something special or dolled-up mediocrity. Starting in 2006, the year Missouri began this run of 4-0 starts, the Tigers have taken their first loss in their third, second, second and first Big 12 Conference game. Reality has been swift in arriving. Of course, Missouri has rallied after these first losses to win the Big 12 North in 2007 and 2008, going 4-4, 7-1, 5-3, and 4-4 in Big 12 play in these four seasons.

Now Missouri has a bye week before conference play begins against Colorado on Oct. 9 at Faurot Field. The game will ease Missouri into conference play before a difficult four-game stretch begins.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Moe bails out the Tigers

As the final minutes wound down in Missouri’s game with San Diego State last Saturday, and quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw an interception for the second straight drive, a mixture of panic and resignation to defeat filled Faurot Field.

After that second pick, the Aztecs had the ball up 24-20 with 1:47 remaining. Thousands and thousands of Tiger fans headed for the exits, no doubt angry that Missouri had looked past the Aztecs. Fortunately, Missouri had two timeouts left, kept the Aztecs out of the end zone, and San Digeo State punted and Missouri took over at its own 12-yard line with 1:22 to play.

Then receiver T.J. Moe provided the Tigers with one of the biggest bailouts in Missouri football history. Moe caught a pass in the left flat, used a sensational juke move to avoid a defender, and then benefited from a great downfield block by receiver Jerrell Jackson to get free. Moe raced down the field for a 68-yard touchdown with 52 seconds remaining.

The Missouri sideline was a mass of uniforms jumping up and down. Thousands and thousands of fans’ arms raised in triumph. The cannon in the north end zone boomed. Missouri stopped the Aztecs desperate final drive, and the Tigers were 3-0.

It wasn’t quite as last-second as Anthony Carter’s long touchdown catch-and-run in 1979 as time expired to avoid a tie with Indiana. And it didn’t have the implications of Georgia’s Lindsay Scott pulling off a last-minute 92-yard touchdown reception in 1980 to keep the Bulldogs’ national title hopes alive, during which legendary Georgia announcer Larry Munson’s call was famously, “Run Lindsay! …Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott!”

But it was Missouri’s first final-minute, game-winning touchdown since the classic 1976 win at Ohio State and the first such play at home since the 1958 win over Idaho. It was one of the more thrilling finishes in the 440 games Missouri has played at Faurot.

It was also a lesson in not giving up on one’s team. I get it when the team is down 30 with three minutes left, but when the Tigers of old Mizzou are down by four and have a couple of timeouts, don’t leave the stadium or turn off the radio or TV. In six of Missouri’s last eight wins against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, the Tigers have trailed in the second half.

Moe’s touchdown sparked two different, fair reactions. The glass-half-full perspective says Missouri (No. 24 in the Coaches Poll) is still unbeaten and was able to overcome a difficult situation to pull out the win. Lessons can be learned. The glass-half-empty view says this team struggled mightily and maybe should have lost to a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1998.

Next week, Missouri finishes up its nonconference schedule against Miami (Ohio). Miami (Ohio) was ranked near the bottom of all FBS teams in preseason publications, so the game gives Missouri another chance to show it won't look past overmatched opponents. Expect a big Missouri win.