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.