Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sooners send Tigers into bye week with a loss

When the Oklahoma band plays “Boomer Sooner,” I’m not sure if a Sooner is booming or if a Boomer is doing something earlier. (My limited knowledge of the Oklahoma land rush makes me think it’s the latter… or both.) But I do know this: the Sooner band plays the song over and over and over. Along with the rest of the Big 12 Conference, I also know this: the Sooners pretty much never lose at home under coach Bob Stoops.

Missouri’s 38-28 loss last Saturday was No. 1 Oklahoma’s 38th straight home win. The Sooners are an otherworldly 74-2 in Norman under Stoops. So the result was predictable, but credit the Tigers for coming out ready to play. When Missouri (2-2) took a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, it broke a streak of 20 straight home games in which Oklahoma had never trailed.

However, Oklahoma blitzes and the Sooners’ up-tempo machine of an offense gradually ground down Missouri. Oklahoma scored 28 unanswered points over two quarters to put the game away. The Tigers looked like a good team, just not championship caliber.

Thanks to a tougher early schedule than recent years, Missouri is 2-2 through four games for the first time since 2005. With a bye week ahead before eight straight Big 12 games, it’s a good time to look at where the Tigers are and what lies ahead.

Despite some key injuries, the offense has been pretty good. Henry Josey, who ran for 133 yards on 14 carries against Oklahoma, has been a revelation. Quarterback James Franklin, a first-year starter, continued to look good Saturday (291 pass yards, 103 rush yards), despite only one completion in the second quarter.

The key for the offense will be finding a way to get better at converting third downs. The Tigers came into the Oklahoma game 105th nationally in converting third downs, and they succeeded on only 3 of 12 attempts. Missouri has to get better on third down to sustain drives and give the defense a break.

That defense has struggled against the two good teams Missouri has played. The defensive line was supposed to be a strength, but it hasn’t generated enough pass pressure. The Tigers recorded only one sack of Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler, and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, was able to got about his work largely unbothered, shredding Missouri’s secondary for 448 pass yards.

I’m thinking improving the pass rush is a top priority for defensive coordinator Dave Steckel heading into the bye week.

Missouri hasn’t looked that bad in its two losses, but nevertheless the Tigers are 2-2 with a tough slate of games to play. The game at resurgent Kansas State on Oct. 8 could be a season-turner. That is followed by the Homecoming game against currently unbeaten Iowa State, and then a huge four-game stretch: Oklahoma State, at Texas A&M, at Baylor, Texas. All four are ranked in the top 17, and each could be a coin flip game.

The road ahead is difficult, but Missouri can take comfort in this: the Tigers are done hearing “Boomer Sooner” for this year.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Tigers face big test at No. 1 Oklahoma Saturday

Last week, it couldn’t get much easier for the Missouri Tigers (2-1), who rolled to a 69-0 win at home against Western Illinois. That tied for the most points Missouri has ever scored, and running back Henry Josey ran 14 times for 263 yards, all in the first half. Truman the Tiger did enough post-score pushups to make Jack LaLanne proud.

This Saturday, however, it couldn’t get much harder for the Tigers, as they travel to Norman, Okla., to take on the No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners (7 p.m. on FX). Under coach Bob Stoops, the Sooners have been nearly invincible at home, going a ridiculous 73-2 at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, including 37 straight wins.

What’s more, word is the Sooners are itching to avenge their 36-27 loss at Missouri last fall.

But let’s be positive, and realistic. Missouri has very little to lose on Saturday (except for some dignity if the game gets too lopsided), and an enormous amount to gain should they hang with the Sooners or, dare I say, pull the upset.

On the little-to-lose side, almost everyone already thinks Missouri will lose. By the point spread, the Tigers are the biggest underdogs they’ve been since a 2003 game… at Oklahoma. I mentioned Stoops’ home record above, and Big Game Bob has mostly ran roughshod over the Big 12 Conference, posting an 85-19 mark against conference opponents and winning seven Big 12 titles since 2000. (Everyone else in the Big 12 combined during that span: 4 conference titles.)

But, oh, if the Tigers pull the upset. It would possibly be the biggest win in Missouri football history, on the road against No. 1 and a historical nemesis. Missouri hasn’t won in Norman since 1966, dropping 17 straight there.

Also, it’s widely reported Oklahoma may leave the Big 12 to join the Pac-12 Conference. After decades of dominance by the Sooners, wouldn’t Mizzou fans love to send the Sooners scurrying westward, much like Oklahoma’s Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath,” with the Tigers having beaten them twice in a row?

It would take an effort for the ages. Mizzou’s defense, which dominated overmatched Western Illinois, will have its hands full with Oklahoma’s offense. Sooner quarterback Landry Jones is a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, and he’s surrounded by plenty of options, including receivers Ryan Broyles, an All-American, and Kenny Stills. Missouri’s defense will have to dig in and get some big stops. Forcing turnovers is a must. Last year Oklahoma had three trips inside the 15-yard line that didn’t lead to any points, which helped Missouri spring the upset win.

The Sooners defense was outstanding in the team’s 23-13 win at No. 5 Florida State last Saturday. Oklahoma held the Seminoles to a mere 246 yards of offense, including 27 rushing yards on 26 carries. Still, Missouri needs Josey to break free for some big runs to take some pressure off sophomore quarterback James Franklin.

Winning Saturday will be very, very difficult. But it’s still an opportunity for a huge win, and a chance for the Tigers to measure themselves against the best.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My memory of Sept. 11, 2001

September 11 started out just like any other day; a regular day, a Tuesday. It would not be a regular day.

I was a freshman at Gilman City High School. I was in a health class on the southwest corner of the school’s third floor. A classmate said, “Did you hear they bombed the World Trade Center?” Within minutes I learned it wasn’t a bomb, but a plane. Then two planes.

I went to my next class, in the Ag building. The projector was hooked up to a computer, which was showing the MSN home page. It showed an image like something out of a movie. One of the twin towers was smoking, the other captured right at the moment of impact, a cartoonish explosion shooting out all around it from the exploding jet fuel.

I remember being unnerved as our nation frantically struggled to capture the scope of what was happening. There was another plane that hit the Pentagon. And another crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. How many were there? So many people bravely and selflessly responded to help. The towers fell.

Mercifully, there was no Twitter back then, or the bird might have exploded.

Somehow, we kind of kept our routine going. We finished the full school day. As I left school, I learned there were long lines of people trying to buy gas at the Gilman City station. They assumed we were at war. It was scary stuff.

I had a fastpitch softball game that night (several very small schools in northwestern Missouri play this sport instead of football). In a development that seems so bizarre in hindsight, we played our games as scheduled. I mean, even the NFL took a week off. But I guess playing softball beat sitting around worrying.

I remember being at my grandparents’ house before the game, watching the coverage on TV. It was the same room that my grandparents watched coverage of Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon resigning, and the Gulf War starting. I remember while I watched they showed the clip of the second plane hitting. The person on the clip was talking about the first tower smoking. Then the second plane hit and he just gasped and lost words.

The sky was starting to get that crisp, blue look it gets in Missouri in the fall, but I’ll always remember how bizarre it was at the softball game to look up at the sky and not see any plane jetstreams arcing across the sky.

I was not a great hitter that year, but somehow I got four hits in four at-bats and then we all went home.

I remember the aftermath, seeing the gripping images, watching those unforgettable World Series games in New York afterward when the Yankees hit all those huge homeruns even as Ground Zero still smoldered.

Like everyone says, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. It’s still so poignant, so vivid, so real. I got goosebumps several times writing this.

This May I visited a friend in New York City. She lives in the building right next to Ground Zero. I took the walking tour, and it was my turn to be at a loss for words. But the new One World Trade Center, dubbed the “Freedom Tower,” is rising toward its symbolic height of 1,776 feet.

America is marching on, even if the memories of that September day seem like only yesterday.

Playing on the road is tough, but a good idea

Missouri may have lost, 37-30, in overtime at Arizona State last Friday night, but simply playing that game helped the program. Frustrating as the loss was, playing a solid opponent on the road will help Missouri when conference play starts… with two road games.

The loss snapped a streak of 22 straight nonconference wins for the Tigers (1-1), but that streak was peppered with mediocre-to-weak opponents. Missouri was favored in 21 of those 22 games, and the streak included only three road wins. Only one of the road wins came against a school from one of the six major conferences (Mississippi in 2007), and that team was winless in conference play.

The purpose of these nonconference games is to prepare a team for the conference games that follow. Some coaches like to schedule weak opponents to build their teams’ confidence. I understand that and get that it can be useful to play an easier team or two. But I also think it’s good when coaches challenge their teams. It’s more fun for the fans. I also like to think Missouri is ready as a program to play some big-boy type nonconference games.

Think about it: what gives Missouri a better chance to win at Oklahoma on Sept. 24, playing at Arizona State last weekend on national TV or playing at home against, say, Bowling Green?

Also soothing the pain of the loss is the reminder it’s hard to beat even a decent team on the road. Missouri isn’t Alabama, which last Saturday rolled into Penn State’s massive stadium, unpacked the nation’s best defense, and rolled to a win. Very few teams can do this regularly. Coach Gary Pinkel is now 20-26 at Missouri in road games, but only three of the 10 Big 12 coaches have a winning record in road games at their current schools: Texas’ Mack Brown (46-10) Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (36-16) and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy (16-15).

But what made the loss so frustrating is that the Tigers could have won and didn’t. Missouri, helped by an Arizona State muffed punt return, roared back from a 30-14 deficit to tie the game. They had a field goal attempt to win the game, but the normally reliable Grant Ressel missed the 48-yarder wide left.

There were positives, such as the breakout performances of quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey. But there were ominous signs as well. The pass defense looked bad, allowing 388 yards through the air. Also, running back De’Vion Moore was knocked out of the game as injuries continue to pile up for the Tigers.

This Saturday Missouri plays Western Illinois at home (6 p.m., pay-per-view TV) in the Tigers’ last nonconference game. WIU plays in the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA), but a weak opponent the week before the looming trip to Oklahoma might not be a bad idea. WIU went 7-5 last year and made the FCS playoffs. They had a fairly competitive loss to Purdue last September.

Still, Missouri should win easily and cruise into its Big 12 opener at No. 1 Oklahoma.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tigers head to desert for showdown with Arizona State

A win’s a win, right? That was the thinking of Missouri players and fans after the team’s often-ugly 17-6 home win over Miami (Ohio) in the season-opener last Saturday.

With temperatures in the middle-90s, the crowd seemed to melt as the long, hot game progressed. The defense played well, making some huge plays in the red zone to stop Miami scoring chances. The offense did just enough, although the highly anticipated starting debut of quarterback James Franklin wasn’t especially impressive.

Franklin completed 17 of his 26 passes, but for just 129 yards. His 5 yards per attempt is pretty low; 8 yards per throw is a good number in that department. He also threw an interception and, with his team clinging to a 10-6 lead, he threw a pass that many cornerbacks Mizzou will face would be able to pick off and return for a touchdown. The Miami defender wasn’t able to do so, but it still didn’t look good. It was just Franklin’s first start, but these passing difficulties are a big reason why Missouri only converted 2 of 13 third down plays.

Against Miami, it was enough to get the win. Next week, the heat on the Tigers will be much higher, literally and figuratively, as the Tigers will travel to scorching Tempe, Ariz., to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils on Friday night (9:30 p.m. on ESPN).

Even with the evening kickoff (7:30 in Arizona time), temperatures will still likely crack 100 at kickoff. Don’t expect Tiger players to be amused by any “But it’s a dry heat” jokes.

Climate aside, this very well could be the biggest nonconference game of coach Gary Pinkel’s 11 seasons at Missouri, a true road game against a ranked opponent. Arizona State is a pretty loaded team, picked by Sports Illustrated to win the Pac-12 Conference’s South Division. Last year the Sun Devils were 6-6, but four of their six losses were by a total of nine points. Also, Arizona State returns 17 starters, and they seem to be on the verge of a breakout season.

On offense, Arizona State has nine starters back, including all five members of the offensive line, which may be among the nation’s best. The Sun Devils run an up-tempo spread attack, which could challenge Mizzou’s depth in the desert heat. The Tigers will likely be without defensive end Jacquies Smith, out for at least a week with a dislocated elbow, and linebacker Will Ebner, probably out for a month with a high ankle sprain.

Mizzou’s offensive line will be challenged by the Arizona State defense, which led its conference in rushing yards allowed last year.

This is a big game for the Tigers. A win on this national stage would make the biggest statement of any of Pinkel’s nonconference wins. A loss, when coupled with the ugly win over Miami, would raise early concerns about the team. With their defense, the Tigers can hang in any game, but Friday night will be a strong challenge for Missouri.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Oklahoma

The program

The program, indeed. Oklahoma has a strong case as the best program in college football history, though a few other schools do as well. They have been and are, as one Oklahoma sportswriter wrote, "the terror of Middle America" since World War II. Since World War II, the Sooners have the most wins and best winning percentage in Division I college football. Last year they became the eighth program in NCAA history to win 800 games.

Oklahoma holds a massive amount of NCAA records. Under legendary coach Bud Wilkinsson, Oklahoma won 47 straight games. They have been No. 1 in the AP poll and in its top five more than any other school. They have the most 10-win seasons (32) and 11-win seasons (20) and fewest losing seasons of any program (I'm sure there's a minimum number of seasons played here). Oklahoma is the only school with four (!) coaches with 100+ wins (Stoops, Switzer, Wilkinson, Owen). They have seven national titles (all since 1950, no pre-poll titles here), five Heisman Trophy winners and 43 conference titles.

And under Stoops, the Sooners are still rolling, albeit after a serious lull in the 1990s. In 12 years at OU, Stoops is 129-31 overall and 78-18 in Big 12 play (plus 7-1 in Big 12 title games; the "Big Game Bob" moniker still rings true in Big 12 games). The rivalry with Texas? Please. OU has won 7 of the last 9 Big 12 South titles, and six of the past nine Big 12 titles. (Texas has won two of each in that span, respectable, but an obvious second fiddle to OU in Big 12 country.) Stoops and OU have also won seven of 11 against Texas, and will be favored this year. One more: Stoops is 72-2 in Norman, including 36 straight wins.

But even more, Oklahoma simply is college football tradition. It's decades of battles with Nebraska for the Big Eight, including the Game of the Century in Norman. It's that covered wagon barreling around the field and one finger held aloft during their alma mater song and, of course, "Boomer Sooner" over and over and over and over and over. It's Barry Switzer, who could teach all these confused kids today what Swagger really is, sitting with his feet propped up on his desk and smoking a cigar on the Friday before an enormous game. I've read they used to sell shirts with Switzer's face on them reading, "Hang a half a hundred on 'em." It's titles and trophies and getting everyone's best shot and Bedlam Games. It's "No excuses, win the Big 12." In short, it's always a big game when you play the Sooners.

Best player ever

Billy Sims, RB
Just an avalanche of candidates here, from crushing defensive players to the prolific quarterbacks of recent years. Landry Jones could have a case by the time he finishes his career. But I'll go with Sims, the 1978 Heisman winner. After two injury-plagued seasons, Sims exploded for 1,762 yards on an incredible 7.6 yards per carry. Add in his bowl-game stats, and he ran for 1,896 yards that season. After that season, he scored two touchdowns against Nebraska in the (in)famous "rematch" Orange Bowl. He had another great season as a senior and is still the leading rusher in Oklahoma history (4,118 yards).

2011 outlook

Oklahoma begins the season ranked No. 1 and it feels like a national-title-or-bust kind of season. They are pretty solid about everywhere. They do have to deal with the injury to linebacker Travis Lewis, who will miss several weeks.

But junior quarterback Landry Jones pilots a prolific offense. Jones, a leading Heisman candidate, led the Big 12 last year with 4,717 yards and 38 touchdowns. Ryan Broyles is an incredible receiver, one of the best in a league full of good receivers. Kenny Stills is also a very good receiver. Last year's leading rusher, Demarco Murray, is gone, but the Sooners still have the dynamic-yet-diminutive Roy Fitch. Led by center Ben Habern, the OU line is pretty solid as well.

The defense, third in yards and points allowed vs Big 12 teams last year, may be the best in the league this year. OU was +161.3 yards per game in conference play last year, by far the best. With all their defensive playmakers, the Sooners could actually have a wider margin than this.

The big question: Can Oklahoma make it to the national title game? No one can fully predict how a college football season will play out, but OU seems to have the parts needed to get through its tough schedule unscathed. I'm not sure how powerful the run game will be, but the passing game should soften things up for it quite a bit. That beings said, the Big 12 is loaded with teams capable of scoring the upset.

The fame at Florida State is a tough early test, and then come the nine conference games. Four are at home (72-2 there under Stoops), another is at a neutral site (Dallas) against Texas, and another is still in the state of Oklahoma, even if it's at rival OSU. The three out-of-state road conference games are at Kansas, at Kansas State and at Baylor, a pretty seemingly manageable slate. Assuming Stoops can keep rivals Texas and Oklahoma State under control, and take care of Texas A&M and Mizzou at home, they'll be on their way to a national title appearance... most likely against a monstrously difficult SEC team.