Sunday, September 11, 2011

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.

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