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.

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