Sunday, October 30, 2011

Missouri defense sparks rally, Baylor up next

One of the great thrills of college football is that one dramatic play can turn around a drive, a game, a season. Last Saturday, the Missouri defense made such a play, which could have great implications for the team going forward.

Missouri was a double-digit underdog at then-No. 16 Texas A&M, trailing 28-17 early in the fourth quarter. Venerable Kyle Field was rocking, and the Aggies were driving into Missouri territory, looking to put the game away. Missouri was 3-4, and another loss would have seriously jeopardized the Tigers’ bowl chances, given their remaining schedule.

But then, the play. Missouri defensive end Brad Madison roared around the edge and hit Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s arm as he tried to throw. This caused the ball to sail off target, and Missouri’s Randy Ponder intercepted it, returning it all the way to the A&M 30 yard line.

With new life, Missouri took just three running plays to score a touchdown. The defense forced a three-and-out from A&M, and then Missouri drove 79 yards in six plays to take the lead.

The Aggies would force overtime, but Missouri scored a touchdown and then stopped A&M to pick up the 38-31 win, the Tigers’ first road win over a ranked team since 1997, over Oklahoma State.

Blowing big leads has kind of been Texas A&M’s thing this year. In each of their three losses, the Gaggies have coughed up double-digit leads in the second half.

Now 4-4 (2-3 in Big 12), the Tigers are surely feeling some relief and also the new life that comes with winning a game that sure looked like it would be a loss.

Missouri needs to split its four remaining games (at Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas in Kansas City) for bowl eligibility and take three of four for a winning regular season.

The Baylor game (6 p.m., Fox Sports Network) should be a wild and wacky Saturday night in Waco. Some early lines have it as a toss-up, pick ’em type game.

Baylor has an explosive offense led by quarterback Robert Griffin III and receiver Kendall Wright. However, the Bears defense has been pretty bad (giving up 44 points per game in Big 12 play, better only than the abominable Kansas defense). Baylor finds itself 4-3 (1-3 in Big 12) after an encouraging 3-0 start.

Last week, No. 3 Oklahoma State rolled to a 49-3 lead over the Bears before showing some mercy en route to a 59-24 win. It had to be demoralizing for Baylor, given the Bears’ rising aspirations.

It’s tough to pick a winner in a coin-flip game like this. It is Baylor’s Homecoming, which may give the Bears a boost. Griffin presents a special challenge with his track-star speed and improved passing ability. Tight games often come down to turnovers, and Baylor is last in the Big 12 in turnover margin. If that trend continues, Missouri should pick up a second straight road win. But if and when Baylor’s offense gets going, anything can happen in Waco.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Big 12 schedule is proving tough for Tigers

With Missouri’s seemingly inevitable move to the Southeastern Conference, much is being made about how difficult it would be to compete in the SEC, generally regarded as the best football conference in the nation.

Turns out, the Big 12 is proving to be plenty tough in its own right, thank you very much. Five of the league’s 10 teams are ranked, with two more knocking on the door. There are few easy weeks in this Big 12, a point driven home with Texas Tech’s stunning win at Oklahoma, the Sooners’ first home conference loss in 10 years.

No longer shielded by the divisional format used when the Big 12 had, you know, 12 teams, Missouri (3-4, 1-3 in Big 12 play) is feeling the full force of the teams that formerly made up the Big 12 South Division.

The latest example was last Saturday’s 45-24 home loss to Oklahoma State (7-0, 4-0 Big 12). Oklahoma State, now ranked No. 3, has a breathtaking offense that roared to a 21-3 lead. Missouri rallied to close within seven at the half. But in the second half, with OSU super-receiver Justin Blackmon out with injury, running back Joseph Randle and the rest of the Cowboys’ offense kept humming along. Combine this with a rash of Missouri turnovers, and the Tigers were doomed.

Now Missouri is scrambling to make a bowl game (they have to get to 6-6 to be bowl eligible), but the meat-grinder schedule continues. If Missouri is to make something of this season, not to mention salvage some dignity for that likely walk out the door to the SEC, I think the next three games are critical. Missouri has a chance in all three, but may be underdogs for each game. These games are at Texas A&M, at Baylor and home against Texas. Games with Texas Tech and Kansas afterward present their own challenges, but if Missouri whiffs on these next three the season will already be lost by then.

At No. 16 Texas A&M (11 a.m. Saturday on FX): The Aggies blew large leads to Oklahoma State and Arkansas, but they’ve won all five of their other games, including three straight. A&M has a balanced offense, ranking in the top 20 nationally in passing and rushing yards. A&M’s defense has been merely average, but winning at Kyle Field is tough.

At Baylor (Nov. 5): After a 3-0 start, Baylor has lost its first three Big 12 games. It may be four by the time Mizzou travels to Waco, given Baylor’s game Saturday at Oklahoma State. Like many Big 12 teams, Baylor is all about offense, with sensational quarterback Robert Griffin III and freakishly athletic receiver Kendall Wright.

Texas (Nov. 12): Texas is tough to gauge. The Longhorns have beaten four lesser teams and lost to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. They have talent, but have lost seven of their last eight Big 12 games. Texas is the only Big 12 school Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has never beaten. This may be his best shot, and it may be a game his team sorely needs.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tigers win big on Homecoming, prepare for No. 6 Cowboys' visit

Last Saturday was a good day to be a Tiger.

Skies above were blue, like the fight song says, and Missouri celebrated its 100th Homecoming with a 52-17 win over Iowa State. The weather was perfect, the stadium was sold out, and the Tigers did not commit a single penalty. Nothing would ruin this day in the sun, a portrait of autumn at Faurot Field.

Perhaps soothing some of the pain of the Tigers’ 2-3 start, the win was a critical dose of confidence and success prior to a tough four-game stretch for Missouri (3-3, 1-2 in Big 12 play).

Against the Cyclones (3-3, 0-3 Big 12), Missouri quickly put to rest any notion of an upset. The Tigers came out running, with plenty of carries for dynamic running back Henry Josey, who posted 129 yards on 19 carries.

Missouri scored touchdowns on each of its first four drives to take control of the game at 28-3. The Tigers were much better at converting third downs, doing better on first and second down to make things easier.

Keeping drives going will be critical on Saturday, when No. 6 Oklahoma State (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) comes to town (11 a.m. on FX).

Oklahoma State has a powerful offense, a machine led by quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Joseph Randle and Justin Blackmon, who won the Biletnikoff Award last year as the nation’s top receiver. The Cowboys are averaging 49.2 points per game, including 46 per game in Big 12 play.

Oklahoma State’s defense is less accomplished, but defensive coordinator Bill Young is well respected, and he’ll at least keep Missouri honest.

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who played for the Cowboys in the 1980s and is the school’s second leading passer, first gained national fame for a memorable postgame rant in defense of a player (“I’m a man! I’m 40! Come after me!”). But now he has won 15 of his last 19 conference games. He’s built a legitimate conference title contender at his alma mater.

These Cowboys will be the best team to face Mizzou this season at Faurot, where the Tigers have won 10 straight, tying for the school’s second-longest home winning streak.

That other 10-game home winning streak? Pesky Oklahoma State ended that one, in 2008. The Cowboys came to Columbia as two-touchdown underdogs, but they knocked off then-No. 3 Missouri 28-23, shattering any Tiger fans’ dreams of running the table following the unforgettable 2007 season in which Mizzou finished No. 4.

Prior to that, Oklahoma State’s last trip to Columbia came in 2004, when the Cowboys rallied from a 17-0 deficit to beat the Tigers 20-17 on Homecoming. Killjoys. As you can see, Missouri owes Oklahoma State one at Faurot Field.

With that history, and both teams’ ability to score in bunches, I’m expecting a wildly entertaining, shootout game. Winning this one will be tough, but if Missouri has an edge in turnovers and establishes its run game like it did against Iowa State, the Tigers have a chance.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tigers need a Homecoming turnaround

After No. 20 Kansas State’s meticulous 24-17 win over Missouri (2-3, 0-2 in Big 12 games) last Saturday, the Tigers’ bowl eligibility chase is on, and it might be an uphill climb.

As thrilled as Kansas State fans must be over their win, which was yet another coaching clinic by the venerable Bill Snyder, Missouri fans are probably equally frustrated. Despite coming off a bye week, Missouri had the same problems: crippling penalties, an inability to stop the other team’s offense when most critical and struggles converting third downs.

Missouri had penalties in the worst situations, such as a crushing and obvious roughing the kicker penalty in the third quarter. Kansas State built a touchdown drive off that miscue.

Snyder put his run-first quarterback, Collin Klein, in positions where he could succeed, with option runs and high-percentage passes that kept Kansas State drives going. Missouri’s best offensive threat so far, running back Henry Josey, didn’t touch the ball in the first quarter (Missouri called for passes on six of its seven first-quarter plays) and finished with 12 carries for 55 yards. Josey had some big runs early, but half of his runs, including his last four, were for two yards or less.

As for Missouri’s season-long third-down issues, it appears to also be a first and second down problem. Missouri struggles on third down when a lack of success on the first and second down puts the Tigers in third-and-long situations. Missouri needed an average of 8.9 yards on third downs to get a first down and keep its drives going. Kansas State, in contrast, faced a more manageable average of 6.1 yards to go.

Now 2-3, Missouri must get to 6-6 to be bowl eligible. The Tigers will likely be underdogs in four straight games beginning Oct. 22 against Oklahoma State, so an upset is likely needed to make a bowl, which is a fairly minimal standard given that 70 teams play in a bowl game.

Fortunately, Missouri first has its Homecoming game with Iowa State Saturday (1 p.m., no TV), which may be just what the Tigers need to get back on track. It’s the 100th anniversary of Homecoming at Mizzou.

Iowa State (3-2, 0-2 Big 12) started the season with three straight wins, including an upset of rival Iowa, but was soundly defeated in its first two conference games by Texas and Baylor. Coach Paul Rhoads said this would be “a very pivotal week” for his team.

Iowa State tackle Kelechi Osemele may be a first-round pick in the next NFL draft, but he has been battling an ankle injury. Primary running back Shontrelle Johnson has also had injury issues, and quarterback Steele Jantz has been inconsistent.

On defense, the Cyclones have two linebackers, Jake Knott and A.J Klein, who are very sound tacklers.

I think this is a game for Missouri to get back on track. The Tigers are heavy favorites and, barring outrageous turnovers and penalties, they should send the Homecoming crowd home happy.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why I want Mizzou to stay in the Big 12

Mizzou alumni, fans and students, if you were offered a deal in which the university would receive $5 million annually, but in exchange the Columns on the quad would have to be torn down, would you take the deal?

Maybe some people would grudgingly, painfully sign the Columns' death warrant, likely arguing persuasively that economic times are tough, money keeps getting more scarce, that it just makes sense to take the money. Times are changing.

But I also suspect some of you would say "Hell no" to the money. I walked through those Columns as a terrified yet excited freshman, you might say. I watched College Gameday by those Columns. I saw bats flying around Jesse Hall by those Columns. I saw people streaking from my vantage point on those Columns. I took engagement pictures by those Columns. I graduated by those Columns.

I'm aware it's not a parallel comparison, but I think Missouri's decision on whether or not to leave the Big 12 for the SEC follows the principle of the hypothetical question above. For my money and memories (I have more of the latter), Mizzou's heritage of playing schools in the Big 12, particularly Kansas, are as much a part of the university's soul as those beautiful columns. I'm not sure you can put a price tag on them.

I didn't pull that $5 million figure from nowhere. An article by Mike Dearmond in the Kansas City Star last week said SEC schools revenue sharing total is $18.3 million. The average for a Big 12 school right now is $13 million to $14 million, according to the article. There's your additional $5 million. But conference revenue totals are obviously complicated.

First, if Mizzou has to pay an exit fee of $30 million, the estimated fee Texas A&M will pay, then it will take years for this move to pay off. (And if Mizzou leaves, does it get its share of that A&M exit money?) Second, conferences constantly pass and get passed by others based on who has negotiated its TV deal most recently. Each new deal is bigger than that the last. Third, if Mizzou joins the expansion-minded SEC and that league adds another school, the total pie grows but Mizzou gets a smaller slice. The 15th and 16th schools, if added, would have to add more than 1/14th of the SEC's total value to be logical additions financially.

But the key case for joining the SEC is stability. This is maybe a naive post, but it's also very naive to just assume Mizzou would be entrenched in a stable SEC, immune to the insanity taking over the college athletics landscape. Leagues do break apart. Additions could alter how much money Mizzou gets. Any long-term budgeting based on TV revenue projections in this climate is risky. History is littered with people and institutions who thought they were stable.

Of course, the SEC is the Rock of Gibralter compared to the Big (House of) 12 (Cards). But the league is making progress. Revenue sharing. The granting of TV rights helps, even if the reported six-year figure is a bit laughable. The ironclad Big Ten has a grant of rights of more than 20 years. But this upheaval has got the remaining Big 12 schools re-evaluating things. Perhaps most critically, big dogs Texas and Oklahoma learned the grass isn't more welcoming on the Pac-12 side of the fence. Commissioner Chuck Neinas actually appears capable of leading.

But in the end, my argument for the Big 12 goes back to that soul of the University of Missouri. If athletic department officials are so smugly confident in "the Missouri brand," the school will be fine even if it gives the Big 12 another try. Instead, look at what's lost if Mizzou bolts.

The rivalry with Kansas suffers tremendously. It loses the juice of being a conference clash. It's not a guaranteed game, and let's not forget these two athletic departments can't even agree on what the football series is. (See the 1960 controversy.) It could endure in football, but basketball is where the Border War would take its greatest hit. Even if they played every year, that still means every other year, Kansas is not on the home schedule. That's tragic. Mizzou Arena (and the Hearnes before) is simply a different, more electric atmosphere when KU is in town. Imagine going 24 months between those experience. Even worse, I could easily see the hoops matchup being played annually in Kansas City. In this case, Mizzou Arena would never have that special buzz, and the hoops game would likely feature a 70-30 KU crowd every year. (And so help me, I'd miss Mizzou's annual chance at a epic victory in the Phog.) Lastly, a November noncon between the two pales compared to a Saturday/Sunday senior day game on CBS or a Big Monday clash in January/February.

In closing, think of your greatest moments as a Mizzou student. Maybe you think of a miracle A on an exam you had no business passing. Maybe it was the rare gem of a snow day or perfect fall weather. Maybe it was that girl you'll still remember on sunny spring days when you're old and gray saying she'll go out with you.

...And maybe you'll remember rushing the court and seeing your friend brought to tears after beating those high and mighty Jayhawks. Maybe you'll remember Todd Reesing driven into the frozen Arrowhead Stadium turf because it was the perfect intersection of not just rising to No. 1, but rising to No. 1 by beating No. 2 Kansas, your ancient rival. Maybe you'll remember a picturesque fall evening when the Tigers beat No. 1 Oklahoma, special not just because it was the No. 1 team but because those powerful Sooners have been the standard of excellence in your neighborhood for decades. Maybe you'll remember listening to and watching Big 12 Tournament games in Kansas City, MISSOURI.

Missouri's heritage is the Big 12 and its predecessors. It's chasing Kansas in basketball and Oklahoma and Nebraska (gone now) in football. It's battling the mystical old sage Bill Snyder out in wonderfully quirky Manhattan. It's annual battles with Hilton Magic and the manic Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater. Even the Texas schools, conference family for a scant 15 years, share lots of overlapping history, styles and geography with the old Big Eight schools. It's traveling familiar roads or watching the team play on TV in familiar venues. It's hearing familiar fight songs. Texas Fight? Boomer Sooner?

So, yes, it looks after today's Curators meeting like Mizzou is leaning ever more to the SEC. Yes, I'd still be a crazy college sports fan, and I have to admit trips to those incredible SEC venues would be fun. The SEC is the best college football conference out there right now, and being part of it would be a thrill and a challenge.

But competing in the Big 12 and the Border War uninhibited are the very soul of Mizzou. Just like those columns.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Missouri takes on Snyder, unbeaten KSU

This Saturday provides a fascinating matchup for Missouri (2-2, 0-1 in Big 12 play) as the Tigers travel to the Flint Hills to take on the old tactician Bill Snyder and his surging Kansas State (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) team in Manhattan (2:30 p.m. on ABC).

For opposing coaches, playing Kansas State is about as much fun as being audited. That’s because the legendary Snyder, who turns 72 on Friday, still leads the Wildcats. Snyder, a brilliant game-planner and motivator, authored the “Manhattan Miracle,” taking Kansas State from by far the worst Division I football program and making it a national power.

When Snyder, who played quarterback in college for one season on Mizzou's freshman team, took over at the end of the 1988 season, Kansas State had a 27-game winless streak and virtually no talent on hand. Snyder slowly built the program into one that won at least 11 games in six of seven seasons, capped by a stunning win over Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 title game.

Snyder retired once, but after a failed three-year stint by Ron Prince, he came back. He appears to be building the program up again. Last Saturday, Kansas State finally solved the riddle of dynamic Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin late in the game, rallying for a 36-35 win over the then-No. 15 Bears.

Now Missouri travels to No. 20 Kansas State off a bye week, trying to stop the Wildcats’ momentum. Even though Missouri hasn’t beaten a Football Championship Subdivision team in over a month, the Tigers opened as slight favorites. This is probably a testament to Missouri having better athletes overall, but Baylor clearly had more explosive players on offense than Kansas State, and that didn’t keep them from losing.

Expect Kansas State to use similar tactics that it used against Baylor in its effort to slow down Missouri. The Wildcats will likely run the ball and let the play clock run down before taking the snap to keep Missouri’s offense off the field. Kansas State has a good running back in John Hubert, and quarterback Collin Klein is fourth in the Big 12 Conference in rushing and second nationally in rushing among quarterbacks.

Missouri can expect the Wildcats to mix things up. Clearly Klein is more dangerous as a runner, but there he was in the fourth quarter last Saturday, throwing on nearly every play on the final drives. Klein’s passes meander through the air more than cut through, but it’s surprising how often they arrive right on time. Keeping Klein bottled up will be critical for Missouri.

On offense, Missouri will need to get better at converting third downs to keep the pressure on Kansas State’s sometimes-vulnerable defense. The Wildcats allowed several long completions against Baylor, so it would be nice to see Missouri let quarterback James Franklin take some chance down the field.

Starting with Kansas State, six of Missouri’s next seven games are against teams currently ranked. I’m not saying Missouri will struggle for bowl eligibility, but the schedule is tough, making the game at K-State feel like a pivotal one. Expect a close game.