Sunday, November 27, 2011

Taking a look at Missouri's 2011 season

Last Saturday Missouri closed out its regular season and, for the foreseeable future, the Border War with a 24-10 win over Kansas, capping a modest three-game winning streak.

Kansas clawed to a 10-0 lead as Missouri quarterback James Franklin struggled with interceptions, but then Missouri got out of its way and rolled this underwhelming Kansas team (2-10, 0-9 in Big 12 play), scoring 24 unanswered points.

Missouri held Kansas to a paltry 137 yards of offense. It was a great defensive performance, even if Kansas’ offensive players often appear to be running in knee-deep water. On offense, eight different Tigers caught a pass.

The three straight wins to end the season certainly casts a better light on what was at times a frustrating season for the Tigers. Missouri was 4-5 before the three wins, two of which came at home with the other, last Saturday’s game in Kansas City, at a neutral site that was at least a 70-30 fan split in favor of Missouri. The schedule was certainly tougher early on, but credit Missouri for doing what it needed to do against Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas to ensure a winning season.

For me, this season highlighted how narrow the margin is between success and failure in big-time college football. If the formerly reliable Grant Ressel makes a field goal at Arizona State, Missouri has eight wins with a shot at nine should they win their bowl. On the flip side, if Texas A&M doesn’t gag away the game against the Tigers and Missouri doesn’t get a tipped interception inside the five-yard line against Texas Tech, they might not be in a bowl at all.

But things did unfold that way, and Missouri finishes the regular season 7-5, 5-4 in Big 12 play. The rose-colored glasses set of Missouri prognosticators had this team winning nine or 10 games, but most even-keeled media outlets had them going 8-4, also the record I thought they would post. So in that light, 7-5 is an acceptable mark, especially with Missouri having a first-year starter at the most important position, quarterback. Call it a rebuilding year if you must.

The frustration came from the inconsistency, flashes of brilliance mixed with Missouri beating Missouri, as well as what could have been; Missouri lost three games by a touchdown or less.

Next year will certainly be a huge year. Missouri joins the SEC, and the door is open for Missouri to compete in the East Division right away. Also, if this was a rebuilding season, okay, just don’t start stringing them together.

But first Missouri has its 29th bowl game. The Big 12 has a bowl selection order, but the bowls aren’t obligated to select teams in the order they finished, so the resulting process is about as predictable as spring weather. The most likely bowl destinations seem be the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City or the Texas Bowl in Houston. The Insight and Holiday Bowls are also possible. The Tigers’ bowl announcement should come on Sunday, Dec. 4.

Monday, November 21, 2011

After a season of distractions, focus shifts to Border War

Seemingly all season long in college football, off-the-field events have overshadowed the actual games, both at Missouri and across the nation. Last week was no exception, with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s stunning arrest for drunk driving.

It was an indefensibly dumb move for a coach who makes thousands of dollars a day not to call a cab or catch a ride with someone else. It was disappointing to see the leader of a program that has struggled recently with drinking and driving make such an error. But Pinkel was contrite and apologetic, and the athletic department suspended him for a week and imposed financial penalties totaling over $300,000 in lost bonuses and pay.

Without Pinkel, against an underwhelming Texas Tech team last Saturday, Missouri fell behind, rallied in the fourth quarter, and then Dominique Hamilton tipped a pass inside the 10-yard line and Michael Sam intercepted it at the four to preserve a 31-27 win. The victory improved Missouri to 6-5 (4-4 in Big 12 play), making them bowl eligible.

And now, after a season of conference realignment speculation and a week of hearing that Pinkel told police he couldn’t count down from 72 to 63 under normal circumstances, the focus is squarely on the field for Missouri’s last game, the Border War game with Kansas (2:30 p.m. Saturday on Fox Sports Network).

With Missouri moving to the Southeastern Conference starting next season and Kansas saying it won’t schedule nonconference games with Missouri, this is the 120th and, for the foreseeable future, last meeting between these ancient rivals. And that’s a shame.

The series is legendary for how bitterly and closely contested it is. Since they first met on Oct. 31, 1891, they have played 119 times. Nine times they tied, and each team has won 55 games on the field in the series. (Missouri claims a 56-54-9 series lead, given that Kansas had to forfeit the 1960 game for using an ineligible player. Kansas, naturally, disagrees and counts the results on the field for its 55-55-9 series total.)

It is the oldest college football rivalry west of the Mississippi River and the second oldest overall. The rivalry’s roots stretch back to actual armed conflict before and during the Civil War. It is black and gold versus red and blue. The Columns versus Mount Oread. Missouri’s soybean farmers versus Kansas’ wheat farmers. It is the culture, the history, the rivalry, and a desperate desire to beat the other.

This year Kansas (2-9, 0-8 in Big 12 play) is simply awful. They’ll likely give it all they have against their chief rival, but Missouri has the talent to overwhelm the Jayhawks, who are 1-15 in Big 12 play under embattled coach Turner Gill.

It’s been a season of distractions, and the final outcome of this Border War seems predetermined. But on Saturday take a moment, or maybe several, to savor this rivalry that has meant so much to both schools. Here’s hoping that someday the Tigers and Jayhawks find a way to battle it out on the gridiron (and the basketball court) again.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Missouri's defense dominant in win over Texas

In the Southeastern Conference, Missouri’s conference home starting next year, teams usually win with dominating defense. Last Saturday, Missouri did just that, shutting down Texas in a 17-5 win.

Missouri (5-5, 3-4 in Big 12 play) held No. 16 Texas (6-3, 3-3 in Big 12) to just 247 yards of offense a week after yielding nearly 700 at Baylor.

It was something of a watershed win, as Texas was the one Big 12 school Missouri coach Gary Pinkel had never beaten. Texas had won 15 of its last 16 games with Missouri, including three straight wins by at least 25 points. Fairly or unfairly, Texas has been portrayed as the conference bully responsible for driving Missouri and three other schools away from the Big 12 over the past year and a half. (That is, the off-the-field bully; Oklahoma has ruled the conference on the field, to chagrin of the Longhorns.)

To be fair, two of Texas’ top three running backs were out with injury, and the other, Fozzy Whittaker, was knocked out of the game with a knee injury on the first drive. Texas’ two quarterbacks, David Ash and Case McCoy, are limited passers at this point and were almost completely ineffective on a gray, windy day at Faurot Field, completing only 44.4 percent of their combined pass attempts.

But make no mistake, this was still a fine defensive performance by the Tigers. Missouri stood strong at the line of scrimmage and made some nice open-field tackles to prevent big plays.

Against Texas’ strong defense, Missouri did enough offensively, scoring two first half touchdowns. But the black mark on an otherwise encouraging day came in the third quarter, when Missouri running back Henry Josey, already a 1,000-yard rusher on the season, suffered a gruesome knee injury, tearing his ACL, MCL and patellar tendon. Doctors expect a full recovery, but he will miss the rest of this season and quite possibly some of next season.

The silver lining is that Missouri’s two remaining games are against maybe the two worst teams in the Big 12, Texas Tech and Kansas.

To call Texas Tech (5-5, 2-5 in Big 12) an enigma would be an understatement. The Red Raiders scored an epic upset at Oklahoma in October, snapping the Sooners’ 39-game home winning streak. The very next week, Texas Tech was roasted at home by Iowa State, 41-7.

Tech supposedly has an explosive offense, but then last week No. 2 Oklahoma State humiliated the Red Raiders 66-6 in Lubbock. That gasp-worthy final score makes you wonder how Tech could possibly bounce back against Missouri on Saturday in Columbia (2:30 p.m. on ABC), except for Tech’s aforementioned unpredictability.

Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege can be dangerous when he gets rolling. Tech’s pass-based offense plays more to Missouri’s defensive weaknesses than Texas’ ground-based attack did.

However, Texas Tech’s defense isn’t very good, ranking 117th out of 120 Division I-A teams in run defense. Even without Josey, I expect Missouri to have a big day on the ground and get the win to become bowl-eligible.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

SEC-bound Tigers mess with Texas

“S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!”

The chant rose up from Baylor fans last Saturday in Waco after their Bears had sealed a 42-39 win over Missouri, mocking the Tigers’ efforts to join the Southeastern Conference even as their on-field Big 12 Conference performance has faltered this season.

The loss, in which Baylor did pretty much whatever it wanted on offense, rolling up a school-record 697 yards of offense, dropped Missouri to 4-5, including 2-4 in Big 12 play in its last season competing in the conference.

Sunday morning brought the long-awaited official confirmation from the university that Missouri would leave the Big 12 for the SEC, effective July 1, 2012. After more than a century in the Big 12 and its forerunners (Big Eight, Big Six, Missouri Valley), Missouri’s schedule will no longer include longtime adversaries Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas.

I certainly see why Missouri went to the SEC: stability, perhaps more money and a chance to get away from the seemingly dysfunctional Big 12. I am excited to watch Missouri against the tradition-rich, passionate SEC programs. But my nostalgia wishes it would have worked to stay in the Big 12. Kansas has said it won’t schedule nonconference games with Missouri, and the loss of the Border War rivalry is a crushing blow to the soul of Mizzou and college sports in general. Life goes on, but the end of the oldest football rivalry west of the Mississippi River is a shame, regardless of whose fault it is.

As for the immediate future, the conference realignment hysteria can’t entirely overshadow the struggles Missouri is having on the field this season. The Tigers seem like a competitive bunch, and yet they’ve trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter in five of six conference games this year.

Now 4-5, Missouri must win two of its last three games to be bowl eligible at 6-6. Next up is Texas at home (11 a.m. Saturday on FX). It makes for fascinating timing, given that Texas’ overwhelming influence has been blamed in some circles for driving Big 12 teams away. Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds has said, “We don’t keep up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses.”

Tiger fans can hope Missouri’s announced departure won’t give Texas any extra motivation, because the Longhorns have been playing pretty good football. After a 5-7 disaster last season, Texas is 6-2 and could finish third in the Big 12. They aren’t great yet, but they seem to be improving.

After the young Longhorns were blown out by more experienced Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout, Texas has bounced back, playing a competitive game with unbeaten Oklahoma State and then dominating Kansas and Texas Tech at home. Texas is a rare Big 12 school that can actually play good defense. They also have a punishing ground game led by running backs Fozzy Whittaker and freshman Joe Bergeron.

To win, Missouri must avoid falling behind yet again, because coming back against a defense and run game combination like Texas has could be too much to ask.