Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tigers have a chance to build momentum

Having avoided disaster with a 21-16 win on the road against a solid Central Florida team, now it is time for Missouri to generate some momentum.

Positive momentum has been tough to find so far this season for Missouri (3-2, 0-2 in Southeastern Conference play), with two games against teams currently ranked in top six, offensive line struggles and an injury for the starting quarterback. But the come-from-behind win over Central Florida was a start.

Missouri needed this one. UCF dominated the first half, running all over the Tigers. But Missouri only trailed 10-7 at the half, thanks to a great defensive stand at the end of the first half.

That set the tone for the second half, during which Missouri gradually took control of the game and then held on, forcing a fumble at the end to seal the win. Missouri threw the ball downfield more, including a long touchdown to highly touted freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. Yes, Missouri, still had issues protecting quarterback James Franklin, but this time that didn’t keep the Tigers from attacking downfield anyway.

As for generating momentum starting with this win, Missouri now plays all three of its October games at home, with a bye week Oct. 20.

Two of the October home games are against historic SEC punching bags Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The other one, ahem, is against No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 13. If Vandy and Kentucky are the punching bags, Alabama is the angry-looking boxer delivering the blows to the punching bag. But the upside with a game like that is Missouri will have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Simply playing Alabama will generate a lot of attention for Missouri.

Going 2-1 in these three games would put Missouri at 5-3 heading into November. But while Missouri started the week favored by about a touchdown against Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-2 in SEC play), the Commodores are not a gimme.

Yes, Vanderbilt is 3-23 in SEC play since the start of the 2009 season, but second-year coach James Franklin, no relation to the Missouri quarterback of the same name, has been trying to make the Commodores competitive. In 2010, Vanderbilt was outgained by 245.4 yards per game against SEC opponents. But last year, Franklin’s first year, Vanderbilt was only outgained by 28.5 yards per game in SEC play and made a bowl game, just its second bowl game since 1982.

Like Mizzou, Vanderbilt’s SEC losses were to South Carolina and Georgia, and the other loss was at currently undefeated Northwestern. So while Vandy has not accomplished much this year, they have played a tough early schedule and are coming off a bye. Especially at home, Missouri should win, but again, Vanderbilt is not a layup.

A second straight win would be a great way to begin October, the heart of the college football season.

Show-Me State native Mark Twain, once said, “Missouri is at her best in October.”

With all home games, including the two easiest SEC games on the schedule, Missouri fans can hope their team will be at its best as well. Enjoy this month, before the chill and three SEC road games of November arrive.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jeff City-Hickman CVIII

Friday, the 5-0 Hickman Kewpies travel down to Adkins Stadium to take on the 5-0 Jefferson City Jays in the 108th meeting of this storied rivalry.

It's a fascinating rivalry, one that I've heard is the second-oldest high school football rivalry in the state. Columbia is a small city that has that small city, college town vibe, but it can feel bigger, especially with the noise and passion and national attention of being an SEC school during football season. Columbia Hickman is old, Columbia's link to another time, plenty of tradition and notable alumni. The Kewpies won football state titles in 1974 and 2004.

Jefferson City is also a small city, albeit smaller than Columbia, although it can almost feel more like a big small town. I think you can tell a lot about a community by what's the biggest sports game in town. In Jeff City, it's undoubtedly Jay football. With 10 state titles, the Jays have football tradition at least on par with any school in the state. And they could have even more. It seems archaic now, but Missouri didn't have an official state football playoff until 1968, and Jefferson City reeled off 10 undefeated seasons between 1943 and 1967.

Hickman fans wear shirts with a Jay head on a stake (or at least one at last week's game did). Jefferson City sings, "Run the ball clear 'round Columbia; A touchdown sure this time!" in their fight song. Rivalry. They are united perhaps only in their disdain for Rock Bridge, still forced at 39 to sit at the kids' table in the minds of the Jays and Kewpies.

They first met in 1911, a 6-0 Hickman win. They've met every year since then except for 1918, when the global influenza epidemic shut down the season. Hickman built an early lead in the series during the leatherhead days, winning 21 of 22 meetings from 1920 to 1940. The Kewpies won 31-14 in 1957 to take a 34-10-4 series lead.

Then, in 1958, Pete Adkins arrived in Jefferson City. The Jays went 6-1-2 in his first year and embarked on an audacious 71-game winning streak from 1958 to 1966. He beat Hickman eight straight times to begin his Jeff City career, and 13 of his first 14. Hickman struck back to win 13 of 18 from 1972 to 1985, but then Jeff City reeled off 17 straight wins against Hickman ('86 to '99), the longest winning streak in the series. Jeff City was about as dominant a high school football program during this stretch as possible. Check this out, Jeff City's playoff results from 1986 to 1994, Adkins' last nine seasons: semifinalist, semifinalist, state champ, semifinalist, state champ, state champ, semifinalist, state champ, state champ.

Hickman broke through with a landmark 28-12 win in 2000 and won four straight from 2002 to 2005. Jeff City then won five straight from 2006 to 2010 to finally even the overall series, which the Jays have never led. But in a shocking district game result, Hickman stunned the Jays, snatched a spot in the state playoffs and ended Jeff City's season. Hickman now leads the series 52-51-4.

It was a bitter defeat for the Jays, and some are talking revenge this year. They would love to even up the series again, maybe finally take the lead should they meet in district play. Hickman's Kewpies have other ideas, with a stout defense and the typical hard-nosed rushing attack. Fresh off a madcap, rallying win against Rock Bridge, they have growing momentum.

It should be an incredible atmosphere on Friday night. Adkins Stadium under the Friday night lights is a special scene, nestled in the hills and trees along Stadium Boulevard. It's the best big-school high school football environment I've experienced.

(The best small-school football environment? Give me the Trenton Bulldogs' C.F. Russell Stadium. Built in the 1930s as a WPA project, a child of the Great Depression long known as Eastside Stadium, it's not ashamed of its age. The stadium's grandstand roof and support beams, plus wooden bleachers, give it a distinct look, wonderfully different from the hordes of tin-sided press box and metal bleachers of almost every small high school. With the solemn bulldog memorial to a student who died at a game years ago beyond one end zone, trees and a neighborhood beyond another (nestled, Wrigley Field feel), and an encircling track on which Jesse Owens once ran, the place feels perfect for small-school, close-knit-community football.)

High school athletics are very subjective and personal. What's the best high school rivalry? Your high school and their rival. Always. And for the kids getting ready to suit up in Hickman purple or Jeff City red and black, dreaming and craving a win they'll remember forever under those bright lights, this is their greatest game, a Super Bowl for their hometowns.

On Friday, Adkins will be a great arena for the latest installment of Kewpies and Jays. Both head coaches have lengthy ties to their programs, with the son of the Jeff City coach quarterbacking the Jays.  To have played 107 times and have one game separating the alltime series, well that's pretty remarkable. The rivalry has had its turns and shifts in over a century of play. Friday, the Kewpies and Jays renew auld acquaintances for the 108th meeting. Let's do it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Checking in on Royals & Cardinals predictions

In April, the night the Cardinals and Marlins opened the (U.S. portion of the) 2012 major league baseball season. Those were the days, when Bobby Petrino was still the head coach at Arkansas, the Orioles couldn't compete in the loaded AL East, and Eric Hosmer didn't seem capable of sub-.240 seasons. It was a simpler time.

I had the five people in Armer's basement (the one in Ashland; see, a different time) that night give a guess/prediction for the win totals of the Cardinals and Royals this season. As the season nears the finish line, here's where we stand, after the results on Monday, Sept. 24:

Royals: 70-83
Games left: 9
Possible win total range: 70-79

Cardinals: 83-71
Games left: 8
Possible win total range: 83-91

And here's our picks. All of us but Pointer, married since these long-ago predictions, appear to have bought too much into the ill-fated "Our Time" Royals hype. We could have an exact winner on the Cards; we'll see. We'll take the number of wins away from each team's actual total, average the two, and winner gets, say, a bag of peanut butter M&M's. And pride, enduring pride on which you can't put a price tag.

* Ben Herrold: Cards- 85, Royals- 84
* Cody Pointer: Cards- 86, Royals- 68
* Nathan Armer: Cards- 93, Royals- 81
* Seth Maberry: Cards- 91, Royals- 79
* Chris Coffman: Cards- 91, Royals- 82

Tigers blown out at South Carolina, need win at UCF

There is no shame losing on the road to a top-10 team, but Missouri’s humbling 31-10 loss at then-No. 7 South Carolina last Saturday was still troubling for Tiger fans.

Primarily, for more than three hours, the game drove home how big the gap is right now between Missouri (2-2, 0-2 in SEC play) and the top of the SEC East Division.

South Carolina’s imposing defensive line pressured Missouri quarterback James Franklin all day. The Gamecocks held the Tigers to just 255 yards of offense, 75 of which came on a late touchdown drive against South Carolina’s backup defenders playing prevent defense.

Despite a pretty inspired performance by defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in the first half, Missouri’s defense missed far too many tackles and allowed South Carolina’s Connor Shaw to complete 20 consecutive passes; his only incompletion was his first pass of the game. Even on special teams, Missouri seemed outgunned.

Missouri is now 2-2, just like it was last year. The upside is that the two East preseason favorites are in the rearview mirror, the downside is that games with No. 1 Alabama and rising Florida remain.
It’s not time to panic about this Missouri team, but if they lose one of the next two games, at Central Florida or home against Vanderbilt, things could really come off the rails.

Looking at the road ahead, the home game with Alabama on Oct. 13 looks like a loss, and the home games against wobbly Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Syracuse look like wins. That leaves four road games, at UCF, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M to provide the swings up or down for this team. I said 7-5 at the start of the season, and I’ll stick with that for now.

First is the tricky trip to play at Central Florida on Saturday (11 a.m. on Fox Sports Network). It’s a critical game for Missouri if they’re going to get to that aforementioned 7-5 mark, not to mention the 6-6 required for bowl eligibility.

UCF won the Conference USA title in 2010 and beat Georgia in Liberty Bowl that year. The Knights took a step back last year, falling to 5-7. But they had six losses by seven points or less, and UCF is a C-USA contender again this season. They are 2-1 on the season with the loss being a competitive game at Ohio State. Off a bye week, their fans should be excited and loud, hosting an SEC school.

Former Missouri quarterback Tyler Gabbert, Blaine’s little brother, is a backup at UCF, but sophomore Blake Bortles seems to have a firm grip on the starting job. The terrifically named running back Storm Johnson gives the Knights some ground punch. UCF has a pretty stout defense as well.

Missouri can win, but I think the Tigers need to go on the attack offensively. I know they’ve faced some great defenses, but Missouri has seemed overly concerned with reacting to what opposing defenses do. Missouri should attack downfield and get its athletic receivers involved, or lose trying to do so.

UCF started the week as a slight favorite in the game, but it’s one Missouri has to have.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


On Saturday, Missouri truly takes the plunge into the world of the SEC when they play at South Carolina. It's not just because they are playing away from Faurot and in the South for the first time in this first SEC season. It's not just because they are going up against the ol' Ballcoach, SEC fixture Steve Spurrier. It is partly due to these, but it's also in large part because Verne is calling their game.

Verne Lundquist, 72, is the play-by-play broadcaster for CBS' weekly SEC showcase game. When he's calling your game, the eyes of the SEC, and more broadly the college football nation, are upon you. When he's calling your game, you've arrived as an SEC member.

The life of Verne seems to be pretty cool. He lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo., with his wife. He gets to call March Madness games, usually with the good time that is Bill Raftery. He also gets to work the Masters each April, linked to some many moments of drama at the gorgeous, risk-reward par-3 16th at Augusta. Then in the fall, he calls those SEC games, which include some of the great showdowns in any given college football season. (Bama-LSU, anyone?)

He's had some pretty great, famous calls through the years, including two of the most famous golf shots ever. Some of the highlights, with links to all but the first:

* The dropped would-be touchdown reception in Super Bowl XIII by Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith that would have tied the game at 21 and proved to be a turning point in the Cowboys' loss to the Steelers: "Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America!"

* Jack Nicklaus' birdie putt at 17 that shook old Augusta during the final round of the 1986 Masters, as the Golden Bear made one more charge to win a major at 46: "Maybe... YES, SIR!!"

* Christian Laettner's shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional Final and put Duke in the Final Four, one of the most famous buzzer-beaters in NCAA Tournament history: "Here's the pass to Laettner... puts it up... YES!!"

* Tiger Woods' seemingly miraculous chip-in birdie at 16 during the 2005 Masters, where the ball appeared to stop ever so briefly, then tumble in. Still one of the more astounding things I've seen in sports: "Here it comes... Oh, my goodness... OH WOW! In your life have you ever seen anything like that?!?"

* George Mason's stunning overtime win against UConn to advance to the 2006 Final Four (quote at the 2:50 mark): "By George, the dream is still alive!"

Quite a sports hits list. For sure, it'll feel fun and big-time hearing him and analyst Gary Danielson talking about the Tigers. Who can make a play to cause Uncle Verne to say, "How do you do?" (I'd put a wager on Jadeveon Clowney.) When the Kansas State blog Bring On The Cats wrote a ditty about Mizzou's efforts to join the SEC, written for the tune of "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," the tag line at the end of the chorus was, "Just promise you'll let ol' Verne call our games."

On Saturday at 2:30 p.m. central, he'll do just that.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tigers survive ASU, face tough test at South Carolina

Last Saturday, Missouri was in full-blown survival mode. With starting quarterback James Franklin out, coach Gary Pinkel telling a national television audience it was Franklin’s decision not to play, and the Tigers’ offensive line pieced together due to ongoing injury troubles, Missouri scratched out a 24-7 lead due in part to Arizona State’s blunders.

But then the Sun Devils stormed back, scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns to put the heat on the Tigers, then driving to the Missouri one-yard line in the closing minutes. It was a game Missouri had to have, given the upcoming schedule. But the Tiger defense dug in and held, keeping disaster a yard away, then got a last-minute interception by Kenronte Walker in the end zone on Arizona State’s next drive to seal the win and move the Tigers to 2-1.

It was in a sloppy win, but survival can be admirable. Offensive coordinator Dave Yost called a more conservative game plan to help backup quarterback Corbin Berkstresser, with shorter passes and plenty of quick slants to old reliable, T.J. Moe. Berkstresser played well enough for Missouri to win, completing 21 of 41 passes for 198 yards and just one interception.

Next week, Missouri will need a better effort as they travel to Columbia, S.C., to play No. 7 South Carolina (2:30 p.m. on CBS). The Gamecocks (3-0) have some quarterback injury issues of their own. Starter Connor Shaw hurt his shoulder in the opener at Vanderbilt, missed the team’s second game, then re-injured it last week in the Gamecocks’ win over UAB. Coach Steve Spurier said Shaw should play, but don’t be surprised to see backup Dylan Thompson play some as well.

Either way, expect star running back Marcus Lattimore to get a heavy dose of carries for the Gamecocks.

On Missouri’s side, Franklin said he should be ready to go next week. (Pinkel confirmed Monday that if Franklin is healthy enough, he's the starter.) He would surely be thrilled to get to play, although facing the ferocious South Carolina defensive line is not an enviable task. Keeping the thoroughly terrifying defensive end Jadeveon Clowney off of the Tiger quarterback is a top priority. Clowney recorded eight sacks as a freshman last year and has three in three games this year.

But wait, there’s more. The 6-foot-6 Clowney is actually the shorter of the two starting defensive ends, lined up on the opposite side of the 6-foot-8 Devin Taylor.

The game is in the classic SEC time slot on CBS. The Georgia game was Missouri’s SEC kickoff; this first SEC road game, on CBS, with the venerable Verne Lundquist on the call, is the Tigers’ immersion into the world of the SEC.

Pinkel is 3-15 against top-10 teams at Missouri, with all three wins coming in the state of Missouri (Nebraska in 2003 and Oklahoma in 2010 in Columbia, Kansas in 2007 in Kansas City). Can Missouri get him his first top-10 road win? The defense will have to do the heavy lifting, with the Tigers’ offense currently last in the SEC in yards per play. Crazy things happen in college football, but a win at Williams-Brice Stadium is a tall order for the Tigers right now.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Painful loss, but Mizzou shows it can compete in SEC

So close, and yet so far away.

Last Saturday, Missouri traded punches and momentum swings with No. 7 Georgia for three quarters. The Bulldogs didn’t take a lead until only 51 seconds remained in the third quarter, and as Faurot Field swayed for the Missouri Waltz heading into the fourth quarter, the outcome was very much in doubt.

But that fourth quarter was a wave of Georgia rain on Missouri’s first SEC game parade; the Bulldogs’ emphatic welcome-to-the-SEC message.

A failed Missouri fake punt. Georgia field goal. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones intercepted Missouri’s James Franklin and returned it to the one-yard line. Georgia touchdown. Jones forced a Franklin fumble, recovered by Georgia at the Missouri five. Georgia touchdown. Ballgame, 41-20 Dawgs.

Altogether, Georgia closed the game on a 32-3 run, turning the joyful, festive march of Tiger fans to a sold-out Faurot into a dejected, disheveled trudge back to their vehicles afterward.

Despite the loss, the Tigers showed they can hang with the SEC East’s best, at least at Faurot. Missouri actually outgained Georgia, 371 yards to 355.

Georgia, along with South Carolina, are the measuring sticks in the East, until further notice, and Missouri was not crushed. They were simply defeated by a good team and a dominating linebacker making huge plays when it mattered most.

Missouri fans thought their Tigers could compete in the SEC, but now they’ve seen it. Yes, Georgia’s players are big and fast and talented, but they still can make mistakes and get burned for touchdowns. Their fans are passionate and devoted, but they have no superpowers; they’re just good college football fans. Missouri fans have been dealing with that for decades in the form of Nebraska’s visiting hordes.

But Missouri fans have also seen now just how difficult it is to compete in the SEC. Missouri’s next SEC game, Sept. 22 at South Carolina, will be even tougher, making a buzzkill 0-2 conference start quite possible.

But first Missouri has another home nonconference game next Saturday, at 6 p.m. against Arizona State on ESPN2.

Arizona State is something of a blank-slate team. After starting 6-2 last year, including an overtime win over Missouri in Tempe, the Sun Devils lost five straight to finish the season with a losing record. They have a new coach, Todd Graham, and must replace quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

The general consensus is that Arizona State is a middle-of-the-road Pac-12 Conference team, or maybe slightly below that, and that they can contend for a bowl but not much more. But they do have some talent, such as running back Cameron Marshall, and they did throttle Illinois 45-14 to move to 2-0. But as a disclaimer, Missouri fans know beating Illinois is mostly just an indicator that the season has started, not necessarily that your team is great.

Missouri opened as about a touchdown favorite, and I think they should have a relatively comfortable win. The danger is that this is a classic trap game, in between two games against the SEC East favorites. But this is still a game Missouri should win.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Missouri. Georgia. Saturday.

Up from Georgia come the Bulldogs, barking and singing “Glory, glory, to old Georgia,” carrying the pride of the Southeastern Conference and their fan base’s hunger for a conference title and more.

Awaiting the Bulldogs in Columbia are the Tigers of old Mizzou, chanting “M-I-Z, Z-O-U!,” craving respect from the SEC nobility, aching for a win that would shake the Show-Me State, and reverberate at the SEC offices in Birmingham, Ala.

Georgia is a proud program. They put over 90,000 fans in their Sanford Stadium, where they beat Buffalo 45-23 last week to open the season.

But pride can be wounded. The SEC being what it is, the Bulldogs have to jockey for position endlessly with other titans such as Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and LSU, all below kingpin Alabama. Georgia has been limited to two SEC championships in the last 20 years.

Missouri wants to prove its momentum is still trending upward. The Tigers, who easily routed Southeastern Louisiana 62-10 in the rain last Saturday to start its first SEC season, want to prove they belong. Maybe want isn’t the right word.

Some SEC types questioned Missouri’s addition to the conference. Tiger fans have talked about “stepping up their game” to fit into SEC football culture. But ultimately, it will take wins to prove Missouri belongs.

Maybe most important of all, Georgia is expected to battle South Carolina for the SEC East title. For the Bulldogs, this is the kind of tricky road game they have to secure to stay in the East race. On the flip side, a Missouri win could launch the Tigers into that divisional race.

Most coaches would rather have the NCAA comb through their cellphones and computers rather than say any one game is more important than the rest. But Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has broken form and talked openly about how huge this game is for his program. On Sunday, Georgia coach Mark Richt called this matchup his team’s biggest game of the season. When a game is deemed bigger than Georgia’s creatively named grudge matches (“The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” vs. Florida and “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” vs. Georgia Tech), not to mention its South Carolina game, you know it is huge.

Saturday’s game (6:45 p.m. on ESPN2) is one of the more anticipated Missouri home games I can recall. Columbia, in its full bloom of football season, will be buzzing.

Leading Georgia into that maw will be Aaron Murray, one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. He has plenty of talented receivers to target, so Missouri’s secondary will be tested. If the Georgia offense has a weakness, it may be the offensive line, so it will be interesting to see if the Tigers can exploit this. Likewise, Georgia will probably put Missouri's somewhat banged-up offensive line to the test early and often.

Georgia has a strong defense, even by the SEC’s high standards. But some key players may or may not be suspended; Richt is keeping that close to the vest. If safety Bacarri Rambo plays, it will be a big boost to the Bulldogs’ pass defense.

Whatever happens under the lights of Faurot Saturday, Missouri’s SEC era has arrived. What a way to start.