Monday, October 8, 2012

Struggling Tigers await No. 1 Alabama

Well, forget what I wrote last week. Forget Missouri gaining momentum in October. Forget the Show Me State’s weather being great in this month.

Last Saturday’s 19-15 loss to Vanderbilt brought a jarring end to those notions. The weather did not feel like the idyllic crispness of a Missouri October; it was a cold, raw, in-your-face night. And the Missouri Tigers (3-3, 0-3 in Southeastern Conference games) did the opposite of generating momentum.

Missouri and Vanderbilt have to fight and claw for the scraps of wins available to them in this tough league. Vanderbilt seemed hungrier Saturday, and they were willing to shake things up with some trick plays down the stretch.

Missouri started out with two nice drives ending in field goals to go up 6-0. But quarterback James Franklin suffered a knee sprain on his only carry of the game, and backup Corbin Berkstresser struggled. The first eight drives for Berkstresser: fumbled snap, safety on a punt attempt, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, punt, punt. None these drives went farther than 23 yards.

Berkstresser and the Tigers put some points on the board late, helped by a long touchdown on a coverage breakdown by Vanderbilt, but the Commodores held on. Berkstresser completed just 9 of 30 passes. He was hurt by some drops, but that completion rate simply won’t win many games.

Playing quarterback for Missouri right now is like driving on a mountain road with no guardrails, and Berkstresser took some big hits behind an offensive line struggling with youth and injuries against tough SEC defensive lines.

Now, reader friend, I’ve waited as long as I can without mentioning it, but we must talk about what lies ahead for these Tigers.

On Saturday, No. 1 Alabama (5-0, 2-0 in SEC play) comes to Columbia to take on Missouri (2:30 p.m. on CBS). Franklin is out with his knee sprain, giving Berkstresser the task of going against the ferocious Crimson Tide defense.

Since Alabama blew a big lead to bitter rival Auburn at the end of the 2010 season, the Crimson Tide defense has been otherworldly, not allowing more than 14 points against any Division I-A opponent since, a streak of 18 games. This year, Alabama has won by scores of 41-14, 35-0, 52-0, 40-7 and 33-14.

Besides that dominant defense, Alabama has an outstanding offensive line and a veteran quarterback, A.J. McCarron, who has not thrown an interception this season. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon highlight a punishing running game.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, appropriately born on Halloween, given how he terrorizes the SEC, was teammates with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel at Kent State in the early 1970s, but don’t expect pity.
It should still be an experience for Tiger fans to see their team take on the storied Crimson Tide. But Missouri is 0-3 in conference play for the first time since 2002, Pinkel’s second year. The last time the Tigers started 0-4 in conference games was 1999.

Missouri has looked wobbly in the first half of the season, and the Vanderbilt loss means Missouri will have to pull an upset just to make a bowl game. With a team as good as Alabama, this week probably won’t be that upset.

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