Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Missouri falls to Auburn in SEC title game

There was a moment at the Georgia Dome Saturday night when James Franklin tossed a pass to a wide open Marcus Murphy in the end zone to give Missouri the lead in the third quarter, and Auburn’s hordes of fans fell silent and Missouri’s corner of the stadium erupted and it seemed like the black-and-gold Tigers just might win the SEC Championship Game.

It was the sixth lead change of the scintillating, back-and-forth game. Unfortunately for No. 5 Missouri (11-2), there would be a seventh and final lead change as No. 3 Auburn (12-1) surged ahead down the stretch for a 59-42 win.

This surprising season produced plenty of memories and successes for Missouri, but the Tigers would come up just short in their push for the school’s first football conference title since 1969.

The defense, so often a strength this year, was simply gashed, giving up 677 yards, including 545 on the ground. Missouri’s defense had often yielded some yards but then was at its best in the red zone. But on Saturday, Auburn entered the red zone seven times and scored a touchdown each time. Auburn running back Tre Mason romped for 304 yards, four yards shy of the school record.

So often Auburn players were running through massive lanes and baffling Missouri with fakes. I remember at least one occasion where a Missouri section of fans cheered an apparent tackle only to realize the real Auburn ballcarrier was still sprinting in the open field.

It was still a remarkable, successful season for Missouri. But this was clearly a missed opportunity to end that conference title drought, and with Ohio State losing later in the night, Missouri’s loss kept it from playing for a national title.

Coach Gary Pinkel fell to 0-3 in conference title games. He’ll be 62 when next season starts and should have more chances, but there are no guarantees, certainly not in the SEC.

Still, the Missouri’s 11 regular-season wins did secure the Tigers a nice bowl destination, against old Big 12 (and Big 8) foe Oklahoma State (10-2). The Cowboys had their own BCS bowl and conference title near miss, losing at home to rival Oklahoma on Saturday.

The Cotton Bowl (6:30 p.m. Jan. 3, FOX), played at the Dallas Cowboys’ massive AT&T Stadium, commonly called Jerry World in homage to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is a fine consolation prize. It’s a prestigious, historic bowl located in fertile recruiting ground and will be a part of the rotation of bowls hosting College Football Playoff games starting next year.

Missouri fans will recognize Oklahoma State’s high-powered offense, which is 15th in the nation in scoring, at 39.8 points per game.

This season had many parallels with Missouri’s famed 2007 season, with both years seeing the Tigers go 11-1 and then lose the conference title game to keep them out of the national championship game. Missouri capped the 2007 season with a Cotton Bowl win; in January they’ll try to do the same for this season.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Missouri wins the East, faces Auburn for SEC title

As Missouri’s momentous football game last Saturday worked toward its conclusion, the tension grew and hung in the air, like the smoke from the fireworks that lingered over the stadium and wouldn’t fade away into the night.

Missouri (11-1, 7-1 in SEC play) trailed 14-7 at the half, but roared back to take a 21-14 lead into the fourth quarter. To their credit, Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 in SEC) wouldn’t go quietly. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, a polarizing figure off the field but a dynamic player college football will miss, led the Aggies on a 98-yard touchdown drive to tie it up.

With the game tied in the final quarter, the teams combined for four straight punts as the suspense rose higher and higher. Finally, on a Missouri third-and-one from its own 43, Tiger running back Henry Josey, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, burst through the line and sprinted into the open field and the end zone for what would be the game-winning touchdown. Missouri’s “blackout” crowd bounced and waved and surged like black grass in a swirling wind.

Missouri’s 28-21 win clinched the SEC East Division championship in just the Tigers’ second year in the conference. Fans poured onto Faurot Field, celebrating one of the biggest wins in the 88 seasons at the venerable stadium.

This win comes near the end of a resounding season in which Missouri proved it can compete in the powerful SEC. It was a bounce-back year for coach Gary Pinkel, who tied Don Faurot for the most wins in school history, with 101.

There were varying degrees of optimism and apprehension back in August, but nobody saw this, 11-1 and a trip to next Saturday’s SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta (3 p.m. on CBS).

Missouri will be playing for its first football conference title since 1969, in President Richard Nixon’s first term, a year that began with mankind having never walked on the moon. The Tigers are also still in the national championship picture, probably needing a win and then a loss by either Ohio State or Florida State in their respective conference title games.

In this improbable SEC title game, No. 5 Missouri will face No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 in SEC play). Auburn’s Tigers had a disastrous season last year, falling to 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play just two years removed from a national title. But new coach Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator for that national championship team, gave an immediate jolt to the program.

Auburn punched its ticket to the SEC title game Saturday with a play for the ages, returning a missed field goal 109 yards for a game-winning touchdown as time expired to dethrone mighty Alabama.
With the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing attack led by running back Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall, Auburn will be a unique challenge for Missouri’s defense.

This season has been a wonderful surprise for Tiger fans, and it seems fitting to cap it off with surprise matchup for the SEC championship.

Missouri defeats Ole Miss, one win from SEC East title

This column and the ones below it posted today are my Mizzou newspaper columns for the past several weeks. Didn't get them posted, but I usually put them up on here, so here they are in case anyone wants to take a look at them. 

Ole Miss can put on a show. The picturesque college town of Oxford provides a fantastic setting for college football. The school’s famous tailgating area, the Grove, lives up to the hype. Inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the giant flags waving, the Rebelettes and their sparkling uniforms,  the band playing that catchy “Dixie” tune and the frenzied fans waving red pom-poms create on overload of sights and sounds.

On this stage, the Missouri Tigers (10-1, 6-1 in SEC play) put on a show of their own last Saturday. Missouri scored a touchdown on a Henry Josey run less than three minutes into the game, and the Tigers won the battle along the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense in a 24-10 win.

It was a cold night in Mississippi, and Ole Miss, ranked No. 24 in the AP poll, can be dangerous. But Missouri managed to keep the Rebels (7-4, 3-4 in SEC) at bay. MU estimated at least 8,000 Tiger fans made the trip to Oxford, and the fans in black-and-gold were a noticeable presence during the game.

Quarterback James Franklin, making his first start after suffering an injury against Georgia, played well enough to win, completing 12 of 19 passes while the Tigers’ ground game rolled up 260 rushing yards. Missouri ran out the last 8:08 to seal the game by running the ball 13 straight times before going into the victory formation and taking a knee.

It was another quality win in this remarkable season, one that set up an epic regular-season finale at Faurot Field on Saturday against Texas A&M (6:45 p.m. on ESPN). If Missouri wins, the Tigers will play the winner of Alabama and Auburn’s “Iron Bowl” rivalry game (2:30 p.m. on CBS) in the Dec. 7 SEC Championship Game. With the Tigers at No. 5 in the latest BCS standings, Missouri is a loss by Ohio State or Florida State away from having a clear path to the national championship game.

But the immediate future is a tough test against the Aggies (8-3, 4-3 in SEC). Texas A&M (No. 19 in AP poll, No. 21 Coaches poll) features the thrilling, somewhat polarizing Johnny Manziel, known as “Johnny Football.” Manziel won the Heisman last year, and he’s piling up massive numbers again this year, albeit with a few more interceptions. Manziel can be a maddeningly elusive runner, and he has a tremendous target in receiver Mike Evans.

The Aggies’ offense is scoring 45.6 points per game, sixth in the nation, but the suspect A&M defense is giving up 31.2 points per game, 89th in the nation.

Last week’s loss at LSU likely ended A&M’s BCS bowl hopes and Manziel’s repeat Heisman campaign, so Missouri would appear to have greater motivation here.

A year ago, Missouri ended a tough season with a humbling loss at Texas A&M. Now, the Tigers play the Aggies in an SEC East-clinching game. Whatever happens, Tiger fans will remember this game for a long time.

Missouri needs to win last two for SEC East title

After weeks of growing anticipation and crunching SEC East scenarios, it’s down to this: Missouri has to win its last two games to win the SEC East. Should the Tigers lose, South Carolina, which has wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 6-2 mark, would win the East and represent the division in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

Last Saturday, with Missouri not having a game, most Tiger fans were rooting for Georgia to beat Auburn and Florida to beat South Carolina, either of which would have meant Missouri just had to win one of its last two games to win the East. Instead, Georgia lost on an unbelievable, fourth-down, tipped-pass touchdown by Auburn, dubbed the “Miracle on the Plains.” Florida, with an offense that resembles a dog trying to play a piano, was unable to hold a fourth-quarter lead at South Carolina.

So the No. 8 Tigers (9-1, 5-1 in SEC play) will have to take care of things themselves, without a safety net. They can move within one game of the SEC title game on Saturday at Mississippi (6:45 p.m. on ESPN).

I’m excited to make the trip down to Oxford for this game. A game at Ole Miss is a spectacle, as much a slice of the SEC as about any venue. The speed limit on campus is 18 MPH in tribute to the uniform number of former quarterback Archie Manning, a legend at Oxford and the father of NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning.

Manning’s heroics aside, Ole Miss has not been a dominant SEC program. The Rebels were on the wrong end of maybe the most storied touchdown in SEC history, Billy Cannon’s punt return touchdown for LSU to beat Ole Miss on Halloween in 1959.

But even if Ole Miss doesn’t have stacks of SEC titles, they have one of the best gameday atmospheres in the conference. A common refrain in Oxford is “we may not win every game, but we never lose a party.” The Grove, the famous tailgating hotspot on campus, is a classic part of the SEC’s lore, with overdressed fans, chandeliers in tents and tailgate food eaten off china plates.

On this stage, Missouri faces a dangerous Ole Miss team (7-3, 3-3 in SEC play). Mississippi’s offense will test Missouri’s strong defense. Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace has 17 touchdown passes and just five interceptions on the season. Mississippi has the SEC’s fifth-most rushing yards per game, led by Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers.

Missouri has the conference’s second-most rushing yards per game, at 235.8. It will be interesting to see how quarterback James Franklin looks coming back from injury, and how much playing time backup Maty Mauk gets.

Both teams have a lot of offensive weapons, which makes it tempting to predict a shootout. But Missouri’s defense has been stout this year, leading the SEC in sacks and turnovers forced. If the Tiger defense plays as well as it has most of the season, Missouri can leave Oxford with the road win and set up a huge finale with Texas A&M.

Missouri keeps rolling heading into bye week

Last Saturday, in Missouri’s tenth game of the year, the Tigers overwhelmed Kentucky (2-7, 0-5 in SEC play) for a 48-17 road win, maintaining their SEC East lead.

After a slow start for Missouri (9-1, 5-1 in SEC) and an early 3-0 lead for Kentucky, the Tigers racked up four straight touchdown drives to take a 28-3 lead and control of the game.

Freshman quarterback Maty Mauk tied a school record with five touchdown passes, and sophomore receiver Dorial Green-Beckham set a school record with four touchdown catches.

Missouri (No. 8 in Coaches poll, No. 9 AP, No. 9 BCS) is at most two wins away from playing in the SEC championship game.

How did we get here? Just last year, Missouri needed a comeback win in its tenth game just to improve to 5-5, and the Tigers would lose their last two games and miss a bowl.

As Missouri heads into a bye week, its a decent time to ask why this year has been so different.

Missouri did have significant injuries last season. The Tigers have not had as many key injuries this year, but they have had some significant ones, and the team has done a better job coping with them.
Mauk has been a better runner and thrown fewer interceptions in relief of injured quarterback James Franklin than Corbin Berkstresser last year. Also, Missouri’s best cornerback, E.J. Gaines, missed games due to injury, but the rest of the defense stepped up. In particular, Missouri’s pass rush has been ferocious, which takes pressure off the defensive backs. Missouri had 27 sacks last season. The Tigers have 34 sacks so far this year, with two regular season games left to play.

Missouri also has a much better running game this season. The Tigers averaged 139 rushing yards per game last year. This year, with a healthier, more experienced offensive line, plus the return of Henry Josey, Missouri is averaging 235.8 rushing yards per game, 16th in the nation.

The talented receiving corps has also had more of an impact, which goes hand-in-hand with the improvement in the other offensive position groups.

The Missouri defense has been much better, despite losing star defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson to the NFL Draft. The Tigers are giving up 20.2 points per game. That number will probably go up some with two upcoming games against dangerous offenses, but it’ll be better than giving up 28.4 points per game last year.

With Missouri off this Saturday, Tiger fans may want to keep an eye on Georgia at Auburn (2:30 p.m. on CBS) and Florida at South Carolina (6 p.m. on ESPN2). If Georgia beats Auburn (and then beats Kentucky next week, a near-certainty) or if Florida beats South Carolina, Missouri would only need to win one of its last two games to win the SEC East.

Tiger fans can surely attest that these calculations certainly beat just figuring whether the team will go to a bowl. What a difference a year can make.

Missouri hammers Tennessee, maintains SEC East lead

Missouri bounced back in a big way from its double overtime loss to South Carolina, hammering Tennessee 31-3 last Saturday and moving one game closer to Atlanta, site of the SEC Championship Game.

First-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones appears to be a solid coach and may one day get the Volunteers back up and running at the level their fans expect, but last Saturday was not that day. Like most of Missouri’s games this season, the Tigers were simply the better team, and it showed.

After a wobbly first couple of offensive drives, Missouri (8-1, 4-1 in SEC play) engineered a 63-yard touchdown drive, starting a stretch that saw Missouri score on four of five drives and take a commanding 24-3 lead into the half.

Missouri rolled up 502 yards of offense, including 339 yards on the ground. The Tiger defense held Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 in SEC play) to just 94 rushing yards on 24 attempts, despite the Volunteers’ talented offensive line, and 334 yards overall.

Add in the three turnovers forced by the Tiger defense, the 39th straight game Missouri has forced a turnover, and you can see how this was a blowout.

Meanwhile, the Missouri offense was turnover free. Freshman quarterback Maty Mauk completed just 12 of his 25 passes and is completing just 48.9 percent for the season (maligned backup Corbin Berkstresser completed 49.7 percent last season), but he has only thrown two interceptions this season and ran for 114 yards against the Volunteers.

After the win, Missouri climbed to No. 9 in the AP and Coaches polls and No. 8 in the BCS standings. The Tigers also maintained their lead in the SEC East.

Regular starting quarterback James Franklin could be back as soon as next week at Kentucky, but Mauk has proven to be an adequate replacement. The Tigers can win with Mauk.

Missouri could probably win with a number of players at quarterback this weekend when it travels to Kentucky on Saturday (11 a.m. on ESPNU).

There is excitement, even hysteria, among Kentucky fans this time of year, but as usual it is for the start of basketball season, where the Wildcats are ranked No. 1.

Kentucky football, however, is riding a 12-game losing streak in SEC play. The Wildcats (2-6, 0-4 in SEC play) have a first-year coach in Mark Stoops and seem to be marginally better than last year, but this is still a game Missouri should win fairly comfortably.

Jalen Whitlow appears to have the quarterback job at the moment, having shared time with Maxwell Smith this season. Whitlow passed for 187 yards and ran for 101 last week, but that was against Alabama State.

Kentucky has had some competitive losses in SEC play this year, losing by seven at South Carolina and by six at Mississippi State, and this one is a road game for the Tigers. But I would still expect for Missouri be able to handle Kentucky and head into its bye week with another win.

Missouri suffers first loss, still leads SEC East

Halloween arrived early for Tiger fans.

Missouri brought a No. 5 ranking, an undefeated record and high hopes into last Saturday’s Homecoming game with No. 20 South Carolina. But on a chilly night at Faurot Field, those Missouri dreams turned into a nightmare as the Tigers could not hold a 17-0 fourth quarter lead, evoking the ghosts of agonizing Missouri defeats from days gone by, losing 27-24 in double overtime.

South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw did not start due a knee sprain, but he entered the game midway through the third quarter, completing 20 of 29 passes and torching Missouri with screen passes.
Missouri (7-1, 3-1 in SEC play) struggled offensively as well down the stretch. Maty Mauk completed just 10 of 25 passes, and the Tigers became very cautious late in regulation.

At so many intervals, one key play could have sealed the win, including a long fourth-and-goal in overtime that saw South Carolina score a touchdown to force a second overtime.

After forcing a Gamecock field goal, Missouri had a short field goal attempt to force a third overtime. But Andrew Baggett missed the 24-yard kick off the left upright, taking the air out of the sellout crowd.
Three randomly selected Missouri fans have made 30-yard field goals to win $1,000 gift cards at games this season. Baggett faced more pressure, and the holder appeared to have the laces facing the kicker, which can cause problems, but this was a kick a Division I kicker usually makes.

Longtime Tiger fans may have grimly noted that the miss came in the north end zone, site of Colorado’s “Fifth Down” win over Missouri in 1990 and where Nebraska had a kicked ball touchdown reception in a 1997 win over the Tigers.

Still, Missouri leads the SEC East standings. South Carolina (6-2, 4-2 in SEC play) now lurks one game back in the loss column, as do Georgia and Florida, but Missouri still controls its destiny. A 4-0 finish guarantees Missouri a spot in the SEC title game, and 3-1 could very well do the trick. Missouri is now ranked No. 10 in the AP and Coaches polls, and a special season is still possible.

That starts with another home game on Saturday against Tennessee (4-4, 1-3 in SEC play). Missouri will be the sixth ranked team the Volunteers have played, and they will probably face another one in Auburn.

Tennessee was hammered by Alabama last week, as Alabama opponents usually are, but the week before Tennessee scored a big win over South Carolina. The Volunteers have been much tougher at home, but they do have some talent, and first-coach Butch Jones seems to have them playing hard.
Tennessee’s quarterback play has been shaky this year, but the Volunteer running game is decent. Tennessee has one of the nation’s better offensive lines, headlined by tackle Tiny Richardson, who is decidedly not tiny.

But Missouri’s defensive line has been pretty good as well, and this clash should be an interesting subplot. Tennessee isn’t a total pushover, but I still expect Missouri to bounce back and get the win at home.

Missouri beats Florida, takes control in SEC East

Friday was a near-perfect college football scene for Missouri fans. Fans packed old Faurot Field, the first sellout of the season. It was a crisp, sunny fall afternoon, with blue skies and those old trees that peek over the south edge of the stadium beginning their annual autumn color change. And, of course, Missouri hammered then-No. 22 Florida 36-17 to advance to 7-0.

This wasn’t just the product of a team getting on a roll or riding a raucous home crowd to a win, although Missouri is a hot team and the Faurot fans were into the game. Missouri (7-0, 3-0 in SEC play) is simply better than Florida (4-3, 3-2 in SEC), and it showed.

The Gators couldn’t cover Missouri’s big, athletic receivers. Freshman Maty Mauk, making his first start in place of the injured James Franklin, came out firing, completing passes of 41 and 20 yards for a two-play, 22-second touchdown drive. Mauk threw an interception, but he had a big rushing touchdown and generally looked like a quarterback Missouri can continuing winning with.

The Missouri defense continued to be a turnover-inducing, quarterback-sacking menace. The Tigers lead the SEC in both turnover differential and sacks.

The win launched the Tigers up to No. 5 in the Associated Press poll and No. 7 in the Coaches poll. Missouri made the jump in part because of how resounding its win was, and in part because half of the top-10 teams in the AP poll lost last weekend, the first time that’s happened since the wild 2007 season.
It’s beginning to feel a lot like 2007 for Tiger fans, when Missouri went 12-2 and finished No. 4 in the final AP poll. Missouri is again contending for its first conference title since 1969, and maybe even more. In the first Bowl Championship Series standings, which determine who plays in the national championship game, Missouri is No. 5.

Thanks to Georgia’s loss at Vanderbilt and South Carolina’s loss at Tennessee on Saturday, Missouri has a two-game lead in the SEC East race, with the Tigers undefeated and Georgia, South Carolina and Florida all having two SEC losses.

That’s a great position, although Missouri still has five SEC games to navigate, starting with its Homecoming game against No. 20 South Carolina on Saturday (6 p.m. on ESPN2).

The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 in SEC) may be without starting quarterback Connor Shaw due to a knee sprain, but backup Dylan Thompson is among the SEC’s more experienced backups, throwing for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last year when Shaw was out.

On the ground, Missouri is second and South Carolina is third in the SEC in rushing yards per game.
South Carolina also has a dangerous pass rush led by end Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney’s sack numbers are down this year, perhaps due to increased attention from offensive lines, but he can still be a game-changer.

In short, South Carolina is a stout test for the Tigers. With Tigers leading the SEC East standings, the games are getting bigger each week.