Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I thought it would be colder

I guess I thought it would be colder.

As a Royals fan all these years, I sometimes thought about a playoff game at Kauffman Stadium. But it wasn't a frequent daydream, and it was one that I would fairly quickly abandon because it was so far-fetched, like "How would I decorate the Oval Office if I were President" or "How would my life be different if I were married to Anna Kendrick?"

But when I did think about such a mythical game, it was chilly and fans were bundled up, like the playoff games I saw on TV. Since I was a kid, I have loved playoff baseball. Loved, mind you, not liked. The playoffs are the inescapable sense of baseball's history, but with the game's casual pace ramped up to every-pitch-matters weight. And it was all over network TV. My family just had antenna TV, in hindsight probably a good thing, but October meant good sports programming every night. I remember the moments, the drama, the evenings with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver.

The Royals, of course, were never a part of this annual autumnal drama. The Royals played in the summer; the playoffs were in the fall. They were in theory part of the same thing, the baseball season, but in practice and my mind they were two separate interests.

But today, in a development I'm still trying to process, the Royals are playing in a Major League Baseball playoff game. Many fine Royals stories have been written ticking off the list of very specific and unusual ways the Royals have failed for decades now, but there's no need for them in this piece. Today is a day for wide-eyed wonder.

It has been 10,564 days since the last playoff game at Kauffman Stadium, Game 7 of the 1985 World Series. Denny Matthews, broadcaster for the Royals since they became a team in 1969, counted down the outs, punctuating the final flyout with the locally-famous "No outs to go!" Part of me wants Denny, after the first A's out today, to casually drop a "323 outs to go…"

So even if today is a day for wonder, I have to acknowledge it has been a while. Longer than I have been alive, and my life is the longest thing I can remember. But like other Royals fans I soldiered on, rolling with the good-natured insults when I wore a Royals hat on the MU campus in Columbia, working through the same banter about the Royals' losing with waitresses and with coworkers and with fellow float-trippers on rivers.

But through it all we Royals fans had beautiful Kauffman Stadium and the delightfully funny Denny and so many great writers. The playoffs were impossible, so the game of baseball was its own reward for us. We shared Royals baseball with family and friends. I remember my mom patiently sitting through an interminable 14-inning Royals-Yankees game with my siblings and me. I remember listening to games on summer nights year after year in the house where I grew up, listening to games in tractors while working in the field, and going to games with my family and friends.

And now, we have this bonus from a team that seemed buried by the end of July, a team that has no power and no real offensive stars but runs hard and plays good defense and pitches like crazy.

Today I did not go to work in the Oval Office and I'm not waiting for Miss Kendrick at the end of an aisle. But today I'm going to Kauffman Stadium with my family to watch the Royals play in a playoff game. It's supposed to be 79 at first pitch.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Missouri rallies for improbable win at South Carolina

For most of the game, Missouri had pretty much nothing on offense. Then, over the course of a few frantic moments of exquisite drama, the Tigers (4-1, 1-0 in SEC play) had everything, snatching a 21-20 win at South Carolina (3-2, 2-2 in SEC) last Saturday.

It was a game with massive implications for the SEC East Division race, and South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium was ready for the occasion. It was one of the loudest venues in which I’ve seen Missouri play a football game.

When South Carolina’s fantastically named Pharoh Cooper reeled in an outstanding touchdown catch with 7:25 to go, Missouri trailed 20-7 and the situation seemed largely hopeless. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier didn’t decide to go for two after the touchdown to go up 14, but it didn’t really seem like it would matter.

Missouri’s defense had hung on all night long, stopping the Gamecocks again and again while the Tiger offense did very little. But after that Cooper touchdown catch, it seemed like a great effort was going to come up short.

When Maty Mauk and the Missouri offense took the field down 20-7, the Tigers had punted on 10 straight possessions, not counting a kneel down to end the first half. None of those drives had advanced more than 21 yards. Injury problems had hurt the depth at receiver. Mauk had completed just 9 of 29 passes at that point.

And somehow, shockingly, Missouri found a way.

As you should expect when the team is in trouble, Mauk hit Bud Sasser with a long pass, then completed another to Wesley Leftwich. Russell Hansbrough plunged into the end zone from the one, and Missouri had life.

The Tiger defense forced a three and out, and a 22-yard punt return for Marcus Murphy gave Missouri the ball just 51 yards from the end zone.

The Tigers then embarked on a drive for the ages, and for hand-wringing, converting two four downs along the way, the first a breathtaking four-and-one pass to Sean Culkin, the second a Hansbrough one-yard touchdown run that will live on in Tiger lore. Hansbrough and the offensive line just kept pushing and pushing and pushing until the officials signaled touchdown. Tiger fans in the nearby corner of Williams-Brice were delirious with celebration.

Missouri’s defense, iron-fisted so much of the evening, forced four straight Dylan Thompson incompletions, sealing one of the most improbable Tiger wins I have ever seen.

The gritty win at another SEC East contender was a big step toward Missouri defending its East Division title. After a much needed bye this Saturday, Missouri has another huge game on Oct. 11, against Georgia at Faurot Field.

How that game and the rest of the season will play out is anyone’s guess. But as South Carolina’s band played “Amazing Grace,” its traditional closing song, and Tiger fans filed out into the South Carolina night, they knew one thing: Missouri was alone in first in the SEC East.

After shocking defeat, Missouri opens SEC play at South Carolina

After a long and sometimes strange afternoon at Faurot Field last Saturday, Indiana’s D’Angelo Roberts leapt over the line and landed in the end zone to put the Hoosiers on top with 22 seconds left. A hush fell over the old stadium. Indiana held on for the shocking 31-27 win, a usual Big Ten bottom feeder going on the road and beating the defending SEC East champion.

The stunning defeat knocked Missouri (3-1) out of the rankings and raised some doubts after three straight wins kept upping the optimism.

The teams played a close contest, but Indiana (2-1) took control of the line of scrimmage, and Missouri was unable to extend its nation-leading streak of 47 straight games forcing a turnover. The absence of injured defensive end Markus Golden hurt, but this was still a game Missouri should have won.

To keep perspective, this loss doesn’t affect Missouri’s chances of winning the SEC East agin. The season can still be a great one. But like all games, it affects the Tigers’ bowl status and program image. Every time the team runs out in Mizzou uniforms, it matters whether they win or lose.

It was probably a classic look-ahead game, with Missouri’s huge game at South Carolina looming on Saturday (6 p.m. on ESPN). This can happen almost subconsciously, even if players try to focus on the task at hand. I know it happened for me.

But in my defense, this Saturday’s game should be quite a scene. Tiger fans know Missouri’s Columbia is the best one, but the Columbia in South Carolina provides a great setting for a college football game. Coach Steve Spurrier, the SEC legend who won the Heisman Trophy at Florida and has more SEC coaching wins than anyone except Bear Bryant, has the Gamecock program up and running. Williams-Brice Stadium right before kickoff is a sight to behold, with fans frantically waving white rally towels and the speakers thumping out “Sandstorm.”

The loss to Indiana has not dampened my enthusiasm for making the trip East to see this game. ESPN’s College Gameday morning preview show will be airing from South Carolina’s Columbia. Other than money and TV deals and all that, games like this are what Missouri had in mind when it moved to the SEC.

Gamecock senior Dylan Thompson is a capable quarterback. Running backs Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds give South Carolina options in the ground game. But the Gamecock defense is a work in progress, yielding 36.0 points per game.

South Carolina (3-1, 2-1 in SEC play) opened with a blowout home loss to Texas A&M, notched a huge win over Georgia, and last week escaped with a win at lowly Vanderbilt that prompted Spurrier to say, with his bluntness uncommon to football coaches, “We’ve all seen good football teams, we ain’t one.”

While the Gamecocks aren’t a juggernaut, neither is Missouri. But both are decent teams that should stage a thoroughly entertaining ballgame Saturday night. After this Missouri hosts Georgia then travels to the Swamp to play Florida. The most important part of the Tigers’ season has arrived.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Missouri finds another gear vs. UCF, hosts Indiana next

This Mizzou football post and the ones below it are my newspaper columns on the team for the season preview and the first four weeks of the season, if anyone wants to have a read. I'll plan on posting my column on here each week going forward. As always, thanks to the newspapers that are running my Mizzou columns this season. 

Some college football games go pretty much like you expect. For more than half the contest, Saturday’s Missouri-UCF game followed the script I was expecting. I thought it would be a close, fairly low-scoring game, with Mizzou pulling out the win by 7 to 10 points. UCF has a good defense and running game, so they can burn a lot of clock and hang in most games.

Deep into the third quarter, Missouri led 14-10, with the game more or less meeting my expectations. Then, the Tigers (3-0) found another gear. Defensive lineman Josh Augusta, known to his teammates as “Big Bear,” batted a UCF pass up into the air. Augusta leapt up and grabbed the ball out of the air for an interception and one of the more athletic plays you’ll see an interior defensive lineman make. It extended Missouri’s nation-leading streak to 47 straight games forcing a turnover, and it swung the momentum in the Tigers’ favor.

Minutes later, Maty Mauk tossed a touchdown pass to Bud Sasser to put Missouri up 21-10. UCF (0-2) is a decent team, but they aren’t built to come from behind. For the Knights, trying to rally from 11 down in the fourth quarter and needing to pass is like me trying to cook a three course meal: we might do some things right, but eventually something is likely to get messed up along the way.

UCF had three more turnovers in the final period, and Missouri kept scoring, rolling to a 38-10 win.
The big win combined with pretty much ideal college football weather to make for a near-perfect day for Tiger fans at Faurot Field. The fight song works best when skies above are actually blue, like the song says, and the air had just a hint of crispness and fall chill as Mauk tossed four touchdown passes. It was all a preview of the fall that is just beginning, and the bigger games that lie ahead.

But first comes a pretty manageable home game with Indiana on Saturday (3 p.m., SEC Network). The Hoosiers have been a popular pick to be a breakout team for a few years now, but they haven’t done much more than serve as a countdown for basketball season in Bloomington. Indiana lost 45-42 last week to Bowling Green, a team that lost by 28 to Western Kentucky earlier this year.

The Big Ten’s image has taken a hit again this season with several nonconference losses, but the conference still manages to pulverize Indiana; the Hoosiers are 16-64 in Big Ten play over the last 10 years.

Fourth-year coach Kevin Wilson has built a decent offense, but it struggled in some of the Hoosiers’ biggest games last year, and Indiana’s defense still has a long way to go.

There’s a chance Missouri might be tempted to look ahead with SEC play kicking off next with a huge game at South Carolina, but the Tigers should still win fairly comfortably on Saturday.

Sasser makes big plays in win at Toledo, UCF up next

If you have a problem, you might give Bud Sasser a call.

Missouri (2-0) had a lot of impressive performances in its 49-24 win at Toledo (1-1), but we have to start with Sasser, the redshirt senior receiver from Texas.

Sasser won me over in 2012, during a struggle of a game in a struggle of a season. He reeled in a pass against Vanderbilt and ran to the end zone for a 85-yard touchdown reception. It was a nice play, but it was memorable because Sasser could not outrun the Vanderbilt defenders. But that little velocity problem didn’t stop Sasser; he stuck his arm out behind him to fend off his pursuers and just did make it to the end zone. As someone who can relate to not being able to outrun people, I became one of the biggest members of the Bud Sasser Fan Club that night at Faurot Field.

Move ahead to last October down in Georgia. Missouri’s 18-point halftime lead had melted down to two, Sanford Stadium was going crazy and Tiger quarterback James Franklin had left the game with an injury. No problem, Sasser simply heaved a 40-yard touchdown pass on a trick play to help secure the Missouri win.

There Sasser was again on Saturday at Toledo, making a big, hustling, unconventional play. With the Tigers up 14-7, Missouri’s Maty Mauk threw an interception to Jordan Haden, who was running closer and closer to the goal line. Sasser caught him and ripped the ball away from the Toledo player, and Missouri recovered it to keep possession.

In the second half, when Toledo rallied to within two touchdowns, Sasser had a 47-yard reception on third-and-7, then caught a 25-yard touchdown on the next play.

Sasser wasn’t the only star for the Tigers, as Mauk tossed five touchdown passes and ran for another. He threw two interceptions, but it was overall another productive day for the sophomore. Missouri’s defensive line timed Toledo’s snaps incredibly well, putting a lot of pressure on the Rockets’ quarterbacks.

Now Missouri returns home Saturday to host Central Florida (11 a.m., SEC Network). UCF went 12-1 last season, including a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. The Knights aren’t quite as good this year, having lost quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson to the NFL. But UCF does feature a stout defense with nine returning starters. The Knights have one of the nation’s best pass defenses, anchored by Jacoby Glenn and Clayton Geathers.

UCF opened the season with last-second loss to Penn State in Ireland, that noted football hotbed. UCF quarterback Pete DiNovo struggled in the first half before being replaced by Justin Holman in the second half. Holman played much better, and the Knights might have won had he played the whole game. Holman will start against Missouri.

UCF is a tough, well-coached opponent. Missouri will have to work for this one, but especially playing at home I’d expect the Tigers to get the win.

Missouri opens with a win, heads to Toledo next

Missouri kicked off its season with a 38-18 home win over South Dakota State on Saturday. It was Missouri’s annual game against a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly called I-AA) team. South Dakota State is better than most of the FCS teams Missouri (1-0) has easily rolled through the years, and the Jackrabbits hung around on Saturday afternoon.

South Dakota State answered Missouri’s quick early touchdown with a long touchdown run from senior Zach Zenner, and then drew within three on another Zenner touchdown run in the third quarter.
But Missouri answered with a Marcus Murphy kickoff return for a touchdown, and then Aarion Penton intercepted a South Dakota State pass in the end zone, allowing the Tigers to keep the Jackrabbits at arm’s length the rest of the game.

It was far from a dominant performance, as Missouri only outgained South Dakota State by 28 yards. Missouri’s secondary got worked a bit by SDSU receiver Jake Wieneke. But the Tigers won by 20 because of the kick return for a touchdown and three South Dakota State turnovers to none for Missouri.

It wasn’t the typical FCS beatdown, but instead called to mind Missouri’s 38-17 win over FCS team Illinois State in 2007. Illinois State was a good FCS team and kept the game competitive. That 2007 Missouri team, of course, went on to win 12 games and the Cotton Bowl.

It was encouraging for Missouri to have Russel Hansbrough and Murphy each average over six yards per carry, and to get two touchdown receptions and 83 yards from Darius White, especially since I’ve developed a tradition of watching the Texas transfer for a breakout season. If he could be a big play receiver for the Tigers, this team has a lot of upside.

That upside includes contending for another SEC East title. The Tigers’ chances of that were helped by a season-opening Thursday night game, when Texas A&M, picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC West, went on the road and hammered South Carolina, on the SEC East favorites. It was a shocking defeat, and an encouraging one for the other East hopefuls. Missouri visits South Carolina Sept. 27.

But first comes Saturday’s tricky road trip to Toledo (11 a.m. on ESPN). Missouri opened as about a touchdown favorite, which shows respect for Toledo.

Toledo is a contender for Mid-American Conference title, and the Rockets are stout on the offensive and defensive lines. The defense can be strong, and running back Kareem Hunt will be another test for Missouri. To me, Toledo looks like a better team than two of Missouri’s SEC opponents, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Toledo’s Glass Bowl holds less than 30,000, but it should be rocking Saturday for what could be the Rockets’ biggest home game of the year.

Missouri opening game provided a blueprint for winning at Toledo: win the turnover battle, steady running game, and a few big plays from special teams or the wide receivers. If they win at Toldeo, the Tigers will have two home games to try to keep building momentum heading into SEC play.

Missouri opens season with South Dakota State

Congratulations, college football fans, you’ve made it. This weekend the grand old game returns, bringing back fight songs, gamedays and ancient stadiums packed with familiar colors.

Missouri opens the 2014 campaign, the 89th season for the Tigers at Faurot Field, by hosting the South Dakota State Jackrabbits on Saturday (2:30 p.m. on ESPNU). South Dakota State competes in the Football Championship Subdivision, the lower tier of Division I.

Under coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri is 10-0 against FCS teams, with an average margin of victory of 51-8. These games against FCS schools are usually viewed as “cupcake” games, although as with real cupcakes, some FCS cupcakes are harder to eat than others.

South Dakota State is no North Dakota State, which upset defending Big 12 champion Kansas State last season and routinely beats teams in Missouri’s Football Bowl Subdivision. South Dakota State can’t match North Dakota State in terms of recent football success, harshness of winter or strength of mascot (Jackrabbits vs. Bison), but SDSU is still a really good FCS team.

The Jackrabbits went 9-5 last year and are ranked No. 10 in the preseason FCS coaches poll. South Dakota State’s outstanding senior running back, Zach Zenner, has posted back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons.

Still, this game is mostly about Missouri and how well the Tigers will play, given their talent advantage. Of course Tiger fans will be watching sophomore Maty Mauk as he begins his first full season as the starting quarterback.

Fans can also watch for the first indicators of how Missouri will answer some of its biggest questions this season, such as who will step up to replace the lost production at wide receiver and defensive line. Bud Sasser, one of the team captains, will be a leader for the receivers, but keep an eye on Darius White, a transfer from Texas who was a highly rated recruit in high school. White only had seven catches for 76 yards last season, but he could be poised for a breakout season, which is exactly what Missouri needs from him. A big game against South Dakota State would be an encouraging first step.

Likewise, the Tigers will need Markus Golden and Shane Ray to fill the void left by the departures of Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Golden and Ray should provide a good pass rush, although South Dakota State will likely test the Tigers’ run defense more than passing.

Starting with an FCS team is a nice way to ease into the season, although things get tougher quickly with a tricky trip to Toledo in Week 2 and a challenging home game against Central Florida in Week 3.
However, Missouri first needs to deal with South Dakota State. Although Missouri is from the higher FBS tier and is allowed to award more scholarships than FCS teams, last year seven FCS teams beat FBS teams just during the first weekend of the season. The Tigers would do well to quickly put to rest any idea they’ll join that list and have a strong start to this game, and this season.

Missouri looks to back up 2013 success with another impressive season

In the Southeastern Conference, fans barking like dogs after kickoffs (Georgia) and yelling “Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer!” during games (Alabama) may be normal, but Missouri winning a division title is not.

The 2013 Missouri Tigers sent a shockwave through the Southern college football establishment. It began with barely a whisper in steamy late August, when the Tigers were an afterthought in the SEC, built to a rumble when Missouri upset Georgia in October deep in the heart of Dixie, and became a roar when Missouri punched its ticket to the SEC Championship Game on a chilly November night at Faurot Field.

How much did Missouri’s success confuse SEC fans? On a shuttle to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, I saw two fans of Alabama - Auburn’s loathed Iron Bowl nemesis - who said they were rooting for Auburn, because they didn’t want the newcomer Missouri winning the SEC title. Those two weren’t representative of the entire Alabama fanbase, but Missouri’s rapid ascent was clearly a shock to the rest of the SEC.

Of course, Missouri lost that SEC title game, and is still without a football conference title since 1969. With that special season now over, the question is, can the Tigers back it up with another impressive showing?

As always, quarterback play will be crucial, and Missouri has a new starter in Maty Mauk after James Franklin graduated. Missouri’s last three quarterbacks, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and Franklin, had 8-win seasons in their first year as starters before eventually leading the Tigers to 10-plus win seasons. Mauk did start four games last season when Franklin was injured, and he also finished out the win over Georgia, kicking off “Mauktober.”

Mauk will need to improve on his 51.1 percent completion percentage, but his ratio of 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions was impressive. But he will be working without Missouri’s top three receivers from last year. The Tigers need senior Bud Sasser to have a big season, and an experienced offensive line and decent running game should help.

On defense, Missouri must replace accomplished pass rushers Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. While it will be tough to match their production, defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden should give the Tigers’ pass rush some teeth.

The line may have to do the heavy lifting for the defense, at least early on while the linebacker and defensive back units work to replace Andrew Wilson and E.J. Gaines, respectively.

So how will Gary Pinkel’s team fare? The schedule does Missouri some favors. Missouri’s 2014 SEC opponents went just 24-40 in SEC play last year, the worst mark for any SEC team’s conference opponents. Still, Missouri’s SEC road slate of South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee will be no picnic.

I think Missouri is a contender in the SEC East, although I’d give South Carolina the nod as the favorite in the division. I’ll pick the Tigers to go 9-3 this season. That is optimistic given all the key contributors Missouri lost, but hey, August is the time for optimism.