October 15, 2006

Missouri's weak schedule exposed

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas Like typical Midwesterners, Missouri residents are, for the most part, friendly and courteous.

But they are not gullible and even their state motto, "Show Me,'' indicates they demand proof before acceptance.

For that reason the Missouri Tigers fans perhaps more than any other in college football can appreciate any doubts and reservations that may exist about their team following Saturday's 25-19 upset loss to Texas A&M at Kyle Field.

The previously unbeaten Tigers had the chance to show that they were indeed deserving of their No. 19 national ranking and were legitimate contenders for the Big 12 Conference championship.

Instead, their performance left me wondering.

I wonder if the Tigers would have easily won if not for three first-half fumbles, including one into the end zone that negated a touchdown in the first minute of the game.

I wonder what happened to the run defense that was ranked 10th in the nation.

I wonder why coach Gary Pinkel elected to fake a field goal attempt AFTER getting a 5-yard penalty in the fourth quarter rather than take the kick which would have reduced the Texas A&M lead to three points.

But mainly I wonder just how good the Tigers really are.

Can they really challenge Nebraska for North Division supremacy, and could they topple Texas the probable South Division champ in the conference championship game?

I don't know, and Saturday's effort only adds to the confusion.

They were among just a few undefeated teams in Division I, but their six victories were largely against a collection of mid-majors and under-achievers. Even their marquee victory over Texas Tech lost value on Saturday when the Red Raiders were blasted 30-6 by previously winless Colorado, one of Missouri's victims.

A&M was a respectable opponent with a 5-1 record and with the Missouri roster stocked with about 20 native Texans represented an opportunity for the Tigers to prove themselves on so many levels.

But then an official's review showed receiver Will Franklin lost a fumble just before he crossed the goal line on a would-be 65-yard touchdown pass on the game's third play. That and two more fumbles allowed Texas A&M to hang around and go into halftime with a 17-17 tie when the outcome might have been settled by then.

"Any time you lose it's frustrating," Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel said. "The good thing about it is the only guys that matter are the 80 guys in the locker room.

"We just want to go in, get better and get healthy. We had three turnovers. I fumbled once. Those are just dumb mistakes."

Actually, Daniel was not charged with a turnover the Tigers recovered his fumble -- and his play is the main reason the Tigers may eventually prove to be as good as their record would suggest.

A sophomore from Southlake, Texas, he started the season trying to replace the enormous shoes of Brad Smith, who set virtually every offensive record in school history.

Yet, the Tigers are better with Daniel at quarterback than they were with Smith, who had amazing ability but often left teammates watching instead of participating.

Daniel distributes the ball with an expertise that may warrant all-conference recognition. Against A&M he completed 11 of 15 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. And he would have had another touchdown if not for Franklin's fumble.

He wasn't as effective in the second half, but at least part of that can be explained by A&M's ability to control the ball. Missouri ran just six offensive plays in the third quarter, and the Aggies finished the game with a whopping 41:30 to 18:30 advantage in time of possession.

That brings up the question about Missouri's run defense, which allowed an average of just 72.2 yards an outing in the first six games.

But A&M's 278-pound sophomore running back Jorvorskie Lane, who had reached 100 yards in just one previous game this season, thundered for 127 yards on 28 carries. He averaged 7 yards on nine attempts in the fourth quarter when the Tigers desperately needed to get the ball back.

Perhaps that run defense appeared so stingy only because four of Missouri's previous opponents included Division I-AA Murray State and three teams Texas Tech, New Mexico and Ohio which ranked 95th or lower in rushing offense.

Maybe Pinkel doubted his defense could stop Lane and that's why he tried to fake a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the A&M 9 with 11:43 to play and the Aggies leading by six.

That would have left the Tigers needing another field goal to force overtime, and kicker Jeff Wolfert had already converted from 39 yards.

But Pinkel pointed out that play was just one of many that led to Missouri's first loss.

"You look at a fumble here or this play here, every single player could have done something different so we could win," he said. "It doesn't come down to one particular play. I don't think we played our best game. I thought we made a lot of errors.

"If you are going to win against good people, week in and week out, you have to bring your best game every week."

Elite teams can win without playing at their highest level. But even elite teams can falter, especially on the road.

I don't know that Missouri belongs in that category, but back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Nebraska are looming on Oct. 28 and Nov. 4.

That's when Missouri can show me -- and others who may wonder -- that it does belong.




 

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