Five wins overall, three in conference play. A developing quarterback and a suddenly strong defense.
That must be Missouri's record after Oct. 9, their matchup against Baylor, right? Not so much.
In a season that began with unbounded potential and ended with frustrating disappointment, the Tigers missed their best shot at the Big 12 North crown since the conference expanded and division play began in 1996. Finishing 5-6, Missouri even missed a chance to play in a bowl game in back-to-back years.
Instead of preparing for the conference championship or a bowl right now, the program is reeling, its coach under fire and its most experienced returning tailback gone. This isn't the happiest time to be a Missouri fan; here are three reasons why…
Can't close the deal
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the season is that the Tigers had big leads in three of their six losses. But games cannot be won during halftime, only lost -- a lesson Missouri fans learned over and over and over this year.
It began in the second week of the season, when the Tigers traveled to the football hotbed of Troy, Ala. In the most important game in Troy history, Missouri was dominant in the early minutes, shooting out to a 14-0 lead in the first eight minutes. The Tigers were doing everything right; the passing game was clicking, the running game was getting positive yardage each time and the defense was forcing turnovers. Five minutes into the second quarter, all of that changed. The Trojans scored touchdowns on a wide receiver pass and a 63-yard fumble recovery by an offensive lineman, scoring the next 24 points to shock the No. 19 Tigers.
Everything looked to be back to normal during the next month, as Missouri won three games it should have and had a spirited effort in a loss at Texas. Returning home to Columbia for a matchup with Oklahoma State, though, was too big of a challenge for the Tigers. After taking a 17-0 lead, the Tigers allowed Oklahoma State to fly downfield for a touchdown in the final minute. The Cowboys took over from there, scoring 13 second-half points to secure a 20-17 victory.
They say the third time's a charm, but for Missouri, the third time was a trend. Two weeks after stumbling against the Cowboys, the Tigers welcomed Kansas State to town with a chance to end their three-game losing streak. For a while, it looked like they would; Missouri again leaped out to a big lead, this time one of 21 points. But, just like the Cowboys did, the Wildcats scored a touchdown before the first half ended and then dominated play in the second half, scoring 28 of the half's 31 points to claim a 35-24 victory.
Two losses of this caliber exposed how coach Gary Pinkel and the rest of his staff struggled to make adjustments at halftime, as the Tigers were unable to find consistency on both sides of the ball after the break. A third loss had some calling for the heads of the staff, demanding immediate changes. Neither of the alterations is likely next season; that could mean another frustrating season for Tiger fans.
This one might be due to unreasonable preseason expectations, but, with the exception of two seniors, the linebacker corps was particularly disappointing. Surrounded by two other units -- the line and the secondary -- that performed remarkably well, this group held the Tigers back all year.
We probably should have seen this coming. Two of the three expected starters had never played a game at linebacker in their college careers, and that inexperience showed. As recently as this spring, the coaching staff praised the rapid development of sophomore David Richard, who was making the difficult transition from Big 10 running back to Big 12 linebacker. Richard had a less than impressive training camp and followed it up with a decisively disappointing season.
The real trouble began when Richard was arrested for suspicion of marijuana possession in September and then suspended for the Colorado game on Oct. 2. He was not sorely missed since he was not doing much on the field; sophomore Marcus Bacon replaced Richard for the Colorado game and eventually reclaimed the starting job later in the season, outperforming Richard in every aspect. Despite placing second on the depth chart at the strong side, Richard did not even play in the season finale at Iowa State, finishing the season with just 15 tackles.
Dedrick Harrington followed up a standout freshman performance at rover with a quiet sophomore year. The numbers were not quite as bad -- he finished with 43 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and a sack -- but Harrington did not have the impact many expected from him. Although he did not have off-field problems like Richard, he did eventually lose his starting job, falling behind senior Henry Sweat at the middle position. Sweat was one of the defense's top performers all season, so falling behind him was not too much of a shocker. Even worse, the Tigers will lose James Kinney and Sweat, who have run out of eligibility. Richard and Harrington will have to have monumental turnarounds in 2005 for the defense to be even close to as strong as it was this year.
No calls, please
It took 11 games for junior quarterback Brad Smith to record a 100-yard rushing game this season. To put that in perspective, Smith averaged 108.2 rushing yards last season, racking up 1,406 yards in 13 games in the process. Smith could not halve that this year, recording 553 yards in 11 games, an average of 50.3 yards per game. The most pressing question: how could the Missouri coaching staff take its best weapon right out of its own hands?
When it comes to the number of rushing attempts, little changed. Smith rushed 47 fewer times in two fewer games, meaning he got about the same number of carries. (He led the Tigers with 165 attempts, one more than junior tailback Damien Nash.) The big-play ability seemingly disappeared; Smith's long run of the season was just 36 yards, and he had an average of just 3.4 yards per carry.
Much of that is connected to the offensive line's struggles; Smith actually gained 791 yards before losing 238 on sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Still, Smith struggled to avoid tacklers in space, something he never had any issues with his first two seasons. In an attempt to make Smith more dangerous as a passer, the coaching staff took away the only big-play threat they had.
And lest we forget: Missouri made some curious calls in other aspects of the game, including a run by senior tailback Beau Viehmann in a pressure situation that led to Pinkel blaming Smith for running a different play than his coaches signaled in. Finally, the Tigers were unable to take advantage of two of their most talented youngsters: freshman wide receiver William Franklin received worthwhile playing time in just two games, while freshman tailback Marcus Woods was not given a chance as the primary ball carrier until the final game of the season.
Offensive MDP: Brad Ekwerekwu
When Ekwerekwu shed his redshirt midway through the 2003 season, his speed and lateral ability earned him high expectations for his sophomore year. Those were never realized; he finished with 22 catches for 195 yards and zero touchdowns, ranking fifth on the team in both categories. In the small amount of time he was in the game, freshman William Franklin overshadowed Ekwerekwu, potentially earning Franklin the inside track at a starting job in 2005. Also receiving consideration: Brad Smith, Damien Nash, the entire offensive line
Defensive MDP: David Richard
Richard went from potential gamebreaker to afterthought. He started the season slow and only drew attention after he was arrested for suspicion of marijuana possession. Richard was beaten out by more experienced players, seeing his playing time decrease as the season wore on. Also receiving consideration: A.J. Kincade, Brandon Massey
Special teams MDP: Joe Tantarelli
The great thing about Tantarelli is his unwavering confidence. The drawback to that, though, is, when things aren't going his way, it might be difficult to turn it around. From inside 30 yards, Tantarelli was automatic, converting all six of his field goals. From beyond that distance, he struggled, going 4-for-10, including 1-for-4 from between 40 and 49 yards. Those struggles cost Tantarelli his job and earned freshman Adam Crossett, our special teams MVP, control of all three aspects of the kicking game. Also receiving consideration: Justin Scott, Brock Harvey's collarbone