Pinkel: "We don’t really treat it any different."
There was a theme on display Monday as Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel and his players spoke to the media about the upcoming showdown with Nebraska, and it wasn’t just the Tiger-emblazoned wall behind Pinkel at his press conference.
Rather it was the unavoidable, almost uniform sentiment from Pinkel and company that this game isn’t as big as the hype surrounding it.
“I don’t think this game is any more important than two games or three games from now, at all. This is the next one up and we don’t really treat it any different,” Pinkel said.
Fair enough, coach, but you must admit: this game, pitting bitter rivals on national TV, with a possible Big 12 title game berth dangling, must feel at least a little bit different than other Big 12 games, no?
“It is the first conference game. You can always point to that, that it’s a very important game and you want to start off in the conference the right way. And then after that, the game’s over and we go on to the next game,” he said.
Though they denied there was a coordinated, team-wide effort to play down the game’s importance, it was much of the same from the players.
“It’s second nature. We expect to be on TV almost every week when we play in big games, and we expect to be in big games because we put ourselves there,” said quarterback Chase Daniel. “The people that make it a big game are the media and the outside influences and the fans and stuff. And that’s awesome. This is what you came to play college football for, is to play in big games like this.”
Tight end Martin Rucker wasn’t budging far, either.
“It’s the first conference game, the one that gets everything rolling, and you can’t go undefeated unless you win the first one. So that’s the attitude we’re taking with this game,” Rucker said.
It quickly became clear there weren’t going to be any bold predictions, no ritualistic sacrifice of a corn stalk. And it was easy to understand why.
Mizzou’s players and coaches have waited a long time to get into this position – 4-0, ranked 17th in the nation with a world of possibilities before them. They don’t want to be too high coming into the game, and perhaps, they don’t want to set themselves up for a massive letdown should they lose this game. It’s a fear embedded into their psyches by disappointments of years past, most recently their deflating collapse last year, after an exhilarating 6-0 start.
Still, this team seems to have dimensions its MU predecessors didn’t in terms of leadership, focus and overall skill level – an intangible ‘It’ factor that hasn’t been present here in a long time. Pinkel semi-agreed.
“You’ve got to do it, though,” he said. “You can talk about it all you want.”
After some prodding, though, Daniel did waver a bit, admitting his adrenaline rush as he takes the field Saturday night at Faurot Field will not feel the same as it did for an afternoon game against Illinois State.
“I don’t think that’s a fair [comparison]. You go out there and you know you’re under the lights, you know you’re on TV, you know you’re ranked No. 17 in the nation. Of course it’s going to be on your mind. But the best team that will win is the one that can block that out the most,” he said.
Nebraska, no surprise, is taking the same stance.
“This is the most important part of our season. Just like last week was the most important part of our season. We want to be 1-0 every week,” NU quarterback Sam Keller said.
For Rucker, this game has extra meaning in addition to all of the obviously high stakes. His brother, Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Mike Rucker, played for Nebraska, and Martin almost followed him there. He hasn’t called big bro yet this week to engage in their typical trash talk because the Panthers lost last weekend. But the call will be made, and the smack will be talked. What will Martin say?
“They’re not what they used to be,” he said, “things of that nature.”
And that, if you were expecting juicy sound bytes and trash talk, was about all you got from the Tigers on Monday.
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