Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
The Missouri Tigers football team is champion of the SEC East after one of the most thrilling games Faurot Field has seen since the days of leather helmets. And for this remarkable team—and remarkable season—there are heroes to be hailed.
Henry Josey’s a hero. Comes back from catastrophic injury, runs for a 57-yard touchdown run to win the game. Hero stuff.
The quarterback’s always a hero of a big win, and James Franklin earned it with his arm and his feet. E.J. Gaines shut down a top-notch receiver. Andrew Wilson and Kentrell Brothers each had eight tackles; they qualify for hero status. Gary Pinkel tied one of the game’s greatest coaches —not just Mizzou’s, the game’s. When you’ve won as many games as Don Faurot, you should get theme music from John Williams and a cape to go with it.
But if you want to look deeper for heroes, I nominate Christian Brinser.
The junior punter was a major difference maker all night long for the Tigers. The teams were never more than one score, one play apart, and you don’t have to have a PhD in football to get the importance of field position. Christian Brinser stepped onto the field seven times Saturday and made a difference nearly every time. Let’s take a look.
• The Tigers stalled out deep in their own territory on their first drive and Brinser stood with his feet in the end zone and prevented a serious field position problem with a 50-yarder.
• Next time out, after the Tigers were stopped in Aggie territory, Brinser skillfully placed one where De’Vante Harris was forced to take a fair catch on his own 5.
• Brinser’s third punt could have been a major turning point in the game. Again, MU was stuck deep in their own territory. Brinser had a solid 43-yard punt, which was fumbled away by Harris. It was at this point that the Tiger brain trust decided that rather than take advantage of the turnover and finally getting great field position to go for the throat, they would use this as the time to give backup quarterback Maty Mauk some snaps.
• Whether or not one agrees with this odd habit of bringing Mauk in for a few reps in each game, the timing here was highly questionable. So, instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, the Tigers went 3-and-out, and Brinser was called upon again, this time burying the Aggies at their own 12. The Aggies followed up with a 48-yard drive, which, had it started at the 20 or further out would have taken A&M into scoring territory. But instead of a field goal and a 10-0 lead, the Aggies punted, and Mizzou drove 94 yards to tie the game at seven.
• Next, the Tigers sputtered to a stop about midfield, and Brinser again buried the Aggies, this time at the 2. A 46-yarder from Brinser’s good right foot that left the Aggies at their 30 followed, then came another moment in which Brinser’s play was a major factor in the win.
• With his final punt of the night, Brinser again left the Aggies in lousy field position, on their own 10. The Tiger defense stepped up to keep the Aggies from reaching a first down, and while Drew Kaser responded with a pretty good punt of his own—a 50-yarder—the Tigers had useful field position, on their own 34, thanks in part to Brinser.
From that point came a 4-yard run by Josey, a 5-yard run by Franklin, and then the play that sent Mizzou to Atlanta: Josey’s 57-yard scamper that set off a wild celebration in Columbia that still echoes off the Ozark foothills.
Big offensive plays get a guy on ESPN and the old saw “Defense wins championships” has a lot of validity. But the part of the game so few pay much attention to, the special teams, was a major part of this win. Football is, at its heart, a game about space, about territory, about pushing forward or pushing the other guys back. When you’re facing one of the best quarterbacks college football has seen in years, would you rather have him needing to go 95 yards to score, or 65? Field position is a factor that’s nearly impossible to overstate when it comes to winning football games, especially close and relatively low-scoring games like this one. Of seven punts on the night, Brinser pinned the Aggies inside their own 15-yard line four times, inside their own 5 yard line twice. That’s a difference maker.
So next time the Tigers punt, don’t look at it as surrender, or as an excuse to make an early exit to go to the fridge. Recognize that the punt coverage unit contains two team captains (L’Damian Washington and Andrew Wilson) and some lesser-known names like Jake Hurrell and Clayton Echard. Recognize the importance of this unit, the importance of field position. It wins ball games.
And recognize perhaps the great unsung hero of this great Tiger victory, and this great Tiger season. Recognize the punter. Recognize Christian Brinser.
Darren Hellwege is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the United States Basketball Writers Association