It looked so good, so promising, so real, so shiny and exciting. And so inconsistent.
Darren Hellwege, sports commentator
Just like that dot com stock, the musical career of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, or the XFL, Missouri’s chances of an upset in Norman, Okla., just went “poof” and blew away. The Tigers gave up 28 consecutive points in falling to the Oklahoma Sooners 38-28 Saturday night at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. The Big 12 Conference opener loss drops Mizzou to 2-2 on the year.
“I expected better play from both sides,” a disappointed Tiger coach Gary Pinkel said after the game. “We made some plays, we battled. But we have to play more consistently.”
Many Tiger players also mentioned that word: consistency. There were times when the Tigers looked just as good as the nation’s No. 1 ranked team. The 28 points Mizzou scored is more than the Sooners gave up in their first two games this season combined. But they also had stretches where things just weren’t connecting at all.
The Tigers started by holding Oklahoma to a 3-and-out, the second consecutive week where the Tiger defense forced a punt right away from the opposition. Then the Tigers had an impressive 76-yard scoring drive to jump on top 7-0. After a Sooner field goal, Mizzou came right back with a 45-yard strike to a wide open L’Damian Washington and well into the first quarter, the Tigers led 14-3.
Then, it all went horribly wrong.
It was clear in mere seconds that the visions of beating the mighty Sooners for the second year in a row might be a mirage. It took the Sooners only six plays to slap the Tigers back down to earth after Washington’s score, with Landry Jones hitting Ryan Broyles for a 24-yard score. Mizzou was still leading but suddenly looking a whole lot less invincible.
The Sooners then mounted a 10-play, 80-yard drive to snatch the lead back from the interlopers from Missouri. On the next drive the Sooners covered 70 yards in just 1:25 and suddenly it was 24-14. The Tigers had to start feeling like they’d been taken in by a pool shark, letting them win a game or two and feel sure of themselves only to discover, with next month’s rent on the table, that they were facing Minnesota Fats.
The Sooner continued to build their lead—and the Tigers frustration—and it was largely due to a player who is one of the great stories in all of college football this year.
Dominique Whaley was a second string running back, sitting on the bench at Langston University, a historically black college 58 miles from Norman on a map, but light years away in the football universe. After getting 28 yards on the season for the NAIA-affiliated Lions, Whaley left Langston to walk on at Oklahoma. He has not only earned his place in the starting lineup, but added to his legend with 82 yards on the night. When he notched a touchdown in the third quarter (his fifth of the season,) Tiger fans in Columbia started wondering what else was on TV.
But the Tigers showed some gumption by putting up two more scores in the fourth quarter. They showed a bit of the Mizzou offense that rolled for 69 points last weekend as Henry Josey took off for a 48-yard touchdown scamper, to move the Tigers within 10 with 6:44 left in the game. Josey finished the game with 137 yards on 14 carries.
“Henry Josey’s the real thing,” coach Pinkel said of the newest Tiger sensation, who started the season listed third on the depth chart before Kendial Lawrence and De’Vion Moore were lost to injuries. “He can touch the football and change the game.”
T. J. Moe said simply of Josey, “Henry’s a special guy.”
But Oklahoma wasn’t about to let the Tigers have a chance to knock them off the top of college football’s mountaintop for the second year in a row. The Sooners responded immediately with the knockout blow, a drive of seven plays and 62 yards, climaxed by a touchdown pass from Jones to Broyles that sent many in the sell-out crowd happily into the night, victory secured.
The Tigers would score a final touchdown in the last minute of the game to make the score more respectable, but few in black and gold celebrated that James Franklin quarterback sneak.
In the locker room after the game, Pinkel wasn’t the only one using the same word: consistently, the Tigers referred to consistency. Tiger safety Kenji Jackson expressed frustration with the game, saying, “We’d get a big play and then just shoot ourselves in the foot. That’s just Missouri beating Missouri.”
Franklin agreed. “We did some good things, but there’s also a lot of things we didn’t do so well. That’s just (needing to) be more consistent.”
Jarrell Jackson also felt like the night was more about Missouri’s mistakes than the greatness of Oklahoma. “OU’s real good, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”
Moe took encouragement from the way the Tigers played against the nation’s top-ranked team. “We’re getting better. We thought we could beat them.”
But while the Tigers came away feeling like they’re a good enough team to play with the best teams in America, perhaps the biggest compliment came from the other locker room. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables compared the Tigers to Florida State. The Seminoles entered the weekend ranked No. 11 after losing to Oklahoma.
“(Missouri) have much better precision than Florida State. Their ability to throw is much better. In Big 12 play, that is well documented,” Venables said.
While there are good things to recognize in the team, the game revealed some problems that still exist for Mizzou. Franklin has a world of talent but is still inconsistent. He looked terrific on the first two scoring drives, but completed only three of 10 passes in the third quarter.
“I think I’m learning to trust my receivers, the offensive line,” said Franklin, who finished the night completing 16 passes on 33 attempts for 291 yards. Franklin also rushed for 103 yards on 25 carries.
Moe led the team in receiving, with 119 yards on seven receptions.
Oddly quiet, as he’s been much of the season, was All-American tight end Michael Egnew. Egnew caught two passes for 40 yards, lifting his season totals to just eight catches in four games, totaling 97 yards and with just one touchdown. By comparison, four games into last season Egnew had caught 33 passes for 298 yards.
Egnew’s lack of catches hasn’t escaped the eye of Pinkel. “We’ve got to re-evaluate that. We talked about that a little bit at halftime. We need to get him more involved in the offense, there’s no doubt about that.”
The defense also didn’t have their best night. While the Tigers did manage to snag two interceptions, Jones completed 35 of 48 for 448 yards and looked every bit the Heisman Trophy candidate he is.
The Tigers now get a bit of a break. It’s two weeks until they play again, traveling to Manhattan, Kan., to play the Kansas State Wildcats on October 8. The ‘Cats are a very surprising 3-0 after getting an upset win at Miami (Fla.) on Saturday, 28-24. The Tigers will work on a lot of things. The defense needs to get more of a rush and improve the secondary play. The offense needs to tighten up some things, especially getting Egnew more involved. But, mostly, they need to work on being more consistent.
That doesn’t need to start two weeks from now in Kansas. It needs to start tomorrow, as the Tigers get back to Columbia and go back to work. “We need to get more consistent in practice and during the week,” said Kenji Jackson, a senior and one of the Tigers team captains.
The Tigers didn’t play well enough—consistently enough—to beat the best team in the nation Saturday. But if they can improve their consistency and reduce mistakes (they had seven penalties for 45 yards, more than Pinkel would like but an improvement over the first three weeks of the season) this team can still come away with a lot of wins this season. To score 28 points and roll up more than 500 yards in total offense against Oklahoma, the Tigers obviously are doing some things well. If they can learn to do them CONSISTENTLY well, the Tigers think there’s nobody they can’t beat. They’re looking for a success that doesn’t evaporate like their early lead tonight. They’re ready to go out and play as well as they did in the first quarter tonight each game, each play, all game long.