Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri Tigers begin today with a top-20 ranking, three comfortable wins in their pocket and one remaining non-conference game — against a team that just lost to Bowling Green, no less — before commencing Southeastern Conference play.
If Missouri were going to look past a game this season, today’s would be as good a bet as any.
But coach Gary Pinkel is determined to make sure his Tigers (3-0) don’t fall into that trap as they host the Indiana Hoosiers (3 p.m., SEC Network).
“This isn’t a warmup game,” he said. “This is a very significant game on our schedule. We’re playing a Big Ten team that’s very capable of beating us, so this is about finishing the non-conference schedule against a good football team in the Zou.”
The two teams played last year, and the Tigers blew out Indiana 45-28 thanks to 673 yards of offense in Bloomington. It was a breakout non-conference win and an early sign the Tigers would be a competitor in 2013 — something in doubt after a disastrous 2012 left the team without a bowl appearance for the first time since 2004.
The 2014 Missouri team already has had breakout wins at Toledo and at home last Saturday against Central Florida. The heavily favored Tigers, ranked No. 18 nationally, arguably have a lot more to lose than they do to prove against Indiana (1-1).
Of course, the Tigers have plenty to prove to themselves in their third home game of the season.
“I think you’ve seen us come out and start fast. You’ve seen us come out and start slow,” quarterback Maty Mauk said. “… And then at the end you’ve seen us finish (or) not finish. We’ve got to put together one complete game of execution of everything that we’re doing, and that’s what we’ll use heading into SEC play.”
Last weekend, UCF’s ability to extend drives kept the Missouri offense off the field for extended chunks of time. The Tigers only held the ball for 3:36 in the first quarter and just under 101/2 minutes in the half.
“It made us kind of antsy on the sidelines,” co-captain and left tackle Mitch Morse said. “We’re always looking out there to get moving, to find some drive. … When we were out there, we knew we had to make everything count so it had some added pressure to it.”
Center Evan Boehm added: “You get restless just sitting there watching the time tick down and seeing that you only have 14 points on the board, and you want to do something about it.”
Excluding a one-play drive to end the second quarter, the Tigers only had three drives in the first half of Saturday’s game, and one lasted just two plays because of an interception.
“I don’t ever remember that (happening) in the first half,” Pinkel said.
Pinkel’s statement echoed a comment he made after Missouri’s game against South Dakota State. The Tigers only ran seven plays in the third quarter of that game — something Pinkel also couldn’t recall happening before.
“We’ve had troubles with third downs, getting off the field … and I think it was exactly what (UCF) wanted,” he said.
One way for Missouri to get off the field quicker is to continue improving its run defense, which allowed up-the-middle touchdown runs of 75 and 38 yards in its first two games. The Tigers, who are allowing 121 rushing yards per game, improved against UCF, holding the Knights under 100 yards on the ground.
That could prove challenging against Indiana. Hoosier running back Tevin Coleman leads the nation with 218.5 rushing yards per game.
“They’re a very potent offensive football team, that fast-paced offense” Pinkel said.
Facing that offense, which has racked up a ninth-best 574 yards per game, will help prepare the Tigers for high-octane offenses to come in conference play.
“Anybody that’s on our schedule before the SEC play starts is a help for us,” senior receiver Bud Sasser said. “… You can just see where your team is at, and it’s also kind of a wakeup call sometimes if your team is not where they need to be. You can figure that out early and be ready for SEC play.”
Missouri’s conference season starts next Saturday in Columbia, S.C., against South Carolina.
Not that they’re looking that far ahead.
“This is college football. As everyone can see over the last weekend, anybody can lose at any given time,” Ray said. “We do a great job of focusing on now and not overlooking teams.
“Because anyone can be beat.”
Notes: Missouri and Indiana have met 11 times before, with the Hoosiers leading 6-3-2. Missouri’s win last season was its first against Indiana since 1954. … Gary Pinkel is 8-2 against the Big Ten at Missouri. … Today is Missouri’s Family Weekend game. … Tailback Morgan Steward (hip) is out. He has not yet played a game this season.