Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
For most teams, the days leading into a storied coach’s final home game would be ripe for distraction. For Missouri, they’ve been practically dull.
“If they can stay focused through what they went through last week, surely in a normal week we should be focused,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “So I don’t think we have any worries about that.”
Last week, the Tigers did stay focused — despite a team boycott, threats of terrorism on campus and the news of Gary Pinkel’s impending resignation — and defeated BYU at Arrowhead Stadium.
Though the uncertainty of Pinkel’s departure lingers, the Tigers were happy to have a week of comparative calm.
“(We’re) just getting back to the things that we do best,” safety Anthony Sherrils said. “Playing football.”
Missouri hosts Tennessee (6:15 p.m., ESPN2) needing another win to assure bowl eligibility. The Tigers have just one win against a Southeastern Conference opponent this season, Oct. 3 against South Carolina.
But the Tigers snapped their four-game losing streak last Saturday against a seven-win BYU team, leading some to believe all the off-field commotion had brought them together on the field.
Sherrils thinks it did.
“We wanted to win for coach Pinkel,” he said. “It was a big game, and he’s going to turn our season around for the best.”
Center Evan Boehm isn’t sure.
“I wouldn’t say light a fire, it was just maybe a little bit more motivation than previous weeks,” he said. “It definitely was a crazy and wild week, but the way this team battled and the way this team put away distractions on that Saturday night was awesome.”
As for Pinkel?
“We’ll never know the answer to that,” Missouri’s all-time winningest coach said with a smile.
The team needs no added motivation this week, as a win would not only send Pinkel off into the Memorial Stadium sunset, but it would also gift him one more game to coach. The Tigers (5-5, 1-5 SEC), entered the year with hopes of reaching their third straight SEC championship game, but they’d still be glad to reach a bowl game.
“It’s not a championship,” offensive lineman Connor McGovern said, wearing a jacket from the Tigers’ Citrus Bowl appearance on New Year’s Day, “but it still shows that you’re better than some other teams and that you get a chance to play another conference and that kind of stuff. And it’s always a fun time to be with the team. It’s a big family vacation with everyone.”
Pinkel said winning a bowl game is a part of the team’s “goal pyramid,” at the top of which is winning a national championship.
“Every year, you want to go attend a bowl and win a bowl game,” he said. “Some years, things don’t work out as well, but you can still go to a bowl and have a great year and accomplish your goals.”
Today’s game matches the conference’s third-best scoring offense in Tennessee against its second-best scoring defense in Missouri.
The Volunteers are quarterbacked by Joshua Dobbs, who has thrown for 1,896 yards, sixth in the SEC. Running back Jalen Hurd has run for 887 yards, sixth in the SEC, and has 12 total touchdowns, tied for 10th in the conference.
The Tigers have the worst-scoring offense in the SEC but broke out for a season-high 434 yards last week against BYU. It was Missouri’s second straight game with 190 or more rushing yards, and the Tigers escaped without a sack against a team that was averaging more than three a game.
Defensively, the Tigers held BYU to 290 total yards, its second fewest this year, only 46 of which came on the ground.
It was Missouri’s best game of the year as a team, Pinkel said. Now, Missouri must translate that success to SEC play. Tennessee has wins against Georgia and Kentucky, teams that beat Missouri, and hung tough against Alabama and Oklahoma, teams that currently boast top-10 rankings.
Pinkel isn’t the only one preparing for his finale at Faurot Field. Tonight is also Senior Night, an important night, Pinkel said, but not one he expects to contribute to a lack of focus.
“Once we introduce the seniors, we’ve got to emotionally get back quick,” he said. “So you’ll go out there and hug your parents, everybody’s crying and everything else and I’m crying, all that other stuff, but, man, when game time comes, you’ve got to get your head right.”
And how different will that be when it’s his last game, too?
“I don’t know what to think about that,” Pinkel said. “We’ll find out when it happens.”
Notes: The Tigers will be without freshman defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. Missouri announced Friday he would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL and MCL. Beckner, who was injured in the first quarter last Saturday, also damaged his meniscus and suffered a bone bruise. He will have surgery in two to three weeks and is expected to be ready by the start of fall camp. Beckner finishes the year with 27 tackles, three sacks and eight tackles for loss. … Pinkel will coach a bowl game if the Tigers reach one. … With a start today, Boehm will set the Missouri record with his 51st consecutive start.