Tigers admit lost focus

Monday, October 20, 2008 | 8:08 p.m. CDT; updated 11:13 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 21, 2008

COLUMBIA - Nose tackle Jaron Baston admits the Missouri football team lost its focus. Perhaps the Tigers became tickled by grandiose preseason predictions and praise. Perhaps they became blinded by their own expectations, a set of unspoken but obvious goals that placed Missouri in Miami playing for the national championship come January.

After consecutive losses to Oklahoma State and Texas, the glitz is gone. The Tigers' top-five ranking is gone. "ESPN College Gameday" is gone. The magazine covers are gone. Quarterback Chase Daniel's Heisman Trophy front-runner status is gone. And the possibility of the Tigers playing in the BCS title game is all but gone.

For Missouri, all is not lost. There remains a chance to win the program's first outright conference championship since 1960. The Tigers can earn a berth in the prestigious Fiesta Bowl by winning the Big 12 North and upsetting the South champion in December's Big 12 championship game in Kansas City.

But, on Monday, such talk stayed far away from the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex. Players and coaches exuded a narrow focus. They said they are determined to rebound starting Saturday night against Colorado in Columbia and avert the program's first three-game losing streak since 2006. 

"You get caught up in the hype," Baston said. "You get caught up in being the best. You get caught up being ranked in the top five. Even though you might not talk about it, it's still there and some people notice it, and you're only as strong as your weakest link. If you have two people or three people thinking about it, it doesn't matter if you have the rest of the people on the right track. You have to have everybody on the right track."

Moving on was the message following Missouri's loss at top-ranked Texas last Saturday. Daniel said the Tigers' preseason goals "were pretty much out the window." He called the game against Colorado "do-or-die time."

On Sunday, players and coaches placed their pain in the past. They held a spirited practice. They began preparations for Colorado, what they now call their season's biggest game.

In recent weeks, they have lacked urgency. Baston said Missouri's defense lost its competitive edge, a curious development considering the unit returned 10 starters from last year. He said the embarrassment experienced after lackluster performances against Oklahoma State and Texas provide inspiration to improve before a crucial late-season stretch; four of the Tigers' final five games include matchups against Big 12 North opposition.

"I think we expected to win games that we had to work hard to win," Baston said. "I think we kind of walked into those games at times just expecting to win.

"You remember that feeling. You use that (feeling) so you don't feel that way ever again.

"We don't want to feel how it felt to come back on that plane (from Austin). Just to feel that embarrassment, when you get beat like that you really understand how embarrassing it is as a football player."

Said strong safety Justin Garrett: "Normally, we have fun playing this game. But with this (Texas) game, we felt a little more pressure. Everyone was more focused in instead of having fun.

"Since we lost to Oklahoma State, we felt there was a lot of pressure to get back up in the top 10. We messed up there. Normally, we take it one week at a time and not worry about the stats and numbers. I think that's what we have to do. We need to get back to that and worry about us."

Coach Gary Pinkel said it would be inaccurate to blame the Tigers' recent problems on overconfidence. He said Missouri isn't good enough to develop such a mindset. He said the 2007 memories, the Cotton Bowl championship, the preseason hype and the early-season successes are meaningless now.

Come Saturday, the Tigers' once-promising season begins anew as something much less ambitious.

"It would not be wise for anybody to think about last week or four weeks ago, the best game they played or the worst game they played. It really doesn't matter," Pinkel said.

"Where we're at right now, really nothing behind us matters. This game is becoming a really big football game. That's where our focus is."

BAYLOR KICKOFF SET: Missouri's game at Baylor will kickoff at 2 p.m. Nov. 1, MU officials announced Monday. It will not be televised.

RUGBY KICKS CONTINUED?: For the past two weeks, Missouri punters have kicked with a rugby-style form. Pinkel said the technique was used to keep threats at a minimum against Oklahoma State's and Texas' skilled return men. Pinkel said the trend could continue, depending upon future opposition.

"It depends upon a lot of things and game planning, the type of rush we will see ... a good return man," Pinkel said.

"There are a lot of ways we will look at that."

COLORADO'S PASS DEFENSE SIMPLIFIED: Daniel said Colorado has simplified its pass defense since the Tigers beat the Buffaloes in Boulder last November. Daniel threw for 421 yards and five touchdowns in the 55-10 rout, Missouri's first victory at Colorado since 1997.

Before the game, Daniel had chastised Colorado for its man-to-man coverage schemes. This year, the Buffaloes rank 54th in pass defense and have surrendered an average of 201 yards per game.

"They simplified things a bit to give their guys a better shot of playing well. They really have," Daniel said.

"They are playing on a high level right now. They have a lot more confidence back."

PINKEL DISAPPOINTED IN BIG-GAME PERFORMANCE: Pinkel considers the Texas flop disappointing considering Missouri's 16 returning starters back from last year's Cotton Bowl team. Many considered this year's group primed for such situations, considering high-profile matchups against Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas to close 2007. Pinkel was succinct in his final Texas analysis.

"I was disappointed," he said. "I really was."

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