MU football stresses finishing November strong

Thursday, November 13, 2008 | 10:36 p.m. CST; updated 12:37 a.m. CST, Friday, November 14, 2008

COLUMBIA — For weeks now, Missouri football players have heard about it. Assistant coaches have preached the message during position meetings. Coach Gary Pinkel has drilled the point home before games.

He tells them November represents the season’s most pivotal month. He tells them possible division championships, BCS bowl aspirations and long-lived legacies are presented to those who peak.

“It’s definitely a different attitude,” defensive end Stryker Sulak said. “Coach Pinkel changed our mind about a lot of things. Winning in November is finishing the season the right way. That’s something he has been preaching for a while and a lot of the guys are starting to buy into it, and you’re seeing results from it.”

Missouri has navigated through its first two November tests with two more left. Players and coaches say an emphasis on finishing with focus has served the team well the past two seasons.

This wasn’t always the case, though. Before 2007, Missouri struggled to close in November. From 2001 to 2006, the Tigers held a 7-13 record in November under Pinkel. The last loss occurred in 2006 against Iowa State, which had been winless in Big 12 Conference play to that point.

Since then, Missouri has found success. Starting with a victory against Kansas in 2006, Missouri has won seven consecutive games during the month. Coaches credit maturation and resiliency in overcoming the late-season grind.

“I think our guys have done a good job of it since last year,” wide receivers coach Andy Hill said. “You can take pride in the fact that you grind it out each week. I think for a team to be successful and to finish out strong, you need to grind it out.”

Players say Pinkel has presented USC as an example for Missouri’s program. Under coach Pete Carroll, the Trojans have mastered their November schedule. Since Carroll arrived before the 2001 season, the Trojans are undefeated in 25 games during the month against Notre Dame and Pac-10 Conference competition. Since 2002, the Trojans have claimed two national championships and at least a share of the Pac-10 Conference title each year.

Missouri’s remaining November schedule appears manageable. The Tigers face  Iowa State (2-8, 0-6 Big 12 Conference) on Saturday in Ames, Iowa. The Cyclones have dropped eight consecutive games since winning their first two.

Two weeks later, Missouri will close its regular-season schedule against Kansas in Kansas City. The Jayhawks have lost three of their past four contests and are expected to fall to No. 3 Texas on Saturday. If Texas wins and Missouri beats Iowa State, the Tigers will claim consecutive Big 12 North titles and join Nebraska and Colorado (twice) as the only Big 12 North schools to claim consecutive division crowns since the conference began in 1996.

“A lot of teams tend to get comfortable where they are at right now and tend to lose sight of what’s going on,” defensive tackle Ziggy Hood said. “Instead of trying to focus hard and finish strong, they tend to let up.

“It seems like we tend to lose focus every now and then, and when we do lose focus, that’s when people tend to spring up big ones on us.”

Said quarterback Chase Daniel: “November is the month to remember. That’s how it has been since I’ve got here. I think last year, the team really bought the mantra of that. We just have to keep it up. We don’t want to look forward or look into the past.”

Looking into the past doesn’t interest Pinkel. He said November provides him with an additional spice in his demeanor, and he’s eager to confront what lies ahead.

“I’m anxious,” he said. “I’m thinking about the team every second. I always am, but when you get in this position, this is what you coach for. This is what you play for.”

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