KANSAS CITY — The first half reached a merciful end, and Missouri players witnessed a celebration that some had thought before the season could have been theirs. Arrowhead Stadium’s southwest corner became awash in a blizzard of crimson and cream pom-poms. Oranges sailed onto the stiff turf. A national championship contender had imposed its will.
This game was supposed to serve as Missouri’s coronation. Before the season, the Tigers considered themselves national title contenders, a year removed from finishing 12-2 and as Cotton Bowl champions to cap one of the program’s best seasons. They appeared on national magazine covers and became fodder for Heisman Trophy commentary. Some expected Missouri to stroll past the Big 12 Conference football championship game and arrive in Miami in January to compete for the BCS national championship. Some thought greatness was within reach.
But in October, the dream evaporated with consecutive losses to Oklahoma State and Texas. And Saturday night, Missouri made its final gasp of national relevancy.
Oklahoma trounced Missouri 62-21 in the Big 12 Conference championship game with its sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford looking like the Heisman Trophy front-runner Missouri senior quarterback Chase Daniel was supposed to be, Oklahoma’s defense swarming like Missouri’s, with 10 returning starters was supposed to, and Oklahoma fans screaming into the brisk night during a trophy presentation like those bundled in black and gold had envisioned for themselves. For the Tigers, reality proved harsh.
Oklahoma (12-1, 8-1 in the Big 12) claimed its third consecutive Big 12 Conference title and will probably play for the program’s eighth national championship against SEC champion Florida on Jan. 8 after the final BCS rankings are released later today. This evening, many expect Missouri (9-4, 5-4 Big 12 Conference) to accept a bid to the Alamo Bowl, to be played on Dec. 29 in San Antonio against a Big Ten Conference team.
“We certainly haven’t arrived,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
Entering Saturday, not many gave Missouri a chance. During November, Oklahoma had averaged 63.5 points per game in victories over Nebraska, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Oklahoma had become the chic pick as the nation’s hottest team, jumping from fifth in the BCS rankings on Nov. 16 to second last Sunday. In the meantime, pundits and fans alike soured on Missouri after the Tigers suffered a last-minute loss to underdog Kansas on Nov. 29.
Early in the second quarter, Oklahoma began to command control after forcing the game’s first turnover. With the Sooners leading 17-7, Oklahoma senior safety Nic Harris jarred loose a Daniel fumble during a first-and-10 draw play to the left side. Oklahoma junior cornerback Brian Jackson scooped up the ball at the Missouri 49-yard line and provided his offense with a short-field opportunity.
Bradford did not disappoint. Six plays later, he completed a 7-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias in the right flat, giving the Sooners a 24-7 lead. Afterward, Missouri never threatened.
“We knew that we made mistakes,” Missouri junior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “With the type of offense they have, we knew they would capitalize. Things just didn’t go our way.”
For the rest of the first half, Daniel pressed. His passes floated beyond wide receivers. He scrambled for his life in the backfield, sometimes with Oklahoma only rushing two defensive linemen. Oklahoma imposed its physical advantage on its way to building a 38-7 halftime lead. The Sooners smashed the Tigers’ will.
Oklahoma’s late-season run propelled the Sooners to this point. Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech each finished in a tie atop the Big 12 South division at 11-1 overall and 7-1 in conference play. The Big 12 Conference’s fifth tiebreaker, which states the highest-rated team in the BCS rankings advances to the Big 12 title game, was used for the first time since the league’s inception before the 1996 season. Oklahoma finished .0128 points ahead of No. 3 Texas and .1546 points better than No. 7 Texas Tech.
Roles were reversed compared to last year. In Dec. 2007, Missouri entered the Big 12 championship game in San Antonio as the top-ranked team in the BCS, a week removed from beating Kansas in a much-hyped matchup between two top-five teams. The Tigers stood one victory from earning a surprise berth in the BCS national championship game in New Orleans and their first outright conference title since a Big Eight Conference crown in 1960. Oklahoma entered ninth in the BCS rankings and eligible for nothing more than the Fiesta Bowl, a BCS game that hosts the Big 12 Conference champion if that team does not play for a national championship. Oklahoma won 38-17, outscoring Missouri 24-3 in the second half.
“It’s disappointing, but I don’t look back to any other Oklahoma games but this one,” Daniel said. “This one hurts the worst.”
Saturday night meant more hurt. When it was over crimson and cream jerseys poured toward midfield, though the celebration began long before. Missouri players walked toward the tunnel, some with their black helmets dipped toward the browning grass. They passed a spectacle some thought early in the season could have been theirs and faded from the limelight.