SAN ANTONIO — Missouri’s defense says its entire season hinged on those 60 minutes on Faurot Field surrounded by a sea of gold.
A 41-6 win in their conference opener against perennial bully Nebraska, including a second-half shutout, confirmed the defense’s suspicions.
Missouri (9-4) vs. Northwestern (9-3)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday
WHERE: San Antonio
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM
The 2007 Tigers were a different kind of animal.
Although it lost its grip on a fourth-quarter lead against then-No.6 Oklahoma in Norman the following week, Missouri spent its next five games thumping Big 12 Conference opponents on its way to an eventual No. 1 ranking.
After another five-touchdown victory over the Huskers in 2008, this time in Lincoln, why would things be any different?
“After that game, me and Willy Mo talked,” said junior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. “Everybody was talking about just trying to get to that main goal, and that was Miami at that time.”
The same Miami that is hosting the national championship on Jan. 8.
A week after returning with their first victory inside the Nebraska state line in three decades and a chance to secure a No. 1 ranking one more time, quarterback Chase Daniel kept his 0-for-Oklahoma streak alive against Oklahoma State, tossing his third interception of the contest in the final minute to seal the Tigers fate in a 28-23 loss. With Missouri’s championship hopes slim, the team suffered a death blow deep in the heart of Texas the following week in the form of a 35-0 first-half deficit in Austin against Texas that turned into a 56-31 laugher.
“A lot of people were thinking about a national championship,” said senior defensive tackle Ziggy Hood. “I think that’s probably what hurt us in the long run.”
A far cry from the team’s earlier insistence that their vision was tunneled solely toward Big 12 supremacy. Even in wins, reality checks were being written regularly.
“Baylor woke us up, really. That let us know anything can happen,” senior safety William Moore said. “That just showed us we needed to bring our expectations down a little bit.”
However, Moore’s not buying into the idea that dreams of a rendezvous with the SEC champion on South Beach were a reason for the shortcomings of 2008.
“It wasn’t a big focus of ours,” he said. “We knew, one game at a time, we’d been there before. We knew what it takes.”
Some pointed to the more complex schemes employed by defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus early in the season, more confident in a veteran defense that returned 10 starters.
Some have pointed to the difference in turnover margin for the struggles on the defensive side of the ball. A year ago, the Tigers were second in the Big 12, taking the ball 13 more times than they gave it away. In 2008, Missouri sits at eighth in the conference, with a margin of minus-two.
But Weatherspoon says the struggles can be traced back to a more intangible source.
“We got a lot of different players,” he said. “We don’t have leaders like Martin Rucker, Lorenzo William, Pig Brown, we don’t have those guys.”
That’s not to say some of the same struggles the defense has had in 2008 weren’t there in 2007.
“If you get the ball out, it can really disguise a lot of things wrong with your football team,” said Weatherspoon, who scored defensive touchdowns in the Tigers’ first two games and has 138 tackles on the year.
Others pointed to offseason hype and anticipation inflated by a 12-win season that led to national press perusing preseason practices.
“We got a lot of guys who has the whole PowerMizzou thing, and I’m pretty sure they get on and Google themselves and things like that,” Weatherspoon said. “I Google myself every now and then just to see if there’s something new. We’re kids, and sometimes you do get caught up in all that stuff.”
Regardless of the causes, there’s one thing the Tigers can agree on: There’s no altering the past. The only thing they can influence now is Monday night’s matchup with Northwestern.
“I know everybody’s expectation was really high, with the Sports Illustrated and the national championship expectations in the beginning of the season. But us, we still feel like we accomplished a lot of great things,” Weatherspoon said. “Hopefully we can go out there, beat Northwestern, come back and win the North again and do better in the championship game.”