COLUMBIA — Every game provides a teaching opportunity for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. Some more than others.
There's no shortage of topics after the Tigers survived Bowling Green's upset bid in their home opener Saturday night. Pinkel's young team made a narrow escape against a 20-point underdog, getting the offense in gear just in time to finish with 21 unanswered points in a 27-20 victory.
Two days earlier Pinkel, watched the Pittsburgh Steelers win minus the style points, yet concentrate in post-game interviews on the bottom line. So he didn't seem to mind all the whooping and hollering in the locker room during his post-game news conference for a game that had appeared to be a mismatch, and even relayed nose guard Jaron Baston's words to teammates.
"As Jaron told the team, 'Don't let anybody take the win from us,'" Pinkel said. "There are lessons to learn, there were lessons to learn last week, but it's a whole lot more fun fixing things with a victory. By the way, we're 2-0."
Soon enough, they'll hear about the struggles with the pass attack, a pass rush that was largely nonexistent, and the mistakes they'll have to eliminate.
The unexpected scuffles cost Missouri a spot in the rankings, knocking the Tigers from 25th to the top of the also-rans heading into another non-conference tuneup next weekend against Furman. There's plenty of work ahead for a program rebuilding with 34 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep roster.
"There was a little pressure after we got down," said Wes Kemp, whose 33-yard reception tied the score early in the fourth quarter. "They came out with a plan and hit us in the mouth."
Two of Missouri's most valuable players were punter Jake Harry, seldom-used last season, and new kicker Grant Ressel. Harry had seven attempts for a 45.4-yard average, including a 69-yarder, and Ressel made field goals from 38 and 46 yards and is a perfect 5 for 5 this season.
"You just go out and do what you do," Ressel said. "Tonight I had the wind behind my back, and that helps."
It helped a lot in this one, given Missouri's stuttering start offensively with only three first downs in the first quarter and a meager 20 yards total early in the second.
Penalties short-circuited what drives they had early, and the Tigers were slow to react to Bowling Green's decision to concentrate on stopping the pass, limiting sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert to only 44 yards at the half. Then they unleashed a running game led by Derrick Washington's 123 yards on a career-best 20 carries, plus a key pickup on fourth and two in the fourth quarter, with freshman Kendial Lawrence adding 49 yards on seven carries.
In the past, Missouri has always leaned on the pass. The switch in emphasis helped the Tigers go 4 for 5 on third down in the second half after an 0-for-10 start.
"It felt real good," Washington said. "I think the coaches trust me more, and trust our running game more. The running backs are going to love it."
Gabbert got into the flow as the game progressed, and teammates said the quarterback never lost composure. He was 9 for 10 during the two drives capped by touchdown passes to tie it.
"He didn't appear rattled to me," center Tim Barnes said. "It was just kind of a rough start for the whole offense. You can't completely blame it on anyone."
A defense that throttled prolific Illinois quarterback Juice Williams in an opening 37-9 victory wasn't quite as effective in the second game. But it stopped Bowling Green twice to force field goals after lost fumbles deep in Missouri territory and handled the Falcons after Washington's go-ahead 1-yard run with 5:38 to go.
One of the key plays of the game was an 18-yard sack by Aldon Smith in the fourth quarter. Missouri put little pressure on Bowling Green quarterback Tyler Sheehan most of the way.