COLUMBIA — Missed opportunities. Better execution. Staying positive. Moving on. Doing the best you can.
Sift through the football jargon, the tired football clichés, and you’ll find something of a response from Missouri coach Gary Pinkel to criticism of his team after a disappointing loss to Texas Tech on Saturday.
“We’ve got to work hard as we always do and get back to playing better,” Pinkel said Monday during his weekly press conference.
It's a message Pinkel has repeated after each disappointing performance this season. It was authenticated after the near loss to San Diego State because the Tigers responded with a 51-13 win against Miami (Ohio). After the Tigers’ loss to Nebraska, Pinkel’s message carried weight until his team lost again to Texas Tech. Now, it’s a little harder to accept.
Pinkel’s first sign of emotion came while discussing the failure of Missouri’s passing game. He wasn't able to vocalize exactly what went wrong, but he knows how it felt, and his frustration gave life to a phrase like “poor execution.”
“Frustration and anxiety goes up,” Pinkel said. “You’re working so hard at it during the week.”
Although Pinkel tried to remain vague, he clearly knew the criticism his team faced after Saturday’s game, namely the strategy of relying on an ineffective, pass-heavy offense in the second half.
“If it doesn’t work, you’ll be criticized. I understand that,” he said.
He also recognized that relying exclusively on the running game was not really an option. The Tigers needed big plays, and the passing game provided the best chance of such plays.
“It’s hard to go 15-, 16-, 17-play drives,” Pinkel said. “You’ve got to get the ball downfield.”
Pinkel seemed to contradict himself when discussing quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s inability to complete deep throws. He said it’s a mistake to go long when the team’s offense is struggling to catch passes and get open, especially if an incomplete pass leads to second and 10. Still, despite Missouri's struggles, he felt the Tigers needed to throw deep.
“We’re going to continue to throw the ball downfield… and we’re going to work hard to get better at it,” he said.
Pinkel was also vague in describing the problems he saw with his wide receivers. Although T.J. Moe said that the man-to-man coverage that Texas Tech used made it difficult to get open, Pinkel said that post-game film revealed to him that his receivers did indeed do a good job of getting open. Although Pinkel offered areas where a team’s passing game can fail, he never pinpointed where the Tigers failed on Saturday.
“If your passing game is out of sync… there’s different parts to it,” Pinkel said. “It’s protection; it’s routes; it’s catching; it’s throwing; it’s timing. It’s all of the above.”
If there was ever a moment where Pinkel turned jargon into something substantive, it was when he discussed his loyalty to the team. The coach, who seemed level-headed after the loss, allowed his shoulders to stoop just slightly when he talked about his commitment to the Tigers. He said he knows he’s criticized for being too loyal to his starters, but his commitment goes beyond that.
“Some people say I’m loyal, and all those things, but I’m committed to one thing: our football program,” Pinkel said.
No matter how much his decisions are criticized, Pinkel doesn't let it get to him. Pinkel, a self-described “nervous-wreck” before and during games, has to make those choices, only Saturday they didn’t go as he had hoped. As much as that bothers him, he’s not going to change the way he operates.
“I’m going to do what I think is right,” Pinkel said.
That might be vague, but it’s the best description of his strategy that he can give.