COLUMBIA — With Saturday’s 38-28 victory, the Missouri football team is moving in the right direction again.
The difference between Saturday’s win and its past two games, sophomore wide receiver T.J. Moe said, was like a “tale of two seasons,” and he couldn’t be happier about the change of circumstances. In a game where the Missouri offense needed to reassert itself, Moe and the wide receivers played a large part in the offense’s return to success.
“I’m proud of our team,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “You know, you lose a couple games, and we weren’t playing our best, but I think we battled through it. That shows the character of our football team.”
Pinkel said that though the offense was far from perfect, it made the adjustments necessary to return to winning.
A more balanced approach was crucial, and quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who went 17-for-25 for 208 yards passing, had the support he needed to both run the ball and complete passes.
“We’ve got to look for solutions, and it’s hard sometimes,” Pinkel said. “You can’t create a new offense.”
Yes, creating a new offense is impossible, but the Tigers' receivers looked nothing like the group that caught only 12 of 30 passes for 95 yards against Texas Tech. No one receiver stood out (Michael Egnew led the team with 55 yards), and the group worked together to contribute to the balanced offense.
Running back De’Vion Moore said a week of solid practices contributed to the team’s turnaround, both mentally and physically. They worked especially hard at getting open against man-to-man coverage, which was one of their weaknesses in the past two games.
On Saturday, the offense noticed early in the game that Gabbert would have opportunities to run, and receivers quickly figured out how to get open against the Wildcats defense.
“I think part of being a good offense is finding something that works early in the game and going with that,” Moe said.
Gabbert, who was unable to suppress a wide smile after the game, seemed nothing but relieved by his performance. After a midweek sit-down conversation with Pinkel, the quarterback had a renewed confidence about Saturday’s game, and it showed.
Although he did a good job of hiding it from his teammates — Moore said that Gabbert never seems like he lacks confidence — the quarterback was shaken by his performances the past two weeks.
“I’m definitely my harshest critic,” Gabbert said. “The last two weeks have been inexcusable on my part.”
Instead of letting that criticism get to him, Gabbert adjusted to Kansas State’s weaknesses on defense and rushed for 89 yards. He attributed much of his rushing success to his teammates, who made the necessary blocks when they couldn’t get open for a pass.
On Gabbert’s 32-yard touchdown run, he could barely see the play that opened a hole for him, but he knew he was going to make it into the end zone.
“Wes (Kemp's) block, I saw it out of the corner of my eye, and I heard it,” Gabbert said, laughing.
With successful running plays and a much-improved passing game, the Tigers seemed more synchronized as a team on Saturday. Defensive end Aldon Smith said rhythm was crucial to maintaining the team’s momentum, and wide receiver Jerrell Jackson added that maintaining that rhythm had to be a group effort.
“The thing we’ve been preaching all week is just coming together as a team and fighting back for these next three games,” Jackson said.
After a disappointing performance at Texas Tech, Jackson waited all week for a chance to break out of his slump. He said he knows he and his team are better than they’ve appeared in the past two games.
“We just was ready to bounce back,” Jackson said. “We didn’t want to let those two games define us as a team.”
Saturday’s win was definitely a bounce-back, but the team has two more games in which it needs to continue its momentum.
Moe said he knows how quickly opinions and attitudes can change, and that one game can completely alter the tone of a season. His team isn’t perfect, he said, but it’s improving, and right now that’s the only thing that matters.