COLUMBIA — It was surprisingly quiet.
The only sounds were grunts and collisions, the whip-like smacking of jersey and skin against sleds and dummies. In the indoor practice facility, every noise was amplified and echoed, but the hush still seemed eerie and wrong.
Missouri (10-2, 6-2 Big 12)
vs. Iowa (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten)
WHEN: 9 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM
And then, with the jarring honk of an air horn, it began. Thirty minutes into the Missouri football team’s second-to-last practice in Columbia, the sound erupted. As the team rushed toward the north end of the facility, the noise was instant. It didn’t build or grow. It simply began, and it was comforting. It sounded like a team that was ready to win.
The early quiet wasn’t a sign of exhaustion. It wasn’t an indication of boredom or that the team wasn’t working hard enough. The vague scent of sweat that lurked and grew in the air as practice progressed was enough to dispel such notions. The near-silence was more than that. It was the sound of focus.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said the biggest difference between a bowl game and a regular season game is the amount of distractions, the countless opportunities for fun. His team has spent the past weeks learning how to blend that fun with the intensity it needs to succeed on Tuesday in Tempe, Ariz., and the players have managed to find that balance.
“It’s so unlike a regular football game,” Pinkel said. “But the team that disciplines itself enough to be focused to do it is the team that can do it (win).”
Running back De’Vion Moore said he has been able to sharpen his focus immensely during pre-bowl practices. With no schoolwork, no classes, not even the chance to go home for Christmas, Moore and his teammates are thinking about only one thing: football.
The intensity of the team’s focus doesn’t come as a surprise to players, however. They’ve expected to be in this position — preparing for a bowl game against a competitive opponent — all season.
“This program has made a complete change into a winning program,” Moore said. “So as far as our expectations, we always thought we’d be in a position like this.”
Although the No. 12 Tigers began the season unranked, Moore and cornerback Kevin Rutland agreed that they didn’t exceed their own expectations. They knew from day one, despite early challenges, that their team was capable of competing with the best.
“The young guys, the old guys, we’re all on the same page,” Rutland said. “We all had one goal in mind. It wasn’t a shock or surprise that we did this well.”
Defensive end Aldon Smith is happy with where his team has ended up, but he had even higher goals going into the season. When coaches asked him in August what he wanted to accomplish, he responded that he hoped to make it to a BCS bowl. Although that goal didn’t become a reality, Smith is pleased with where his team has ended up.
“I know we’ve had high goals, and this Insight Bowl is right on track with what I want,” Smith said.
The team isn’t taking where it is for granted, though. The nearly three-hour practices, the sweat that dripped down players’ faces, the intense critique the coaches yelled throughout practices — it’s all concrete evidence of the effort. But within that effort, there’s still some room for fun.
As the yelling erupted and continued during practice, Pinkel led his team in a jog down the field, and what could have been a routine run became more. As the black and white jerseys engulfed Pinkel, players yelled and laughed. Some raised their arms in the air and jogged backwards, and safety Jarrell Harrison picked up a blue foam dummy and began to hit his teammates with it. Sure, the team is focused, but as the Tigers prepare for Tempe, there’s still room for fun within the discipline.