KANSAS CITY — As the clock ran out in Missouri’s 24-10 win against Kansas, Tigers defensive coordinator Dave Steckel went out of his way to greet a bystander on the sideline.
Steckel ran over to Brady Deaton, the MU Chancellor who, as the spokesman for all things conference realignment, made the football team the bystander for most of the season.
Twice Steckel pointed his left index finger at Deaton.
“Now!” said Steckel, signifying the end the controversy the team had been dealing with all season. “Now!”
This was Missouri’s last game in the Big 12 Conference before it joins the SEC. This might have been the last game against rival Kansas, which it has played 120 times. Theoretically, this was the kind of ceremonial thing Deaton has been around all season.
Not so much Saturday. With an underwhelming crowd, an underwhelming opponent and, at least in the first half, an underwhelming performance from Missouri, it felt like a regular old football game.
And not a good one at that.
The Tigers’ comeback from an early 10-point deficit energized the predominantly Missouri crowd toward the end of the game. The feeling, though, was not one of some greater glory for having overcome the petulant enemy.
It felt more like relief, both in the sense that Missouri (7-5, 5-4 Big 12 conference) was going to escape with a win against the lowly Jayhawks (2-10, 0-9 Big 12) and could move on with everything else, as Steckel’s comment to Deaton indicated.
“It’s a football game,” running back De’Vion Moore said. “We came to play football. They started out on fire, and our defense played tremendous throughout game, and we pulled out a victory.”
Yep, that about sums it up. Left out was the complete lack of “fire” on the offensive side of the ball in the first half, when Missouri quarterback James Franklin threw three interceptions and Kansas moseyed along. The first quarter alone included six punts, five combined first downs and two interceptions from Franklin. Inspired football, this was not.
It had all the makings of the most anticlimactic finale since The Sopranos. Except few (47,059 according to the attendance announcement) actually watched this one. Middle and upper-level sections of the stadium were entirely empty. In others, sat a single person.
The players said they are trained not to notice the crowd, but Terrell Resonno said he couldn’t help but notice the lack of Kansas fans.
“It was quiet,” he said. “I remember playing a couple of years ago, and you could hear bells ringing and that rock chalk ... We didn’t feel their energy.”
True to form, Franklin and the offense got it together enough to score two touchdowns in the third quarter and another eight seconds into the final quarter. When the game ended, they pounded the Indian War Drum and reveled in another comeback victory.
This game, if anything, was another example of what the Tigers have been doing in the second half of the season. Except this was Kansas, and regardless of the surroundings, it meant something a little extra.
“This was a big game regardless,” Kenji Jackson said. “If we don’t win this game, we have to live with it for a long time.”
Afterward, the players acknowledged how disconnected the drama surrounding whether or not the teams play again was from the actual football.
Will Missouri play Kansas again? The players would like to. But they know it's not really up to them.
"This has got nothing to do with the players," T.J. Moe said. "Some people assume I have some say over this thing. Nobody one time ever asked me if I wanted to play in the SEC or Big 12."
"It’s not real complex," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel added. "We would like to keep this rivalry going. Hopefully we can get together and do what's right."
Whether that actually happens or not is anyone's guess. Based on the apathetic attendance level, perhaps not too many will miss it.