SHREVEPORT, La. — The Red River in Shreveport is not uncharted water for the Missouri football team.
Gary Pinkel is making his third trip to the Independence Bowl after playing in the game in 2003 and 2005.
Missouri (7-5, 5-4 in Big 12)
vs. North Carolina (7-5, 3-5 ACC)
WHEN: 4 p.m. Dec. 26
WHERE: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM; KCMQ/98.7 FM
A switch in time
The Missouri football team players said they were looking forward to spending time with family and friends over the holiday weekend, but the team is still running on what one might call Pinkel Time.
"I think it’s Christmas Eve," Pinkel joked during the news conference at Independence Stadium. "But in our world, it’s a Thursday."
Pinkel was referring to his 48-hour pregame routine before games, usually played on Saturday. He said that while the schedule is always slightly different for bowl games and a little more so because of Christmas, the team will maintain the same mind-set.
"The bottom line is to be able to get ready for this football game," he said.
LSU welcomes Missouri to the SEC
On Thursday, LSU ran a full-page advertisement in the Shreveport Times welcoming Missouri to the Southeastern Conference. The ad wished Missouri luck in the Independence Bowl and asked Shreveport to come out and support the newest member of the conference.
Is LSU trying to soften Missouri with kindness before the teams meet on gridiron? Pinkel joked that they might but said he appreciated the gesture.
"That was really first class for LSU to do that," he said. "The message there for us is that the SEC supports Mizzou. I thought that was great."
Bowl game coincidence for Bernard brothers
In the 2006 Sun Bowl, Oregon State football player Yvenson Bernard scored a two-point conversion with 22 seconds left to beat Missouri 39-38.
His brother, North Carolina freshman running back Giovani Bernard, laughed when a reporter noted the coincidence. Bernard, who has rushed for more than 1,200 yards this season, said he hoped to have similar success against the Tigers.
"I definitely talked to him about that," Bernard said. "We were actually thinking about doing something with my dad, like a picture that shows we both played against the same team. They came out with a win, that was the main thing, and I hope we repeat that."
Tar Heels enjoy escorts
When North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples was asked what he had enjoyed most about Shreveport so far, he did not hesitate.
"The police escorts," Coples said. "I do believe that."
Quarterback Bryn Renner agreed, saying the escorts take the job seriously.
The escorts "take pride in it," he said. "It’s very presidential. I would say the police escort is definitely my favorite part."
Fun with the final tackle
The Tigers concluded Saturday’s practice with what the team likes to call the "final tackle." The players form a human tunnel with a tackle dummy at the end, and each senior gets a chance to tackle the dummy — that includes wide receivers, backup quarterbacks and kickers who typically never get an opportunity to hit a dummy.
Each senior ran down the tunnel to a chorus of cheers before hitting the dummy.
Some players got more into it than others. Some did back flips. Others incorporated teammates and props. The festivities and creative one-upmanship resembled that of the NBA’s slam dunk contest.
Defensive lineman Cory Sudhoff took first prize in creativity. He strutted down the tunnel before removing his helmet and catching flying Gatorade cans thrown in by teammates. He then popped each can open using only his teeth and doused himself in the drink before screaming and tackling the dummy.
The final senior to make his final tackle was kicker Grant Ressel, who attempted to run down the tunnel blowing an airhorn. But the airhorn died out almost immediately, leaving a small whimpering to accompany Ressel’s final dummy hit.
Not only that, but Missouri wide receiver L’Damian Washington is a Shreveport native. Washington said he hopes Monday’s game will be a Missouri home game.
At the same time, the date with North Carolina will be unfamiliar to Missouri. Pinkel has never played the Tar Heels, and it’s been 35 years since a Tiger team has lined up against the powder blue uniforms.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, in general, might be a foreign concept to many Tiger fans. Pinkel has never faced an ACC opponent as the Missouri head coach, and the Tigers have played just twice against ACC schools in the last 20 years. Both of those games were against Clemson, including the last meeting with an ACC school before Monday’s Independence Bowl: a 62-9 loss to Clemson.
Junior wide receiver T.J. Moe said there weren't many challenges with facing a never-before-seen nonconference team and compared this year's bowl opponent to last year's.
"We’ve always played nonconference games, and they’ve went pretty well," Moe said Saturday. "This team’s pretty similar to Iowa. It’s a really physical football team. We usually get ready. We get ready. Our defense is suited to stop the run a little bit, and they’re pretty good against the pass, too."
So, with so much unfamiliarity between the schools, what can coaches, players and fans alike expect come Monday?
The focus for the 2011 Independence Bowl — which kicks off at 4 p.m. in Shreveport — will definitely be on the ground. Both the Tigers and Tar Heels posted impressive rushing seasons.
Missouri’s efforts this season were primarily led by sophomore Henry Josey, who will miss the bowl game with a knee injury. Instead of lining up against the All-Big 12 back in Josey, though, North Carolina’s stout rush defense will have to deal with sophomore quarterback James Franklin and junior running back Kendial Lawrence. Both Tigers had success on the ground following Josey’s injury against Texas.
In the season’s final two games, Franklin and Lawrence combined to rush for 354 yards, with the majority of those coming against Texas Tech. Against the Red Raiders, Franklin ran for 152 yards and Lawrence for 94 yards, more than making up for the absence of Josey. Even without one of the nation’s top rushers, the Tigers will still have weapons against North Carolina.
The Tigers rank as the nation’s 11th-best rushing team, amassing more than 236 yards per game on the ground. North Carolina, though, is allowing just more than 106 yards rushing per game, ranking second in the ACC.
The Tar Heels have their own threat at running back in freshman Giovani Bernard. The Davie, Fla., native ranked third in the ACC in rush yards per game, averaging more than 101, and no one in the conference scored more touchdowns.
Pinkel on Saturday praised the young back.
"Bernard’s a great player," Pinkel said. "He has great quickness and really breaks tackles. ... They have a young offensive line but great size. They’re very well-coached and match up against our units. It always starts up front in games like this. They work very hard and have a great scheme and a great running back."
North Carolina head coach Everett Withers said his defense would have to be ready to stop a prolific Missouri offensive attack.
"I know they’ve got a talented quarterback, Franklin," Withers said Saturday. "I know he’s done an excellent job as a young quarterback. I know he’s very talented with his athleticism. He can run the ball, very efficient passer. ... They’re a balanced run-pass team. They run the ball very well out of the spread offense. We’ve got a challenge ahead of us."
Withers compared Missouri to another set of Tigers the Heels faced earlier in the season: Clemson.
"This offense is very similar to what we played when we played Clemson," Withers said. "I think they’ve got a lot of skilled receivers. We’ve got to do a good job of eliminating the run and not giving up big plays through the passing game.”
In that game, North Carolina showed its ability to slow down the running game, allowing just 77 rush yards. But the Tar Heels did give up big plays through the air. The pass defense was shredded by Clemson quarterback Taj Boyd for five touchdowns. North Carolina lost 59-38.
Moe and Washington along with senior safety Kenji Jackson said a lot about the potential key to victory Monday. Although the focus will be on the two ground attacks, the key to defeating North Carolina might be the passing game, as was shown in the Heels' game against Clemson.