COLUMBIA — E.J. Gaines remembers Arizona State.
The junior cornerback isn’t talking about Saturday’s 24-20 win. He played well in that game, certainly better than in Missouri’s 37-30 overtime loss in Tempe, Ariz last season. It’s that 2011 contest – the one in which Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns – that drives him.
The touchdowns play and replay in his head, serving as a reminder of what can happen when he isn’t prepared.
Early in the first quarter of last season's game, Osweiler rolled to his right at the Missouri 12-yard line. He heaved a ball into traffic in the direction of receiver Jamal Miles, who was standing in a crowd in the front of the end zone.
As the ball closed in on Miles, Missouri’s safeties, Kenji Jackson and Matt White, dived for the ball from different angles, each hitting the turf without the football. Miles jumped, secured the ball, and landed safely on his feet.
Gaines stood behind him, watching.
Late in the third quarter that year, the Sun Devils turned to a trick play. Osweiler snapped the ball and tossed it laterally to Miles. Instead of turning up field, Miles threw it 35 yards to receiver Aaron Pflugrad, who was sprinting down the right sideline.
Pflugrad found the end zone without much of a challenge. Gaines, who was covering him on the play, was tricked by the misdirection play and couldn’t recover in time.
Missouri lost the game, and Gaines left the desert determined not to let one bad game turn into another.
“I remember it all,” Gaines said, who finished the 2011 season as a first-team All-Big 12 selection. “It’s what I consider my worst game of my collegiate career.”
He wouldn’t replicate the performance. Gaines credits his failures in the desert with humbling him as a player and forcing him to watch more film heading into games. He also strived not to take practices lightly, and judging by coach Gary Pinkel’s repeated assertions that “E.J. never has bad practices,” that trend has continued.
Heading into this season, many Missouri players and fans circled the Georgia game as a key early matchup. Gaines, on the other hand, waited for his second chance at a familiar opponent – Arizona State.
“I knew that they were going to come at me, knowing how I played last year,” Gaines said. “I was just looking forward to making plays when they did.”
He did make plays, both at his traditional corner position and in special teams.
Midway through the second quarter, Arizona State punter Josh Hubner sent a punt spiraling toward Missouri returner Marcus Murphy, who caught it at the 34-yard line.
He took a few steps to his left before handing it to Gaines, who found a seam in the middle of the field and began eluding Sun Devils tacklers. Gaines continued to swerve, maneuvering around blocks and scampering along the left sideline.
Finally, Hubner knocked him out of bounds at the 17-yard line, finishing off a 44-yard return.
The play call – and the game it was called in – was no coincidence.
“I told Coach Pinkel that I wanted to run that play this week, so we got it in,” he said, laughing.
A standout performer in Missouri’s defense, it seems the mistakes Gaines experienced in Tempe, Ariz., are behind him. Pinkel acknowledged that his junior cornerback is a topic of conversation in nearly every news conference, a result of his consistency and dedication.
“With E.J., we keep talking about him every week. He’s special. He’s a difference maker at corner,” Pinkel said. “He’s got a gift for playing that position.”
As Gaines prepares for the fast, physical receivers of the Southeastern Conference, he expects continued success. A memory, as vivid now as it was a year ago, continues to drive him.
Now, more than ever, Gaines remembers Arizona State.